Continuing the October 2019 tour in the Caucuses…..
Baku to Sheki, Azerbaijan
Sheki is a picturesque town situated on the Ancient Silk Road 300km north west of Baku. The town is surrounded by rolling hills and is home to fabulous Summer & Winter Palaces, an amazing caravanserai and a nearby ancient Albanian church. More of those later.
Our Trip to Sheki (Şäki)
Regular readers will know that I absolutely love an overnight train trip. How about two in 24-hours costing about a tenner each? Yes please!
The train left dead on time and of course we had no border controls to worry about this time. As is the norm we were handed a sealed plastic bag containing two sheets, a pillow case and a small towel.
As it was late, there was just time to make our single beds up, have a quick wash and set the alarms for 06.45.
We awoke in the countryside and were to arrive precisely on schedule at Sheki station. Time to take a few photos before spying the welcome sign of our taxi driver. There is something very special about having your name held up on a board in a remote setting!
Our wheels were a very ancient lada in serious need of repair. Oh well, when in Rome…..
The roads were little more than a dirt track to start with, a track with several deep potholes at that, which our driver expertly avoided. “This might be fun when we go back in the pitch black”, I thought out loud. That was for another time though.
We were waved down by a chap in full uniform just minutes after the off. Oh gosh, what misdemeanour had we committed? Not to worry, it was just a squaddie needing a lift into town.
It took us about 30-minutes to reach our hotel and at eight o’clock we were too early to check-in, but could have breakfast if we wanted to pay 15 manat each.
We decided to go into town to try and find an alternative. I don’t know what we expected, a Starbucks maybe? Unsurprisingly we didn’t find anywhere suitable, despite a thorough search.
We did find one place open, but dirty plastic tablecloths and a dusty floor were not good for the appetite. The menu pictures all indicated a greasy meaty meal anyway, so we backtracked pretty quickly.
We were soon eating humble pie at our hotel, together with a pretty fine breakfast containing home made jams, several gorgeous cheeses and scrambled egg. We lingered for two hours, drinking coffee and speaking to the restaurant manager, a very personable chap who had the dream of opening an Azeri restaurant in Europe or the US.
Our cunning plan paid off and we were able to check in around 11. A shower and change of clothes, bliss!
Sheki is a delightful small town on the Silk Route surrounded by hills with a stream running through it. Its speciality is sweet shops with a dozen or so lining both sides of the laid back street that was the thoroughfare towards Sheki’s sights. Sweets and barbers I should say as there seemed to be more than a fair share of those. Sheki residents clearly had a sweet tooth and a desire to be well groomed at all times.
We were soon followed by a very friendly stray dog who was to wait for us wherever we went, waiting outside until our visits were over. She was well rewarded for her company with some dog food we purchased along the way.
Sheki Winter Palace
Sheki Khans’ Winter Palace was built in 1762 by Huseyn khan and sits in a secluded garden off the main drag.
We had the place to ourselves, aside from the chain-smoking guide who paced up and down outside.
The palace windows are amazing examples of the ancient art of ‘shebeke’ – wooden lattices filled with stained glass and put together without glue or nails.
Although there are a few rooms up a wooden staircase, only one is open to the public. As well as the stunning windows, the wooden panels are all painted with animals, country scenes, royalty and strangely fruit. The ceiling is also not to be outdone by sporting cherubs and fine artwork.
The Sheki Caravanserai
Not far from the palace stands an amazingly well preserved caravanserai, once a stopping off point on the Ancient Silk Route and now a hotel & restaurant.
We had a mint tea whilst taking in the view. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the place crammed with traders, buying & selling luxurious wares and feasting whilst their camels took a well-earned rest from their transportation duties.
The Sheki Summer Palace
Built in 1752-1762 as the summer residence of Hussein-khan Mushtad, grandson of the great Gadzhi Chelebi, the glorious two-storied palace features a magnificent interior and exterior.
Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside, though in truth it was very similar to the Winter Palace, just on a far larger scale. Eagle-eyed guards and CCTV made even a surreptitious picture impossible.
Just outside the palace there is a workshop and shop featuring the bizarre and the beautiful.
Albanian Church, Kish (Kiş)
On day two we awoke to lovely sunshine in contrast to the previous day.
We decided to take a bus a couple of miles to the village of Kish. The church though plain was fantastically peaceful, allowing us a good hour of relaxing contemplation.
The Albania Caucasian Church (nothing at all to do with Albania in Central Europe) was built in the 12th or 13th Century, but is no longer used for worship.
That was until a party of local school children shattered our peace!
Azerbaijan will feature in a future book I will be writing about my train travels in the former Soviet Union.
The first book in the series covering train travels in the Balkans is already out and available on Amazon
The Train Practicalities
There is a daily overnight train leaving Baku at 23.20, destination of Balakan, arriving at Sheki at 07.10.
The train station is actually 17 km from the town centre so it is wise to book a taxi as we did via your hotel to get into town. We stayed at the excellent Minali Boutique Hotel for one night and they sorted a ride for us costing 20 Manat (£10). There is a bus, but times are sporadic so best not to chance it.
We paid 20 Manat (£10) each for a kupe/first class compartment sleeping two, making the outbound & return bookings when we arrived in Baku from Tbilisi. £20 for return overnight train trips, what a bargain!
There are standard Soviet style carriages with a samovar providing hot water for drinks, but no dining car. Comfortable as ever and nice clean sheets.
The locomotive that pulled us was an absolute beauty as you can see below.
We stayed one night and caught the sleeper back next night, leaving Sheki at 23.20 and arriving at Baku at 07.10 next day in a nice mirror trip of the journey out. You could easily make the trip therefore without an overnight stay in Sheki if you fancied back-to-back overnight trains.
Whilst on the subject of Azerbaijan trains, the entire timetable is displayed in English on an electronic board at Baku Station.
It is now also possible to do a day trip to the second city of Ganja from Baku, leaving the capital at 08.00 arriving 12.15 and then returning at 18.00 to be back in Baku for 22.15. It follows much of the Baku to Tbilisi overnight route, giving the chance to admire the scenery during the daytime.
There is a modern metro that takes you two stops from the station (called 28 May) to the old town station of İçərişəhər, close to the Shirvanshah Palace. A single journey costs about 40 pence.