There are better and worse ways to travel around the South Caucasus region. There are faster and slower, cheaper and pricier… So far, my method for determining the best way to settle on a mode of transportation has been to ask myself, “What it is that I want to see?”
Here is where this question is applicable: If you’re in Baku, and you want to get to Tbilisi, you’re pretty much going to have to pick from one of three main northwest-bound arteries. This is a major determinant of what you will see during your travels in Azerbaijan. Next, you’ll have to decide the “how”. There are some smelly buses, if you’re into that sort of thing. There is also the plodding, old Soviet-era train that will drag and groan its way up the central valley of Azerbaijan. You do, however, stand a real chance of spending 10 hours trying to remove the grease from the windows of your cabin, only to succeed in spreading film even further and wider across your viewing portal. Then, there is the northern route, best traversed by hired driver. “Ah, the Northern Route; good choice!” is what I heard, over and over again as I mused out loud, whether with acquaintances or Azerbaijanis with whom this topic came up. “It takes you through Shaki!” “You may even gain 500 years’ worth of wisdom just by breathing the mountain air!” So, hire a driver and go to Tbilisi via the Northern Route it was. Done.
The Northern Route consists of Azerbaijan’s highways M4 and M5, but which looks like and is about as busy in January as a furniture store on Antarctica. I was fine with the fact that we would not be contending with other vehicles for the sparse though well-paved roadway, because visibility was terrible, drizzly and foggy, and would get snowy and icy before we were done with it. I buckled up in the back, and stared out into the gloom as our taciturn driver did his own peering out into the 50 feet or so that the fog permitted that morning. At some point I woke up from a doze to hear him and Jon mutter something in Turkic agreement up in front, and we were soon pulling up in front of a roadside hut. “Chai-stop”, Jon grumbled in my general direction as we clambered out. He was in just as good a mood as the rest of us were from the subdued two-hour drive. It was a timely, uplifting stop, and we felt a little more human after the solicitous and kind tearoom owner refilled our pot a few times. (As a side-note, I am now a big fan of mixing blackberry jam into tea.)
In a rare five- or six-word burst, Samir the driver confirmed again with us that we were planning to stop in Shaki. Pronounced “Sheki”, this town contains the Khan Palace (spring and summer home of the Shaki Khans), a well-maintained castle within which the Palace is located, and a town over which the castle sits. It also contains Samir’s very best friend Tofik, a wood-and-glass laying expert who assembles his art without any glue or nails. Tofik wasn’t there when we got into town early in the evening, so we went off in search of a place to stay. There is a fancy western-style hotel in Shaki, and it certainly was within our budget. But Samir, mood steadily improving, suggested – with exaggerated meaning – another hotel, “cheap for you”, he nodded. “Okay? Cheap for you!” “Okay”, we said, readying ourselves to finally “rough it”. We really had no intention of repeating the insulation from culture that the Baku Hilton imposed on us, and were ready for some travel-scars.
We arrived at the hotel in question, clear across town. It was within walking-distance to the Palace. It was within walking-distance of Tofik’s. It was around the corner from a restaurant that had Samir rubbing his hands together eagerly in anticipation (we promised him dinner on us, if only he didn’t crash or slide his car off of the narrow, icy ledge and into a ravine). From the outside, the hotel looked like a massive, aging brick building. But when I got inside, I was stunned. We were staying at an old Karvansaray, and it was like stepping into the 1700s. This was a place where caravans would stop for the night, and if it’s good enough for cameleers, well then…
In a flash, we ditched our gear in our individual caves, and were back out on the street to experience Samir’s other very best friend’s restaurant. Under Samir’s approving gaze, I ordered piti, as I had the night before. It is hard to find an Azerbaijani who will not claim piti as having originated in the Shaki region, and to me it seemed like one of those “when in Rome… order the linguini!” sort of moments. Now, I don’t know what type of piti they serve in Iran or Armenia, although both have some variant of the stuff on their national food-roster as well. It was a good call for dinner at this place, though.
I noticed that the vodka-trail from Sevastopol continues in Azerbaijan. We gave our dinners a periodic rinsing of a type of vodka made from sour berries called “Kislik”, which the restaurant owner himself reverently escorted into our room. This stuff is 65% alcohol, and you feel every bit of it burning every bit of you. Unlike in Sevastopol, where bucketfuls of vodka were shamelessly consumed without much ado, in Shaki it was presented in curative or therapeutic terms. Some of my favorite quotes from Samir and company were: “It is good for the lower intestine”; “it’s medicinal”, and my personal favorite; “It cleans things out.” (I’ll bet, I thought. I’ll just bet it does.) But who am I to argue against ancient palliatives such as kislik vodka?
I’ll tell you about my last day in Azerbaijan, next time.