Antics in Sheki – Azerbaijan

We travel by mini bus from Gabala to Sheki, another mountainside town.

Something we’ve noticed throughout the trip, but particularly in less touristed areas – as in beyond two blocks from where tourists habitually climb off tour buses – is staring men. Young and old, they aren’t all waiting for a bus, but they stand or sit around, smoke and stare. When we look back at them and say hello, they often smile and greet us, but sometimes they look really uncomfortable. We’ve profiled these guys:

  • They are under-employed bored taxi drivers.
  • They are unemployed 30 to 40 somethings and their over-indulgent mums have kicked them away from the dining table for a few hours.
  • They are unemployed or retired older guys and their long-suffering wives have told them to get out from underfoot for a few hours.

To be fair, we’ve profiled ourselves:

– We show up without a guide and don’t tumble from a tour bus – weird.

– We carry backpacks – very weird.

– We wear sensible boots – the weirdest. Where are the sparkles?

The sad reality is that in Central Asia and Asia Minor, the traditional woman of our age often stays at home and does for her family. When she’s out and about she hobbles along the street wearing glittery slippers or sandals two or three sizes too small, a long old skirt, tattered wool sweater and kerchief. She carries her shopping bag and when she smiles she lacks teeth or sports a mouthful of gold teeth. She is often not physically fit and she is possibly not well educated. If she has a job it is likely some unenviable position cleaning toilets or sweeping the street. I wonder what these women think of us.

We enjoy a couple of days exploring Sheki and surrounds. One day we walk north of town into the hills in search of a ruined castle. On the way we detour into the village of Kisi. Some locals direct us to a temple. Curious, we follow where they point and come across a lovely little church within a walled garden. Prior to Christianity this place was a pagan temple. It has been beautifully restored and we enjoy an excellent explanation from the well educated young female curator wearing sensible shoes.

Continuing on our way we meet several men who have been logging nearby. Their horses and donkeys are labouring along the track, pulling logs. The horses just pull a log or two along the ground. The poor wee donkeys have several long thick branches strapped with one end on their backs and the other ends dragging on the ground behind them. 

Further along, we pass by an obviously closed-for-the-season restaurant, with leaves blowing in drifts and not a soul to be seen. A man pops his head over the stone wall and calls out to us. Then he comes running…we end up promising we’ll come back for cold beer and a hot meal. Continuing on our way we come across a couple of armed soldiers standing outside a shack beside the dirt track. 

“What are you doing here?” we ask them.

They smile and point in a different direction and say, “Castle.”

“Yes we are going to the castle but what are you boys doing here?” we persist.

They smile, “No English.”

We get out our handy electronic map to see what we might be missing. Could there be a base near by?

We see that we are very close to a border – with Dagestan.

“Dagestan?”

“Da,” say the border guards.

“Never heard of it,” say we.”

Turns out Dagestan has a reputation as an unpleasant republic with lots of corruption and such. We continue on to the castle. When we finally clamber up the last steep slope of its crumbling ancient ramparts, we look across the wide river and up the valley to the mountains of Dagestan. The borders in this part of the world are not straight lines and some of them seem to change with regularity.

Later we enjoy cold beers and a hot meal at the “closed” restaurant. We sit in the sun, leaves swirling beneath the table, a stray dog looking up hopefully from beside our chairs and no one else around except the man and his mother. She probably did the cooking.

The next day we explore the town. We walk up to a restored fort and pop into a tourist info centre there. The young woman who steps out of the director’s office to greet us is the director. She sends an older cleaning woman – wearing long skirt and kerchief – to get us tea. As we sip, the young woman tells us she received her university education in Italy and about the important sights in Sheki.

One of the places we visit is the Sheki Khan’s 1795 palace. As we enter, a minder starts walking through with us. He stands way too close and keeps pointing to the next door we should go through, hurrying us. Having paid our admission fee, we don’t like the close supervision and being ushered along so quickly. Pat goes ahead into one room while I linger in another. The minder dashes between the rooms in a tither. He indicates we should stay together but we don’t comply. “We paid our two fees to look at this palace. We will look as we wish,” we tell him. He continues to scamper between us. The place isn’t large, although the interior is stunning – every inch of wall and ceiling brightly painted in colourful scenes and designs. After we’ve seen what we want, we put the now exhausted little man out of his misery by leaving.

Some school children are performing dance and music outside in a courtyard of the fort’s art museum. We stay and listen. Turns out the museum director is receiving an award from the city mayor. There is a long speech, but the sun is warm, the ambiance lovely so we enjoy watching the drummer boys fidgeting behind their teacher’s back. 

Sheki has a hammam, and we are feeling in need of a scrub, so we go there in search of the usual relaxed hour or so we’ve come to expect of hammamming in hammams. There are two snaggletoothed old ladies at a decrepit desk. They begin shouting at us the moment we arrive. We should have turned tail and run away… but we didn’t. One of the ladies shows us a locker and continues shouting at us while we undress. She points and shouts and carries on. At our age, we’ve undressed often enough that it is not something we need supervision with but this woman seems to think her yelling and pointing is required. When we go into the bath room, it isn’t very warm. There are a few woman washing themselves. So when we’re shown to our tap we expect to be left alone, the shouting woman is fully dressed but she decides she’s going to dump nearly all Pat’s shampoo on her head and scrub her hair. We hadn’t paid for a massage or scrub and didn’t want one, especially from this woman. I managed to wash my own hair with my own shampoo – normal amount – but the woman yells a lot about this too. Presumably I don’t know how to wash my hair. We finally cave and let her scrub our backs because she just keeps standing over us and yelling. That done she grabs buckets of water and throws water in our faces even after we’ve finished washing. Eventually we manage to get her to leave us alone. We think one of the other ladies might have said something in our defence. She wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. Many woman in this part of the world constantly shout at each other as a normal means of communication. Some people think that if you speak whatever language louder, the person who doesn’t understand will suddenly have an epiphany and do so. Presumably this woman didn’t understand that English speaking people know how to undress, wash and dress. When we leave – having paid for two hours but only having stayed for one – she tries to get a tip out of us. She’s disappointed. We don’t recommend the Sheki hammam experience. Besides the aggressive woman, the place is a bit dirty, dingy, poorly maintained and not warm. 

That evening, as we’re reading – and drifting to sleep – the room phone rings. Pat answers

and understands, “Sheki receipt.”

“Thanks but we already have our receipt,” she says.

A few minutes later there’s a knock on our room door.

Pat jumps up and answers. In comes our young man from reception with a large tray of tea, and sweets. “Sheki sweets,” he says, placing the tray on our table then disappearing again.

Once again we are impressed by the warm hospitality we receive. We are the only guests in this nice boutique hotel and every morning the chef has dashed in with fresh bread under his arm to prepare us a delicious breakfast. He and the receptionist are the only two people we’ve seen in the place.

Early the next morning we walk to the bus station to catch a mini bus on to Ganja. As with several places we’ve visited on this trip, the parts of towns that have been spruced up for tourist eyes, contrast sharply with the less tidied up areas. During our wanders we’re always a little surprised at how quick the transition is. Sheki is no exception. Walking to and from the bus stop reveals the crumbling sidewalks and tiny dark shops with tomatoes, onions and cucumbers piled outside. Old ladies, younger than us, pick through the offerings while chatting at top volume. Not a trinket to be seen. Cigarette smoke and staring eyes follow us as we walk past.

The drive to Ganja is unremarkable except for when some mounted shepherds, riding against traffic flow – on a four lane divided highway – come along herding about one hundred sheep, a couple of donkeys and a few spare horses towards then around the oncoming traffic. Our bus stops with the rest of the vehicles until the last of the bleating animals has passed by. No one seems to think this is strange. Awesome.

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