First impressions can be so treacherous. Take me and the Lovely Husband; when you first see us together, me all loud, wildly gesticulating, chatty and, okay yes, quite bossy, and he quiet, kind, gentlemanly and smiling enigmatically, you might get quite confused as to who wears the trousers in this relationship but make no mistake, this man has the character of a rhinoceros on steroids, believe me! There’s not much that makes him lower his head and charge, so long as his loved ones aren’t under threat. Mostly, he just stands there on his solid legs, grazing peacefully, his brown eyes twinkling benevolently at your funny little jumpy up and down antics. And when I say ‘standing there’, I mean standing there immovably, determinedly, firmly, rocklike, anchored to the core of the earth through the ages and forevermore. So, there’s Rhino and the Kea bird (likes shiny things, chatters, mischief maker) planning their car trip to Sheki, up there in the Caucasus, right by the Russian border. I say: ‘Well, on the map the shortest route from Baku is to take the A9 and then A10 from Samaxi’. ‘No. no’. says he, ‘the M1/A10 route may be longer but those are major roads and will get us there much faster’. I squeak in protest, once, twice, three times but the man has made up his mind. M means motorway, A means side road, and we’re going on the motorway. It’s decided. Well, dear reader, six and a half hours later, having bumped along stretches of potholed, gravelly tracks, past dried up river beds and endless pylons, the mountains in the distance, like sleeping giants covered by green blankets, we eventually got to Sheki, our bones shaken and both of us hot, tired and exhausted. You will forgive me for gloating and quietly singing ‘na na na na na’ to myself. It’s not often that I’m right, so I have to make the most of it.
We’d been advised by a friend that although the Caravanserai Hotel is beautifully historic and atmospheric, the Sheki Seray is very much more comfortable, so that’s where we checked in. Indeed, it’s a very pleasant little four star hotel. Our room was well appointed and although the double bed was really very small, the bathroom was spacious with a bath and overhead shower and fluffy white towels. Generally, it’s a nice looking place with a relatively tasteful contemporary vibe, an attractive restaurant, cosy bar and reasonably good service too. The breakfast buffet the next morning was, shall we say, adequate but nothing to write home about. This hotel has good parking and is close to the main square, though quite a long walk to the historic area and the famed Khan’s Palace. The price for the room with breakfast was AZN110 per night.
As we weren’t staying at the Caravanserai, we thought we’d at least check it out for supper. It’s an enchanting place which greets you in an inner courtyard with an Aladdin’s lamp aflame and a sense of stepping back in history. The garden restaurant looked magical with roses in full bloom and tables under leafy trees. Alas, half the things we wanted to order were not available, the waiter scowled, and then the touristy type entertainment band struck up rather loudly, so we changed our minds and left. Instead, we hotfooted it to the Celebi Xan restaurant, close to the hotel and right on the main square. again with quite a pretty garden to settle down in.
We gave the cock kebab, the offal kebab and the fatty tail of sheep kebab a miss but the lovely husband was dead keen on trying the local speciality, Piti, which in our Lonely Planet guide was not too enticingly described as a lump of lamb fat swimming in a broth. In actual fact, believe it or not, it turned out to taste absolutely delicious, the broth clear and tasty and perfect for bread dunking, the ‘lump of fat’ mashed by the waiter with the lamb meat underneath, like a light, moussey pate. Uncharacteristically, I ordered two tiny lamb chops with salad and they too were quite wonderful. The dessert menu was somewhat limited but we shared a perfectly acceptable vanilla ice cream, not the best ever, but nice. Including half a litre of Xirdalan beer and a fizzy mineral water, we paid AZN15 for the whole meal. Very good value! Inside, the restaurant is truly eccentric in a hunting lodge style with eating areas disguised in giant barrels and weird looking badly stuffed animals, quite a sight!
Coincidentally, friends of friends of ours in Germany had been responsible for the restoration of the Khan’s Palace some years ago, so we were doubly keen to check it out, which we did the next morning. The entrance fee is AZN2 per person and you gather in groups on the forecourt and then get taken inside to look at a series of rooms, which, however, you are not permitted to photograph. It’s pretty enough but rather like the historic area of Sheki nearby, in my opinion, lacking in any sort of magic or ambience. Nice to see, but nothing special.
Then on to Lahic which I had heard so much about. Apparently this was the Azerbaijani destination sine qua non. I was so excited to experience this fairy-tale mountain village of expat lore! Along the smooth and easy A10 we drove (more na na na na na!), through an unexciting, industrial looking Qebele and just beyond Ismayilli, we took a left up into the Caucasus.
Now, I’ve never thought of myself as neurotic but on this steep, winding and unsecured road, up and up between tall sheer rock faces and deep ravines, I discovered a brand new phobia alongside my fear of being buried alive and worms, snails and frogs, a resounding, cold- sweat- heart- thumping-dizziness- inducing fear of heights. I arrived in Lahic a terrified, shaking, clammy wreck! At that moment, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever muster the courage to get back down the mountain but my gratitude to have finally arrived alive at Rustam Rustamov’s Lahic Guest House knew no bounds, I can tell you! And what a lovely little place it was, too! And, as a special reward for my bravery, or so it seemed, we got the best accommodation in the house, a spacious room with a small ensuite shower room and a fabulous balcony with views over the orchard and to the spectacular mountain scenery beyond. Utter sheer bliss!
By now it was mid afternoon and having missed lunch, we were both a bit peckish. We asked for bread and cheese, perhaps, or some light bite but all Rustam could offer was yoghurt soup which neither of us like and meat dolma which we’re also not so keen on, so we declined and took ourselves off into the little village for a meander. Truth be told, Lahic did absolutely nothing for me. Most buildings are in fact either completely new or so heavily refurbished, that they might as well be, and construction work was underway everywhere. The one main cobbled street boasts a long row of kitschy souvenir shops, one next to the other, with not an authentic dwelling, shop, bazaar or tea house in sight. It’s a veritable Disney model village, its only purpose that of pandering to tourists. Ah, but then we got chatting to a local young man and when we told him that we were a little hungry, he lead us to Girdiman Isfahat Bagi’s Garden Restaurant, hidden away along a track opposite the War Memorial. Here we feasted like kings in a lush shady garden overlooking the mountains and the expanse of the river in the valley below. Succulent chicken kebabs, roast aubergines, chunky potato chips, tasty roast tomatoes, salad, cheese, yoghurt sauce, water, good coffee and a generous portion of Turkish baklava fulfilled our every culinary desire at a price of AZN24 for this fabulous lunch for two. The owner joined us for a chat at our table for a while, a charming gentleman whose family live in Lahic but who himself lives in Baku. On site, he is building a small guest house which promises to be very inviting once it is completed.
Replete and happy, we strolled back to Rustam’s, past the one little square in Lahic that really is charming, where the mosque is located. Back at the guest house, we let Rustam know that we would not require dinner or perhaps, just a light salad much later on, and we set about sunning ourselves and reading on our balcony.
Then, the most enchanting, spiritual moment: at the blue hour on the eve of Ramadan, just as the twilight was settling in on the mountains, shrouding peaks and valleys in a dusky veil, the call to prayer arose from two mosques, one close by in the village, the other much further down in the valley, a pure, most beautiful sound echoing back to us and elevating the moment to an experience of intense joy. Deeply moved, I was grateful to be precisely where I was, right there at that particular moment in time.
The light salad for supper for two in Rustam’s garden turned out to be just that, a few slices of cheese, a bunch of herbs, two quartered tomatoes, some quartered cucumber, four or five pieces of pickled cucumber and bread, which suited us just fine. Alongside it, we enjoyed a bottle of excellent chilled white Georgian wine. The food may well have stuck in our throats had we realized that Rustam insisted on billing us AZN11 each, so AZN22 for the few chopped bits of garden produce (plus AZN25 for the wine) the next day and, when questioned, admonished us that ‘one should not penny pinch when on holiday!’. This left rather a bitter taste in our mouths. For the accommodation we paid AZN90 for the night including breakfast, which was basically the same salad again in addition to a little fruit, bread and lovely rose jam and local honey. Considering that the beds were twin beds rather than a double, there had been no hot water in the morning, there was no air con, and internet was very intermittent (neither of which, however, we needed or required) and the duvets to be used over the waffle bed sheet did not have freshly washed covers, I thought this was also quite steep in terms of value for money. No matter how popular this guest house appears to be, I, for one, would not recommend it, partly because of the quite ridiculous unacceptable pricing but more so, on account of the tourist fleecing attitude.
Back on the road on our way home, we made a short detour to Ivanovka, just five kms south of Ismayilli. According to my Lonely Planet, this is one of the few remaining co-operative farms remaining from Soviet times and, apparently, one of the richest in Azerbaijan. Although it is a huge operation and, I’m told, produces fantastic meat, cheese, honey and wine, all of which you can buy at the village shop, it is a pretty hamlet of painted clapboard or brick houses with mature walled gardens full of fruit trees and flowers, all set in an a picture book rural idyll on a fertile plain just below the peaks of the Caucasian mountain range. Here I found authenticity, charm, prettiness, free range chickens and lovely friendly people, such a pleasant contrast to mercenary touristy Lahic and mildly boring Sheki and so much more of the real thing! Should I ever find myself in this part of the world again, I’d love to stay at John and Tanya Howard’s Guest House, here in Ivanovka.
The road back to Samaxi was beautifully scenic and offered up a great road side corn on the cob snack and, in Samaxi itself, a super modern Azpetrol gas station with a strange Chinese (??) WC sign, then rolled on into the pylon crowded desert landscape outside Baku and onwards, home.
With barely a couple of weeks before we leave Baku for good, I am glad that we took the opportunity to explore, at least just a little, this northern area of Azerbaijan. It was good to see and experience. That call to prayer, those wild flowers, the orchards and happy faces of Ivanovka made precious memories for all future. Sheki and Lahic, were, I suppose, interesting in their own way but made less of an impression on me. Having fallen so resoundingly in love with Lenkeran and its environs, its landscape, food and people, on a recent trip to the south of the country, these mountain towns just never stood a chance of stealing my heart quite in the same way. Still, Azerbaijan is a beautiful country, whether north or south, and well worth discovering. Just make sure you avoid the M4!