Riding into Baku felt like being in Paris, wide treed boulevards, gorgeous buildings and some pretty fast drivers. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I have a good feeling. After our little cruise across the Caspian, we are hot, sweaty and no doubt stinky and we can’t wait to get to our hotel and get a good shower. “I see your booking, but how could you have booked when I marked the hotel as fully booked this morning?”. We had booked only less than 2 hours ago at the port but the hotel is fully booked. The receptionist kindly organises another hotel for our first night, but that means walking “just 5′ away”. It felt like much more than that, even with someone helping us carry our bags. We had more bags than usual because we hadn’t repacked the bikes properly from the ferry crossing so our pillows were in the camping bag. Usually, we just have one day pack each that we take off the bikes. Sometimes we definitely feel our age!!
After a good shower and a short rest, and dinner, we are ready to explore Baku city centre. It is Sunday evening and the Fountain square is alive, with a live music band, people going for a stroll, selfies being taken everywhere. This place has a great buzz. There is such an ethnic mix of people. I hear Iranian spoken – we are so close – such a pity the huge detour we had to make because Turkmenistan wouldn’t give us a transit visa means we don’t have time to go there from here now…
As usual, I have a little ‘tour’ of Baku planned for us the next day after moving some stuff back to our original hotel. First a walk through the old city as the history of this country which we are visiting for the first time is fascinating. The indented section below is my crude attempt at a synopsis of Azerbaijan’s history so you can skip if not interested.
Located at the heart of ancient civilizations, Azerbaijan has been invaded and fought over by many empires and rulers, including Alexander the Great, the Roman general Pompey, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and Russia’s Peter the Great. In the 4-5th century BC, the Zoroastrian religion dominated in Azerbaijan until the 3rd century when Christianity became a principal religion then came under Muslim rule in the 7th century. Today, Azerbaijan is home to more than 70 different ethnic groups.
Azerbaijan is an important part of the Silk Route being the gatway between far away China and distant rich Europe, and a bridge in the Caspian region connecting the Caucasus, Middle East and north-eastern Europe.
Established in 1920 as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), from 1922 to 1936, it was part of the Transcausasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (SFSR) together with the Armenian SSR and the Georgian SSR. In December 1922, the Transcaucasian SFSR became part of the newly established Soviet Union. Then after a disputed referendum, Azerbaijan adopted its declaration of independence from the USSR on 18 October 1991, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991. The politician Heydar Aliyev became the President of Azerbaijan in 1993 and successfully stabilized the country and a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia was signed in 1994, which ended the war. However, 20 % of Azerbaijan is still occupied by the Armenian military and the two countries are in a state of war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan, but a defacto independent state with Armenian ethnic majority.
Azerbaijan has had a rich, complex and turbulent history and continues today…
Next stop is the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. Yes, a museum dedicated to carpets!!! Our friends know our weakness for rugs so will understand I could not pass up on the opportunity to visit a museum that has the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world. And look at the building too!!
Some modern carpets, while maybe not our style, were amazing.
This was my favourite contemporary one:
We did a lot of walking around Baku:
After 3 nights here, we leave our hotel in Baku early and it is not long before we get to the city limits and hit the hot desert again. We ride past many impressive volcanos – we could have visited mud volcanos and seen ancient petroglyphs, but we are desert-worn! Kazakhstan did that for us. We are ready for greener scenery so we happily push on towards our next destination of Sheki. It was a very pleasant day’s ride, going from desert to hills, we see the start of the Great Caucasus mountain range to our right, small hill top villages selling fruit paste and honey and as we go down again, grapes! We stopped to refuel and checked a few coffee shops for a mid-morning snack, but all coffee shops were simply tea houses, with groups of men either chewing the fat or playing their local game of backgamon – we could hear the loud clacking of each move from far away! Nothing to eat, we snack on some chips/crisps and cold drinks and we move on. As we ride through a gorgeous oak forest, the light shining through the bright green leaves, we smell the waft of barbecued meat coming from tiny stands in the forest shade – it was tempting to stop but knowing it was likely mutton, again, with maybe a ‘salad’ of raw onion to accompany it, I preferred pushing on. I have often thought on this trip that I could nearly be vegan (except that I do love fish and chicken is ok). Mutton dumplings of various shapes over the last few months are something I will not miss but can smell when I think of them… We were about to stop and have one of the canned fish meals I had bought for our Caspian cruise, when we spot our first real restaurant. Not what we expected from the outside at all! A real little oasis of running water stream, and private shaded huts scattered in the large garden. The bread, which we found out as we left the restaurant was baked onsite, was the most delicious bread we’ve had on the whole trip!!
I had read about the medieval town of Sheki with its cobbled stones and stunning palace surrounded by densely forested mountains. Those sites didn’t disappoint, but it was the unexpected gem we stumbled across in a non descript side street in the ‘new town’ that we will remember as a special moment.
One of the most ancient settlements and cultural centres of Azerbaijan, inhabited by the Saka’ tribe in 6-7BC, Sheki was founded more than 2700 years ago at the southern slopes of the Major Caucasus Mountains Chain. Throughout its history, like the rest of the country and region, Sheki swung between independence and foreign domination. In earlier centuries, Sheki was the seat of an Albanian kingdom, which was invaded repeatedly by the Persian, Roman, Parthian, Arab, Mongolian, and other empires. Then Sheki fell under the influence and often the direct rule of Persia or the Shirvanshahs of Baku. Shortly after the 18th century collapse of the Safavid Empire, Sheki became the capital of the independent Sheki Khanate, but Sheki’s independence did not last long: it was absorbed in the early 19th century by an expansionist Russian Empire. Sadly, due to Sheki’s tumultuous political history, the majority of Sheki’s preserved historic and architectural monuments date from only the 16th to 19th centuries.
Sheki was famous as the city of craftsmen on the Silk Road where merchants and traders used to gather. Large caravanserais, each with over 200 rooms, were built for the convenience of merchants and their goods. Today, 2 of the 5 built have survived. In Sheki caravanserais merchants stored their goods in cellars, traded on the first floor, and lived on the second.
The Palace of the Sheki Khan, is a magnificient work of Islamic architecture. Located high on a hill overlooking the old town was built in 1762, without a single nail or drop of glue, according to legend. The two-storied summer residence building is decorated with magnificent frescos and exquisite stained glass work, known as ‘shebeke’ or ‘shabaka’. The main visiting hall, reserved for important visitors and designed to intimidate them, to make them aware of the Sheki Khan’s power and wealth, features delicately painted murals, one 24m long, of weaponry and military banners, hunting parties and dragons—the latter a motif heavily influenced by Azerbaijan’s trade with China.
The day we arrived, we had a short stroll towards the old town.
As we walk past this little shop the next morning, I notice musical instruments on the wall. I stop and look and see a man working. I cannot resist entering and asking if we can watch him. He immediately gets different items in various stages of completion to explain how he makes the various folk instruments. And then he proceeds to play! What a treat. His mate who was sitting in the corner picks up another one and plays a different piece. A magical moment. It has made our day.
Press the play arrow in the photo below to hear traditional Azerbaijani music:
But onto the old town to see the ‘must see’ sights.
That was a hard walk up to the plalace – it is hot here again today – but definitely worth the effort (pity no photos were allowed inside the Palace) and most definitely time for a late lunch. The outdoor shaded restaurant we spotted at the back of the caravanserai seems like the perfect place.