Home Sweet Home in Azerbaijan

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October 16th 2014
Published: October 16th 2014
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Hand washing in Sheki home stayHand washing in Sheki home stayHand washing in Sheki home stay

Loo is in background down the garden
Baku October 9, 2014

We arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, on this special day, Ian's birthday, having had four nights in home stays. We have a complete private apartment which is a bit of luxury after sharing people's homes.

I have really enjoyed the home stays. They are definitely harder work and to a large extent you have accept what is there when it appears.

Our first stop was in Sheki (Saki, Seki). We had made contact with Ilqar Agayev (ilqaragayev77@hotmail.com) from his Lonely Planet references. We took a taxi to his street and before we had hardly disembarked a gentlemen had grabbed our bags and was taking us to his house. From his doorstep we phoned to Ilqar and he explained that he had put us with this gentlemen as his guests with a small child had stayed on. He would come and see us the following day.

So we found ourselves guests of Zea (66) and Shanaz (59). They were an absolutely super couple and made us feel very welcome. He was a carpenter and she was an elementary school teacher. The Western loo was down the garden.
Butcher in Sheki marketButcher in Sheki marketButcher in Sheki market

I just loved the simplicity of the butcher's block
We had a spacious room with two single beds.

You entered the house via the garden. The porch was dominated by an open water cistern which provided cold water to a tap outside the entrance door. It was important to remove shoes before entering the house.

Shanaz cooked us a lovely meal of soup and potato and chicken casserole when we arrived. They offered us to wash but we were not sure where. Tea (cay) was basically on tap.

Neither Zea nor Shanaz spoke any English and we spoke no Russian or Azeri. They had an Azeri phrase book and we had a Russian one. So we spent the two days conversing with these and an elaborate game of trilingual Pictionary. They had two daughters who were married and living in Sheki. Shanaz had a sister who was a Maths teacher and she came round a couple of times to help with the conversation.

By the second evening we had understood the washing procedure. Basically Zea had built a Hamam down the garden in the opposite corner to the loo. It had two gas burners - one to heat the air and the other to heat the water. It was the size of a small bathroom and Jane and I could wash together in clean if basic surroundings. Once you had dried you just had to walk up the garden to bed. Not really a problem as the weather was mild.

Home stays help them as their pension (after 42 years of work as Zea emphasised) was around £100 per month.

Our first job in Sheki was to get registered (if you don't it is a 300 euro fine when you leave the country). We also discovered it was Ilqar's responsibility to make sure we registered. It is purely bureaucracy as we already had visas. Getting there Ilqar was able to give a lesson on the local buses which cost a flat 0.2 manat per person per ride (£0.15). We went to a local 'migration' office signed some forms, got some stamps and a slip of paper and paid 6 manats each. Now we were free to start looking about.

We began at the bazaar, always one of our favourite places. Jane was looking for warmer foot ware. There
The 'Albanian' church in Kish near ShekiThe 'Albanian' church in Kish near ShekiThe 'Albanian' church in Kish near Sheki

The chapel goes back to circa 4/5 century
were lots of shoes and she was average size! Still the right pair did not appear. She did find black thermal tights and rabbit hair socks to keep her warm as the temperature is starting to drop. There were also minivans full of white cabbages and live turkeys, ducks, rabbits and chickens amongst the chaos. I loved the butcher's block made from a tree truck and propped up with three 4x2 nailed in its side. We tried the local Sheki Helva (actually a variation on baklava): it had a shredded pastry top and bottom sandwiching a sweet nut paste. To be honest we find the Greek version hard to beat.

We then 'flew solo' on the local buses to get Kish a nearby village further up in the mountains. In the second one I had to stand and was bent double because the ceiling was so low. Kish had a super little museum based around an 'Albanian' church. This is not to be confused with the Albania in the Balkans. There was an ancient so called 'Albanian' culture than lived on the Southern edge of the Caucasus which was one of the first to convert to Christianity. It persisted for many centuries and invasions. It was reduced to a few villages following the last few Persian/Islamic invasions and died out finally in the mid 1800's. The tombs and archaeology were tastefully displayed thanks in part due to sponsorship by the Norwegians.

We had a late lunch back in Sheki and I was able to sample Piti. This is a lamb stew/broth cooked in an earthen ware pot and topped with a slab of lamb fat. I followed the Lonely Planet instructions: pour out the liquid first as a soup with bread. Next pour out the solid bits including the fat and mash them all up. It was very tasty.

We walked off some of the calories getting to Han Sarayi, the Khan's Palace, at the top of Sheki town. Effectively there is one admin block left from the original palace. We opted not to pay for an English guide. In the end a fellow visitor from Baku translated what the guide was saying in Azeri which was perfectly adequate. The palace was an impressive piece of Islamic art with intricately painted walls. The windows we geometric stain glass (Shebeke). After the palace tour we went to the workshop where the Shebeke was made and were shown round by the 'Shebeke Master', Rasulov Tofig (shekishebeke@box.az). He was third generation and his son will take over the business. They showed us how it was made with no nails or glue. The edging is all in beech and it really is very attractive.

Our destination the next morning was Lahich (Lahic) further along the Caucasus range and higher in the mountains. We successfully negotiated the local bus to the Sheki bus station and in a short while were on the Baku destined marshrutka. It was a wet day so good for travel. We had to get off at Ismailli to get the minibus into the mountains. Luckily I realised thanks to the GPS that the driver was just carrying on through the town. We were put out in the pouring rain and had to walk to the Ismailli bus station 400m back. Our pack maks and rucksack shower covers paid dividends.

We had got to the Lahich marshrutka early thankfully. Our packs were stacked at the front and by the time we set of the bus was full until more people got on. As the minibus started to whine its way up the valley the road got narrower and the sides got more shear. Jane closed her eyes as we went to the edge, in every sense, to get round a large band of sheep and cattle and herders on horse back. 5 km short of Lahich the road became a dirt track. The next challenge was an uncleared recent rockfall. Again I noticed Jane bury her face in my shoulder.

We had made contact with Dadash Aliyev (dadashaliyev@yahoo.com; Tel 0506777517) through Ilqar who had recommended him. He also had been highlighted in the Lonely Planet. He met us off the marshrutka and we walked and then got a lift up to his house to avoid the rain. He, like Ilqar, spoke good English. He was a school teacher (Azeri and Russian) as was his wife (elementary).

His house was warm and this time had an inside loo and bathroom. The latter like in Sheki was styled as a big wet room with a gas burner in the corner. The weather has turned autumnal and we were glad for the blankets they
Coppersmith in LahichCoppersmith in LahichCoppersmith in Lahich

Note new bangle on my wrist

They gave a large room with two single beds and a large table. Again we had excellent home cooked evening meals as well as breakfast. They were just a bit younger than us. Their daughter and grandson lived in Baku and their son was now working in Ankara having studied there.

I had thought that Lahich was a small village and it turned out to be a sizeable town and key local centre for other smaller mountain villages with 1500 to 3000 inhabitants depending on the season. Most of the roads were paved with flat river stone blocks - I always imagined that this was how Roman roads looked. There was no tarmac. The final parts of the village were not paved. There were many new, some very big, houses built by Lahichians who had made their fortune in Baku. Transport is by Range Rover (top end) to horse (bottom end) with everything in between. On several occasions we passed cattle in the high street.

The Lahichians are a unique group. They came from Persian in the distant past and brought with them metal working skills. The local unwritten dialect is based on Farsee and they all speak Azeri and Russian too. There is clearly a strong community and whilst most seem to go to Baku or beyond for work the capital is close enough that they come back at weekends with friends and family at least in the summer.

We had a happy morning wandering around the town. I bought a silver plated copper bangle from Ilqar who was busily making copper water jugs. We had nice dolma (lamb stuffed cabbage leaves) in the only restaurant in town which was otherwise full of men drinking tea and playing dominos.

The weather had improved and in the afternoon we set off up the Kisi valley just below the town. This had some brilliant strata and its beauty was enhanced by the trees just gaining their autumn colours. It was very muddy and very steep in places and in the end we ran out of time before we got to the high sheep pastures.

That evening after dinner we spent time helping Dadash create his AirBnB profile. It was not completed and we hope he has time to finish it before the next season.

We can thoroughly recommend both Ilqar's and Dadash's services. They are members of the community based tourism group within Azerbaijan and give you a unique experience you can not find in commercial accommodation. They are unbelievably helpful and no request seems too much.

Too soon it was time to head for Baku. There is a single minibus that leaves Lahich once a day at 8am. I bagged a front seat by the driver and the views did not let me down. I sat next to Murat, a twenty one year old Lahichian, who was on a long trip (32 hours by bus from Baku) back to Ankara where he was at military college. Apparently the Azeris send a contingent of officer cadets every year. He will be there for four years, has learnt English and is learning Russian - a very impressive young lad.

The big city awaited with the benefits of having our own apartment. It was just amasing how big the contrasts were in Baku from staying with country folk......but that is for another blog.


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