There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Baku to Şǝki (Sheki): Part 3 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

Next morning, Togrul drove us (and Yassim) westward from Baku towards Sheki - more correctly Şǝki - and the mountains. If the growth of Baku around its bay seems to have been controlled, its westward expansion has been untrammelled, and we drove a long way before the city eventually dwindling into ripples of houses on the rolling scrubby grassland.


From Baku to Sheki
Our day’s journey would involve a long, slow climb from below sea-level semi-desert to the green foothills of the Caucasus. Hour by hour the change was almost imperceptible, but the cumulative effect was marked indeed.
 
Semi-desert outside Baku
The road was good; the dual carriageway out of Baku giving way to a wide and well-made two lane highway.

After an hour and a half, as we approached the small town of Maraza we turned right and followed a smaller road down a ravine to the Diri Baba mausoleum. Diri Baba means the 'living grandfather’, but little is known about the mausoleum except that it was decorated with calligraphy by an artist signing himself ‘Dervish’. His writing includes the date 1402 and a fragment of the name of an otherwise unknown architect.

The Diri Baba Mausoleum, Maraza
The shortage of facts has allowed a wealth of stories to grow up. Most commonly, Diri Baba was, a saint who, after a life of good works, died while at prayer. At first his followers thought he was still praying but after a while they realised his lack of movement had a more permanent cause. Before he could be buried his body miraculously disappeared, which explains the name and why nobody is buried in the mausoleum.

Prayer Room Diri Baba Mausoleum, Maraza
The neat brick staircase was built in 2008, but the old steps inside are high and uneven. We clambered up, peered into the prayer room and emerged on the roof which gave a good view back to Maraza.

Maraza from the roof of the Diri Baba Mausoleum
Returning to the village we stopped to buy water in the commercial district.....

Shopping street, Mazara
... before continuing to the larger town of Şamaxi. In North Korea hillsides were covered with slogans that no one would translate. There was one outside Şamaxi too, but the translation was not a state secret; the late President Heydər Əliyev wants us to know that the ‘Independence of Azerbaijan is Eternal and Irreversible’. Thanks for the tautology, Heydǝr.

The Independence of Azerbaijan is Eternal and Irreversible, near Şamaxi
Şamaxi has a population of 30,000 but was much bigger when it was the capital of the Shirvanshahs who ruled Shirvan - eastern Azerbaijan and parts of Dagestan - from 799 to 1607. Earthquakes destroyed the royal palace, so they moved to Baku where we visited their 14th century replacement residence yesterday. Subsequent earthquakes, and a little warfare, means nothing remains of the Şamaxi palace.

The 10th century Friday mosque survived eight major earthquakes before succumbing to the ninth in 1902. The replacement, built on the same spot, has recently undergone serious restoration and looks brand new.

Friday Mosque, Şamaxi
 Designed by an Azeri architect who had studied in St Petersburg and absorbed Russian orthodox influences, the prayer hall is split in two; the inner section is traditional, the decoration, except around the mihrab, being unusually restrained, the outer section resembles the nave of a cathedral. It is an impressive, if slightly strange building.

Mihrab, Friday Mosque, Şamaxi
South of the town an unsurfaced road dips into a valley before climbing to where Yeddi Gumbaz cemetery overlooks the city.

Şamaxi from the Yeddi Gumbaz cemetery
The ancient cemetery is still in use and this modern gravestone must be one of the last with Azeri written in Cyrillic.

Modern gravestone, Yeddi Gumbaz, Şamaxi
The name means ‘seven domes,’ and the cemetery surrounds the seven 18th century domed tombs built by the family of Mustafa Khan, the last Khan of Şamaxi - though only three have survived later seismic activity.

The three remaining domes, Yeddi Gumbaz, Şamaxi
Inside the best preserved are the grave markers, a bat and something at heel level that hissed at us. Azerbaijan has its share of venomous snakes - in fact more than its share - so we conducted a dignified retreat without bothering to find out what it was.

Inside the domes, Yeddi Gumbaz, Şamaxi
We had climbed 700m since leaving Baku and west of Şamaxi most of the traffic drops down the pass southward to the arid lowlands but we turned off, keeping to the higher ground as we headed further west.

Keeping to the high ground from Şamaxi
Our next stop was at Bado, not so much a village as a pull off beside a spring. It was already lunchtime but Yassim was adamant that it was better to taste the water before lunch – ‘with a full stomach,’ he said encouragingly, ‘you would probably be sick.’

The spring, Bado
 There was a modest sized scrum around the spring but Lynne found her way to the front and filled a water bottle. As I took the photograph below, beeping from behind made me jump out of the way as a man backed his car up to the spring. He took several 10l containers from the boot and joined the scrum. The water was refreshingly cool and did not taste that bad, if you ignore the powerful eggy odour. I am sure it did us good, but I doubt I could find a use for ten litres of it!

Lynne collects Bado water
Leaving the spring we turned back the way we had come. After a few minutes Togrul swung us into a courtyard beside a ‘restaurant’ sign. We had passed several such places but none of them looked open or even like restaurants – and neither did this. We passed under a makeshift entrance into an empty yard, and then into an inner yard where we parked. Beyond a garden sloped down to a small lake and dotted around it were half a dozen tables each one under its own shady roof. This was the restaurant and it was obviously open as one other table was already occupied.
More like a garden than a restaurant, Bado
We chose a spot near the water and a young man came over and greeted Yassim like an old friend. 'There is no written menu,' Yassim told us, 'but they do Azerbaijan barbecue.' That sounded good, so we followed Yassim's example and ordered lentil soup followed by barbecued lamb. 'I'll have a tomato omelette,' said Togrul 'because I have not had any breakfast.' I could not follow his logic, but, yet again, I had to admire his English. Drivers tend to smile a lot, insist on carrying your cases and generally try to be helpful - I have a high regard for them on the whole, but not as linguists. Togrul did all those things but also spoke English with an excellent accent, a colloquial turn of phrase and had good listening skills. He had learned, he said, from courses on the internet.

The soup arrived and also the tomato and cucumber salad, aubergine salad and cheese without which no meal is possible in Azerbaijan A plate of barbecued lamb soon followed. 'Fingers are the best way to eat this,' Yassim said somewhat unnecessarily - there was no other way. It was a fabulous meaty feast, a carnivore’s delight, the lamb being perfectly cooked, tender and juicy.
Lynne and Yassim at the restaurant, near Bado
As we ate we talked about Yassim and Togrul’s travels. They had both travelled widely in the Caucasus, though not to Armenia with whom the Karabakh war has been on hold for the last twenty years, with occasional outbreaks of shooting. Togrul had also visited Hong Kong. 'I thought I would starve, ' he said, 'I could find nothing to eat. Then I saw MacDonald’s. I would never normally go there, but it was such a relief.' We regard Hong Kong as one of the finest places to eat in the whole world, but Togrul could not be persuaded. 'Even the rice tasted different,' he complained and then, making a pincer movement with his fingers, 'can you eat with those little sticks?' 'It’s easy enough,' we said, 'with a bit of practice.' He looked surprised. 'You don't have to be born to it?'

After the meal Yassim ordered tea and jam. The tea came in small tulip shaped glasses and Yassim popped a lump of sugar in his mouth and sucked the tea through it, a trick we had previously seen in Iran. Jam, as in Armenia (but don't tell the Azeri) is more lumps of fruit in heavy syrup than jam. It is not boiled to a setting point and is eaten with a spoon rather than spread on bread.

We had drunk only water and what Yassim called 'compote' - sweetened, freshly made cherry juice - but we both felt we could nod off for a while. Perhaps it was a good thing Togrul had eaten a lighter meal, even if I could not share his attitude to food in general.

Bucket market, Nic
We continued through the small town of Ismalliyah and stopped in the village of Nic. At the 'bucket market’ - fruit and veg is sold by the bucket; if you want a smaller quantity go somewhere else - an elderly couple insisted we photograph them and  that Lynne should be in the picture, too. They acted as though we were doing them a favour, though to us it felt the other way round. We asked them for walnut jam, something we had enjoyed in Armenia, but they had none. We bought a jar from the next door stall and then our ‘friends’ found some walnut and apple, so we bought that too, it seemed only fair.

Lynne and new friends, bucket market, Nic
We reached Sheki in late afternoon. The town, with some 60,000 inhabitants, is shaped like a thermometer, with a big bulb at the low southern end and a long, thin stem straggling northwards up the valley of a dry stream. Most buildings are constructed from flat red bricks, unlike the limestone of Baku.

The domed entrance to the caravanserai, Sheki
 We stayed in the magnificent caravanserai near the top of the town. Passing through a domed entrance we found ourselves in a quadrangle surrounded by a two storey stone building. The rooms were basic but clean, though we wondered if the lack of air-conditioning - or even a fan - might prove a problem. The 'Lonely Planet' describes the bathrooms as 'humorously dated', though the shower may have looked antique it was the best we encountered in the Caucasus.

Inside the caravanserai, Sheki
Later we made the twenty minute walk to the town centre where the small park plays host to the tables of two establishments. One is apparently called the Qaqarin (Azeri spelling of the first man in space) though there is no sign. It was packed, the tables occupied by groups of men drinking tea and eating jam - there was not a woman in sight. In the opposite corner the Chalabi Khan restaurant was serving meals to a more mixed clientele. Our choice was simple.

The road down to the town centre, Sheki
Sharing a Greek salad - local feta, olives, tomatoes and cucumber - and the inevitable heap of bread, Lynne ordered a chicken kebab while I opted for piti - or two part stew - the local specialty. It arrived in the clay mug in which it was cooked. Peering into the mug I saw a dense greasy liquid with a lump of sheep fat floating on it. Fortunately I had read the guide book so I knew what to do. Tearing a pile of bread into my dish, I sprinkled it with sumac (available, like salt and pepper, on every table) and poured the liquid from the clay mug on top. This soup was the first part and very good it was too. Once finished I tipped out the solids, which consisted of lamb (allegedly lamb tail) chick peas and that lump of fat, and mixed it all up with more sumac. The result was as richly sheepy as it is possible to get. After our lamb lunch this was my biggest sheepfest since Xinjiang, but here there had been alternatives, I had chosen it, and I had thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of big glasses of draught beer dealt with the rehydration problem and I was feeling mellow when the bill came. Four glasses of beer, salad, piti and kebab came to 11Manat, less than £9. I felt very mellow indeed.



Lynne eats her kebab, and I have reached part 2 of my piti
Chalabi Khan restaurant, Sheki
The twenty minute walk back up the hill was a sweaty business, even in the relative cool of the evening. Our room bore an unpleasant similarity to an oven, but there was worse to come.


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