22.06.2017 - 22.06.2017
Day 29 Thursday June 22 2017
Qax to Sheki / 50 Km
- We wake this morning to find a completely different weather front has descended on Qax. It is cool, cloudy and raining. This is Azerbaijan for goodness sake and it's the end of June. If there is beautiful Caucasus scenery out there to admire, we are unlikely to see it.
- Meanwhile UK basks in sun and temperatures not experienced since 1976 . We both remember 1976 very well. SG hopes she does not have to wait 40 years more to experience a great & prolonged British summer.
- We think of Sean the sheep, bald, newly shaven. He must be shivering right now.
- We have yet to embrace Azerbaijan. Mind you, this is only our second day - our accommodation is strange - we have that feeling that hits now and again - get us out of here!
- Beware of hotels with net curtains at every window & caged parrots in the foyer. How cruel & unnecessary.
- Where on earth is Azerbaijan? See the national flag in the photo. The Turkic heritage is obvious.
- The Azeri language has Turkic roots and shares its grammar and much of its vocabulary with Turkish. Not that this assists us in any way! But it does help to explain why Turkey & Azerbaijan are big buddies in this region. Some say they are one people, two states.
- Azerbaijan is the largest of the three South Caucasus states (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), and is bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Iran & the Caspian Sea. It is the size of Austria & has a population of just under 10 million people, over 2 million of whom live in the capital city, Baku.
- Historically Azerbaijan played an important role as part of the Silk Road. And the country's strategic position as a gateway between East and West is still relevant today.
- In 2006 the Baku/Tbilisi/Ceyhan pipeline was completed by a consortium of 11 energy companies, including BP, who with the largest share, is operating manager. The pipeline secures the flow of Azeri oil to Europe without relying on the goodwill of either Russia or Iran. A major concern to the West for obvious reasons.
- Azerbaijan is oil rich. In fact oil extraction dates back to the 7C BC making it one of the oldest oil regions. In 1905 Azerbaijan was producing half the world's requirement. Under Russian control investment lagged, even stagnated. It was only in the 1990's after independence from Russia that the oil boom days returned.
- Baku seems to have benefited hugely, judging by the glitzy city scape on show in photos. But elsewhere there is evidence of urban poverty and degeneration. What does happen to the nation's oil income? Why has it not filtered down?
- Politically Azerbaijan is a Presidential democracy but the President's position is quite authoritarian. It is also currently a family dynasty arrangement. Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev in 2003. Opposition parties do exist but they have little impact.
- We are only in Azerbaijan for 3 days. We did not feel we could visit the Caucasus area without coming here. But independent tourism is not easy and without language knowledge there are limitations. Hence our decision not to prolong our stay, nor venture further east as far as Baku and then have to drive all the way back.
- Today we are travelling a relatively short distance to Seki ( pronounced Sheki ) It is described by Lonely Planet as the loveliest town in Azerbaijan. We are beginning to lose confidence in the accuracy of some of the LP content and the weather does not help. If you are ever coming to this area, you can probably do Qax & Seki in a 1 day rather than 2 day schedule as SG has organised.
- Some 5 km further North uphill from Seki is the village of Kis. It is famous for the Church of St Elishe. A small, simple limestone church that reputedly dates to the 1C AD.
- It is described as Caucasian Albanian. Which by the way has nothing to do with European Albania. SG needs more research time to understand. But essentially this region has always been a battleground for competing empires. It was therefore inevitable that 'identities & loyalties' changed frequently over the centuries. Far more complicated than the UK's relatively simple history of conquest & occupation.
- According to local tradition, Christianity entered Caucasian Albania ( part of contemporary Azerbaijan ) in the 1st century through St. Elisæus who came from Jerusalem eastward through Persia to preach Christianity. He built his first church, on the site of a pagan temple, in the Caucasus in a place called Gis which is believed to be modern day Kis. What supreme irony that the Muslim country of Azerbaijan claims to have on its soil one of the oldest Christian churches. It is known to many as the "mother-church" - the foundation of institutionalised Christianity.
- In fact Azerbaijan is 95% Muslim and within that figure 85% are Shia Muslims. Only Iran has a higher proportion of Shia Muslims. And yet Turkey is Sunni Muslim. Gosh the world is complicated!
After a church visit, it is of course time for a trip to the Sheki fortress. Following several devastating floods Seki moved locations in 1770's to roughly where the fortress is now located. Within the fortress there were originally more than 40 royal buildings. Today only one remains and apparently it is one of South Caucasus most iconic buildings.
- Photography is prohibited. There seems no consistency in the rules about flash / camera/ mobile. It varies so much from place to place. We take a few anyway, very surreptitiously. But it's hard to get a photo that creates a wow factor. Perhaps that's why it's not allowed. So that there is little evidence of the quality of restoration work?
- Our Sheki hotel is another odd place - centrally located, bar, restaurant, little garden, very small double beds and an air con system that is not working. Memories of a hot, uncomfortable night in Turkey resurface. Please God no, not again. Thankfully the weather outside is relatively cool - only 25C!
- By the way there is an old Karavanserai in Sheki town which is also a hotel and which has great potential. But currently it does not look as if they are bothered whether they have guests or not. It is worth popping through the huge entrance door to look at the layout of this 18C building and imagine how it must of been when Seki was part of a busy trade route.
- We eat a late lunch - hydrated camping food to which you add hot water. We then head out into the centre of modern Sheki in search of a suitable place to have supper. When food is so grim, it becomes hard to think of anything else. AG spots a kebab shop which is a possibility for him but certainly not for SG - ever!
- The only real achievement this afternoon is to find an empty chair in the local barbers shop and a barber with time on his hands. Andy's hair does not take long to cut.
- At least the local Azeri red wine is not too bad and makes food palatable. Yes Azerbaijan has a wine industry too. Even though it's a Muslim country. So how does that work then?!
- After tonight, only one more sleep in Azerbaijan.