As I found out, winter is not prime tourist season for Azerbaijan. While Baku maintains a relative warmth, the rest of the country, especially as you head north towards the Caucusus, retains a bitter cold, and many of the attractions I wanted to see were unavailable to me due to impassible roads. One attraction that I did manage to get to, however, was the town of Sheki in the fertile valleys of Azerbaijan’s north, near the Georgian border. The 7-hour bus ride was long and cold, not to mention lonely. It seems that the huge numbers of Azeri tourists who flee the oppressive heat of Baku in the summer flock to Sheki for its cooler climes, but I was one of the few crazy tourists who decided was heading up there now and the Azeris let me know it. “Why are you coming to Sheki?” One of the few bus patrons asked me, “I live here so I have to come, but you… ?” I told him I was a tourist and only had 2 weeks in Azerbaijan, so I wanted to see it. He shook his head, “But summer is so much better…” I am sure it is.
I rolled into the city just before dusk, which was a veritable ghost town, but a lovely one at that. The city is located in a small valley on the banks of two rivers, Gurnjanachai and the Kish. The surrounding mountains were lush, even in this cold, and the city, a small little maze of cobblestone streets and crumbling old shops, was enveloped in a thick mist that I was told lingers throughout most of the winter, when rain is the norm. Combined with the nearly empty streets, the mist gave the city an eerie beauty.
I had read about the various accommodations available in Sheki, and everyone seemed to indicate that the Caravansaray Hotel was the best bet. It was a hotel set in a converted caravansaray from the 18th century. According to the guidebook, the hotel was in the $50 range and reservations were almost always necessary. Walking through the desolate streets, though, I had the feeling that the hotel wasn’t going to be full and that I could probably get a discount. When I arrived at the hotel, I pushed my way through the large wooden doors of the entrance and found myself in a cavernous reception area. Inside was no warmer than out, and the place seemed dead. Eventually the receptionist appeared, and I asked him about a room. He thought for a bit and then told me $40. I gave him a look like it was a little expensive. He said he could do $30. I told him $20; we agreed on $25. It turned out to be a steal.
The hotel is a fantastic old caravansaray with a large courtyard and rooms on two tiers surrounding the courtyard. My room was a beautiful stone room with a large living room covered in carpets and with a wood stove. Attached to the living room was a bedroom and a bath with hot water. The room had no heat, and the receptionist directed me to a pile of wood on the floor. It was fantastic. The quiet, the stove, the carpets... all of it gave me the wonderful feeling of being in a weary medieval traveler at an actual caravansaray.
As for sights in Sheki, the major one is the Khan’s Palace, a lovely 18th-century palace with a striking stained-glass facade. Guided tours of the palace are mandatory, as is putting little booties over your shoes. When I was there, none of the guide spoke English and thus conducted the tour in Azeri. She explained the rooms, most of which were elaborately decorated, and then, when it was finished, directed me to their gift shop full of local crafts. I didn’t buy anything, but there was plenty worth a purchase. Sheki has been known for centuries for its fabulous silk, and there are many local shops on the road near the Caravansaray, where artisans still handmake silk, most of which is exquisite. The other famous local product is their helva, a confection sold all over the Middle East and Caucusus, but Sheki has some of the best. It’s not too sweet, a major problem with most helva, and comes in various flavors.