(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة
Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”
We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”
The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.
Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.
But our fear was their curiosity, and we were far too hungry to leave. We ate, and they watched us eat, soon saying their goodbyes and heading off. When preparing for the worst case precludes the best case, a traveler must choose. To lose: some money, maybe a finger if the gang has a flare for the dramatic. To gain: vital meats, cheeses and soup. We took a middle path.
On the road more and more blistered with potholes, towns grew farther apart. We cut through pitch black, surrounded on both sides by a great question mark — was it water? Fires of uncertain size burned unattended, spooky and totally unexplained. Soon, pedestrians gave short directions when we asked for Sheki — without laughing in shock, as they had, at the distance we had left to cover.
We had two turns left to make. The road sloped up, street lamps sprung up on the roadside, and we were there — of course, without a place to stay. With only seven hours before we hoped to take off, we looked first to convince the concierge of the five-star (as rated by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Tourism) Sheki Saray Hotel to let us sleep on the cheap. No go.
“Is there anywhere less pricy?” I asked.
“Try down the road.”
It was no ordinary down-the-road late night accommodation. But take heed, for what comes next both invites and spoils the certain delight for which it is nearly the only sign. To know of this wonder of Sheki, a famous town along the Silk Road, — to seek it out on purpose — is to never quite experience it in full. There’s the rub. And here it is:
The Sheki Caravanserai is perched atop a hill lit by streetlight, and marked only by a lamppost with lettering in silhouette. At midnight, the vast shadow of the building
is a dark mass, heavy and drawing you toward the slimmer of light around a small door cut in the massive wooden gate. A heavy knocker. An immense domed stone foyer. Rooms for 20 bucks. And, as in the grand caravanserais of old, there was wi fi.
We parked out front like so many centuries of silk merchants, to spend the night by the fire (now electric heaters) and to give our ride (their camels, our Hyundai) a rest. No hostel bookers, just a light outside and a gatekeeper at the ready, opening the door with a glint in his eye: Of course we have room.
For one quarter the price of that fancy hotel room, we found luxury in age old digs — dozens and dozens of rooms along a beautiful courtyard tucked into the mountainside, heavy blankets, and the warmth that comes from finding the very best of something. Total relief: this was hands down the single greatest place to spend the night in northwestern Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمس: مفقود وموجود
More pictures from Azerbaijan here: