Sheki was beautiful, old and at the foot of very green mountains, a rarity here. The countryside was a bittersweet reminder of the Smoky Mountains, memories of summers spent there with the kids a backround hum in my mind.
I went with the old Fart’s club, three of us older volunteers. We had planned to stay in this restored ancient Caravanserai, a stopping place for the camel caravans on the old silk road. (There is a silk factory in the town, but we didn’t get to go, next time.) Our Azeri friends had assured us we would not need to call ahead, the place was never full. It was full.
But the friendly desk help sent us back down the cobblestreet hill to an old-Soviet style hotel that we got for about $17. each. Clean and made memorable by the howling of dogs echoing through the main square of the city all night and the pre-dawn call to prayer from the Mosque nearby, with the imam, coughing and hacking his way through.
We had to leave by 10 for some mysterious reason, but our host, short, chain-smoking, wearing a worn to shiny green suit, was happy to keep our luggage for us and he did NOT have a yard-sale with our stuff, on the hotel steps, as I had predicted. We four wandered around looking for the bazar and instead found this little restaurant next to a park with an ivy covered fairy-tale cottage and a little babushka granny who offered to cook us a meal. I had done translating duties at both hotels, and I must say covered myself in glory, this time it was Mary’s turn.
She did fabulously and after a little wait, we had an omelet!!! or more like an egg stew with tomatoes, green peppers, eggs and onions, served to us as we sat outside in a garden of fruit trees in a field damp and clean from the rain the night before. Fresh bread, home-made cheese, and butter, and hot tea. Four very happy people.
After we stuffed ourselves (Azeri-style, which means small portions of everything, but mountains of bread,) we set off, this time equipped with a map, down the stone streets, made of rounded river rocks mortared together, and admire the red tile roofs, stained and algaed with age. They are made to look like shingles or cedar shakes and are all shades of clay and soft terracotta ranging to gold. The roofs are very peaked to keep the snow off, and that is about all you can see of the houses hiding behind the prettiest walls I have seen so far. Mostly made of field stones, but often in intricate layered designs using some brick, some block and different shapes and colors of stones.
In a small craft market, we met a wizened old man who makes the traditional Caucasus mountain sheep skin hats in a tiny shop as big as a walk-in closet. Some look like a big shaggy beehive, others are more like the cake-pan on the head type, others a fur boy-scout shape. Beautiful curly persian lamb, and also fleecy pelt hats. Further on, I was admiring a beautiful vine growing on a porch, that had these wisteria-like purple flowers and the tiny, besuited proprietor motioned us into the dim interior. It was a seed store, something out of long ago, in America, we would only see the like in an living museum such as Williamsburg.
I asked him if he had the seed for the plant, and he pulls out a bag of seed pods from an old cabinet and fills an antique envelop with these pods. When I asked how much, no, no, no, I must have the seeds, no charge, he grew them himself.
Come spring, I will share the seeds out and each of us will grow a vine when we have our own places here.
Onward up the steep road back toward the Caravanserai, where we had eaten outside in a grassy courtyard the night before. Sitting on leather divans, under a pavilion, I would like to say feasting, but the Japanese business group who had booked all the rooms, also had eaten all the food, so it wasn’t the finest, but it was beautiful and the company was great.
As we wound up the narrow sidewalk, with the shops just two feet from the street, we poked our heads into the 15×15 foot shops and met a instrument maker and his friend, who played us traditional folk tunes and sang to us.
Later that day, we went about six miles out of Sheki to stay in a tiny, even more tightly walled village called Kish, at a guesthouse there. Ran into a group of Norwegians who were being guided by a man who works for the Norwegian Humanitarian Mission. It turned out one of my group had already met this man, because their organizations are connected..
This is not a country where foreign tourists abound, so this was pretty strange. Anyway, nice dinner chatting with the Norwegians, while our hostess in typical Azeri style managed to cook an incredible meal for us four, the five Norwegians, a family of 8 Azeris tourists from the capital and 6 family members on a moments notice.
The walled yard was an orchard of apple trees and pears, and there were the most extraordinary pears, so huge and perfect they really did look fake. I took one back with me and I am going to sketch it before I eat it. (I did sketch it and I think it looks pretty good. I can say that cause you can’t see it The apple trees were covered to collapse with apples, limbs propped up with forked sticks. At the foot of the garden by the stone wall was a cow byre, the family has three cows, they showed us the churn that they make butter in.
We left on Sunday morning and took off with our hostesses’ husband, a taxi-driver, who treated us to an absolutely horrifying ride down the narrow, slippery-wet, stone roads at top speed. He dropped us back in Sheki at a gorgeous restored building from the last Khanate of Azerbaijan and we toured these intricately painted rooms done in beautiful Kashmiri looking designs of flowers, vines, paisley and birds. I used to sell these paper mache boxes with designs like these back in my old store.
Then it was back to reality. We took a little old Lada taxi back to Yevlax, a blasted heath of a town, which serves as a bus crossroads. Our driver, I could not BELIEVE it, was safety minded, he is the first person I have been in a car with, other than Peace Corps personel, who put on a seat belt. Back via Marshrutka to Ganja, not too scary, mostly because I chose a seat where I couldn’t see forward into the traffic.
Ordinary life starts again, that is if I can stay out of the iron-clad hands of the polis.