I had a lovely sleep in my massive Gabela hotel room (so massive that I had a dining room, two bathroom, a living room and a bedroom … it was almost as large as the first floor of my house) and then a wonderful breakfast before meeting Javid and Mahir for our short drive to Sheki where I would spend two nights. However, before we left Gabela we were going to take a ride on the Tugendag ski lift to the top of the mountains. Fortunately, the morning was beautiful and sunny so no fog issues would hamper our trip.
Javid and I were the first in the cable car that had not yet started up for the day. The cable car would take us to four other stations up the mountain. The ride to the first station started slowly and then the car moved straight up, up, up. As the cable car climbed, I had a fabulous view of the little town of Gabela in one direction and beautiful mountain peaks covered by a bit of cloud in another.
When we reached the second station, we got out of the cable car and walked to the next line and got into a cable car that actually took us down the hill. The second station is the jumping off point for a number of the ski hills and the skiers use the third station, where we were heading, to bring them back to the top of the hill. At the third station, we again changed cable cars again and began the long assent to the next station. Our climb took us above a herd of cows and past a little village before reaching the fourth station. By now, the temperature had dropped significantly.
The fourth station took us to the top of the mountain where the views were absolutely wonderful. We wandered around the top of the hill and I even found a plastic Christmas snowman which just screamed take a picture with me.
After we finished wandering around and taking in the gorgeous views, we climbed back into the cable car and reversed course changing cars along the way as we did on the way up. The whole trip took about an hour and was absolutely the best way to start the day.
We then climbed in the van and Mahir began our drive to Sheki. Our first stop along the way was to the little village of Nij to see a church. Yep, a church in a Muslim country. Actually Azerbaijan is quite diverse despite the fact that the majority of the country is Muslim. The northern section of Azerbaijan was historically settled by Caucasian Albanians (no relation to the country of Albania) who were Christian. A large Caucasian Albanian population remains in the area we were travelling to as well as in the northern regions of Azerbaijan. The relations between the Caucasian Albanians and the rest of the country is very good with the two religious groups have co-existed for centuries.
Anyway, the church we visited in Nij, the Church of St. Elisha, dates to 1823 and was built by the Udi people, descendants of the Caucasian Albanian population. The Udi are one of the most ancient populations in the Caucuses with evidence showing they have lived in this region since the 5th century B.C. There are only a few thousand Udi remaining in the world, with almost 4, 000 living in Nij. And while the Udi practice Orthodox Christianity, there is a twist with fire and the moon playing a significant role in their beliefs.
We wandered around the lovely little stone church, saw the baptismal bath and a wall of photographs dedicated to significant events in the life of the church and to notable visitors (Prince Andrew of Britain has visited). We spent about a half hour at the church before continuing our drive to Sheki.
Now the drive to Sheki was pretty short taking no more than an hour. We drove through a lot of farmland surrounded by trees and mountains before making the turn along the narrow little road into Sheki.
Our first stop in Sheki was to the Sheki Khan’s palace which dates to 1752 and sits on the highest hill in Sheki. Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed in the palace and this was a real shame. The palace and grounds was surrounded by a stone wall, was set in a rose garden that include two 16th century plane trees, had a mere six rooms (and 4 hallways) and was made completely from wood without a single nail. And if that wasn’t enough, the interior was simply stunning with stained glass windows, ornate carved wooden stalactite on the ceilings and beautiful murals on the walls and ceiling featuring flowers and birds in the women’s quarters and battle scenes in the men’s quarters. I wanted to take pictures so badly (even with my crappy camera) that Javid even asked for special permission … but we received a big, fat no. So …. you will just have to take my word for it that the building was really special.
As we were leaving the site, I ended up buying some mindal (nuts in a crisp caramel coating). Sheki is well known for its sweets, and this guy also had fresh honey, honey candy and numerous other home made concoctions for sale. Since we were going to visit sweet shops on the main street in town, I stuck with the mindal and called it good.
As we made our way back down the hill to town, we stopped at the Ashaghy caravanserai that dates to the 18th to 19th century. The caravanserai was at one time used as a resting place for traders, but is now a hotel. (I opted out of staying in this hotel as it is a bit far from the main part of town). Anyway, the stone and wood caravanserai featured a lovely entry way and two levels built around a pretty little courtyard. There was also a lower level that was used for storage during the trading days and a lovely little tea house.
As we wandered around, we managed to convince an elderly woman working at the hotel to open one of the rooms so I could take a peak inside. The room we were shown had a very small bedroom, bathroom and sitting area, was a tad dark because of only one very small window and dim lighting, and had authentic period carpets and wall hangings.
After the visit to the caravanserai, we took a walk down the street to a number of sweet shops. As I mentioned, Sheki is well known for its sweets, including the uber sweet, syrup-soaked halva, which is supposed to be similar to baklava. (I did not think so as the halva was far, far sweeter.). Now never one to opt out of sweets, Javid took me to the “best” in town. They apparently make the sweets in large, round pans and cut the pieces to the size you want. I tried two different kinds and oh my God …. I think I might now have diabetes. These treats were soaked in syrup and really, really, really sweet. The first I tasted was ok, but the second one was out of sight awesome. It had layers of pastry, walnuts, pistachio and a number of other types of nuts. And while it was very tasty, it was definitely something you could only eat in small batches.
Javid opted to buy these long donut like pastries that contained a long thin line of honey on the inside and as we left the shop, Javid offered me on. I took it and have to say it was the star of the show. Unfortunately, I was enjoying the little pastry so much that I wasn’t paying attention and smacked the top of my head on the van as I was entering my seat. I literally saw stars. Javid and Mahir grabbed me and I actually had to push them away because they would not let go of me. After I was able to stand up without Javid and Mahir grabbing me, I had to shake my head a bit and stretch out my neck which received the blunt of the jolt. I ended up with a slight, slight headache and a slight bit of tension on the left side of my neck. Other than that, I was no worse for wear.
Once I assured Javid and Mahir I as fine, we headed for our last stop of the day … another church. This one was located across a bridge in a town adjacent to Sheki known as Kish. In order to reach the church, we had to leave the van at the bottom of the hill and hire a local driver to take us up the VERY narrow cobblestone road that wound around and around to the top of the hill. Once we reached the church, we were taken around the site by a lovely lady who spoke no English so Javid translated.
The Kish Caucasian Alabanian church aka the Church of Saint Elishe, dates to the 12th or 13th century, but I learned that the site has been occupied by worshippers since perhaps the Bronze Age. In fact, in the church courtyard, there is a glass enclosed viewing area where I was able to see excavations that revealed the wall and foundation of an ancient temple dating to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. In addition, there were bones of skeletal remains dating to the Middle Ages. What was particularly interesting is that the bones (as well as other skeletal remains found in the yard) evidenced that these people were VERY tall which had lead researchers to speculate that the Caucasian Albanians originated from the Scandinavian countries.
The inside of the non-operating church had been converted into something of a museum with findings from the excavations from the courtyard on display. There were numerous examples of pottery and jewelry found in the burial sites as well as the remains in a glass display of a goat that had been sacrificed. All in all, the church was a really fascinating place.
After the visit to the church, we walked across the little road to a tea house and drank some tea and ate more of Javid’s donut like pastries. In addition, we ate some walnuts that had been soaked and turned into some kind of candy like substance as well as a jam (yep straight jam) made from roses. They even put rose water in my tea (made it rather bitter).
By now, I was close to a sugar coma so we had the local driver take us back down the narrow road to the van. We then headed to my hotel in the main part of Sheki. After all the tea and sugar, I was ready for a nap.