In which we continue on from Baku, with stops in Sheki and Zaqatala, before finding the exit and moving on to Georgia. With all sorts of adventures around Şəki and Zaqatala, including abandoned churches and fortresses and almost-forgotten monuments.

Our train from pulled into Şəki (pop. 60,000) in the early hours of the morning, some time just after six am. Adrian and I (remember, Maki was in the US for his grandmother’s funeral) gathered our belongings, wished a farewell to our elderly traveling companion, and hitched a ride into town, about 10 miles from the station. Our hotel wasn’t fully booked the previous night, so they let us check in at 7 am, and we even enjoyed their buffet breakfast before we headed out to explore the city.

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First views of Şəki: the station, and the town’s old fortress in the morning mists.

That morning, a misty fog surrounded the city, obscuring some of the mountains and hills that were surrounding us. It was kind of beautiful.

Various views of the fortress and the surrounding environs.

Various views of the fortress and the surrounding environs, including a museum we skipped, housed in an old Albanian church, a remnant of a civilization long forgotten. I believe this one (top left) dates back to the sixth century, but I could be forgetting).

Although the first settlements around Şəki date back millennia, the city itself came into prominence as the center of the Şəki Khanate, the primary legacy of which is the unforgettable Khan’s Palace. The palace was basically the reason we decided on a stop in Şəki, and it was most certainly worth it.

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The palace, built in the mid-eighteenth century is a masterpiece of workmanship and beauty. Unfortunately, due to the delicate nature of the wall-to-wall hand-painted walls and carefully cut class windows, photography inside is prohibited (though Google returns some stunning pictures). The tour, given in English, was well worth it, and we enjoyed our stop. By noon, however, we’d largely exhausted the local sites. Luckily, there were a few sites in the area that were worth an additional look. First up was a trip over to the nearby village of Kiş, which is notably home to a long inactive Albanian church. Let’s just say, when I pictured Azerbaijan in my head, this is not what I expected it to look like:

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The church, one of quite a few in this part of Azerbaijan (though most of which have long since disappeared), is one of many remnants of Caucasian Albania (not connected to modern-day Albania in any way), a forgotten Christian state that existed across much of northern Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and parts of Russia in the fourth to eight centuries. The church lasted a bit longer, before eventually being folded into the Armenian church (hence this church post-dating the state). There’s a nice little museum there, and for a bit, the weather was even lovely.

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We took our time with the collections before Adrian and I headed out to take a nice walk in the village. It was beautiful, even with the thick fog that hung over the mountains.

The boys in the top left asked me to take their picture.

The boys in the top left asked me to take their picture. Continuing clockwise, a woman herds her sheep back home, a horse grazes on some grass, and the fog hangs over the village streets.

We walked with no particular destination in mind, though sort of hoping to figure out a way to an abandoned eighth or ninth century fortress. It didn’t take long before we realized we had no idea where we were going, but we found a driver willing to take us for what was probably too much, but oh! so worth it.

Finding our way up, including our driver in the top right, who just got bored waiting for us and decided to make his way up. He told us it was his first time up there.

Finding our way up, including our driver in the top right, who just got bored waiting for us and decided to make his way up. He told us it was his first time up there. I’m just glad he knew how to find it!

The remote Gələrsən-Görərsən fortress was a little hard to find, and located up a steep trail and is completely, utterly abandoned. It was glorious.

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The views over the mountains were stunning, and we had a good time scrambling along the fortress ruins (not all of which was entirely safe, though we were careful)!

Various views from the fortress.

Various views from the fortress.

The little excursion was just about perfect — easily one of the top highlights from not just Azerbaijan but the whole trip. After we had gotten our fill of exploration, we headed back to the city, stopping in to pick up some silk scarves at a local factory and figure out the bus schedule to head onwards in the morning. That evening, we had an early dinner, and after Adrian crashed super early, a bit jetlagged and exhausted from all our adventuring, I took full advantage of the hotel’s spa facilities and did a little planning for our next steps. The next morning, after another breakfast at the hotel, we headed over to the bus station to head on to Zaqatala (pop. 30,000), the last city of any real size before the Georgian border.

Next stop: Zaqatala.

Next stop: Zaqatala.

Our original itinerary was to spend a night there, but upon consideration and super helpful input from a friend, we decided to keep our visit to just a few hours in order to have more time in Telavi, Georgia.

Traveling in Azerbaijan: This guy (former/first president Heydar Aliyev) is everywhere.

Traveling in Azerbaijan: This guy (former/first president Heydar Aliyev) is everywhere. Here, clockwise from top left: Şəki; two from a park in Zaqatala; one from the road between the two cities.

Having arrived, we set off to see a couple sites, our heavy backpacks in tow. The city was a pleasant enough provincial city, and apparently the center of the region’s important hazelnut industry.

Downtown Zaqatala.

Downtown Zaqatala.

We passed the fortress (where we’d come back at the end), and found a nice place to set our bags down for a short rest. Unexpectedly, we found a familiar face.

Taras Shevchenko!

Taras Shevchenko!

Across the way from Taras, the city’s park was lovely, and the cherry blossoms were nicely in bloom, with lovely views to the surrounding countryside. A local came up to chat for a bit, and he took a picture with us.

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The city’s main site is a nineteenth century fortress, located right at the center of town. Less abandoned than the previous day’s adventure, the fortress was nevertheless quite enjoyable to explore.

Adrian takes a nap along a fortress wall.

Adrian takes a nap along a fortress wall and stops to take in various views.

The fortress had served as a Russian military base to defend against the local populations they were busy conquering. Although we were the only tourists in site (and it took a little effort to find someone to pay the very cheap entrance fee), the fortress had a couple sites of activity, between some renovation work on one part and a film shooting on another part.

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The fortress was a testament to the city’s recent history, with plenty of relics of various sorts.

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A partially burned pamphlet on Soviet Nakhichevan (the other part of Azerbaijan, on the other side of Armenia) and an old Soviet-era car inside the fortress, with various slogans of Azeri-Turkish friendship behind it, presumably a relic of a now-forgotten post-Soviet renovation project.

Below the fortress, we made a final stop in an abandoned church, apparently a relic of Georgian rule some centuries ago.

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Inside, a mess of graffiti and crumbling architecture. Azerbaijan has done little to preserve its non-Muslim heritage. Many of the few sites that remain are woefully falling apart, except the few that have received foreign funding (like the one in Kiş that we had seen the previous day).

We made our way back to the bus station and taxi stand, stopping in at a Turkish restaurant for a quick bite to eat, before we found a car to get us to the border, less than 30 minutes’ drive away. And just like that, we found ourselves presenting our papers to head out of the country. Next stop, Georgia!

Farewell Azerbaijan! Left: a flag mosaic sculpture from the city park in Zaqatala and the entrance to the Azerbaijan border control. To the right, last views over Azerbaijan, already in Georgia.

Farewell Azerbaijan! Left: a flag mosaic sculpture from the city park in Zaqatala and the entrance to the Azerbaijan border control. To the right, last views over Azerbaijan, already in Georgia.

On the other side, we quickly found a driver willing to take us the two hours to Telavi, where we would spend the night before continuing on our journey.

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