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A Sheki introduction to rural Azerbaijan

Sheki, when written in Azeri, has a squiggle under the s and the e appears back to front, the only letter that differs from those that we are used to. As a measure of its independence Azerbaijan dumped both the Arabic and Cyrillic scripts that were imposed by the regimes of the day and implemented a far more sensible, traveller-friendly Latin alphabet. A blessing indeed compared to Georgia and Armenia, both of whom have invented unique and complicated writing systems to complement their unique and complicated languages. I could live with an e being the wrong way round.

Not only was it easy to say, Sheki was easy to like. The orderly town with smart streets and tidy shops came up with a sparkling modern hotel right on its central square and within three hours of my leaving a primitive mountain village I was poured out of a limo and into the lobby of a luxury four star establishment. How very embarrassing, this isn’t really how an explorer is supposed to behave is it?

The view from my private balcony (yes, I even had a fucking balcony!) was of mountains in all directions with billions of rust coloured trees glowing in the afternoon sunshine and snow sitting atop the peaks like icing on a cake. Nature doesn’t get much better than that and rarely does an alphabet traveller feel so overwhelmingly chuffed with his morning’s work.

The square was a large shady affair where men in their hundreds gathered around to drink tea and play backgammon under the trees. Most wore jackets and some form of headgear, most smoked, none brought their wives. It was a far cry from the cosmopolitan cafés of Baku.

“That’s how it is” confirmed Ilhama, an intriguing lady whose life story came my way the following day.

She had married and bred, fulfilling her obligation as a female, but now in her thirties had been determined to learn English and, much to the consternation of the local folk, had even had the audacity to learn to drive. This in a society where men do men things and women do women things and God forbid anybody who meddles with, or so much as questions, the system. Ilhama was a feisty renegade, and proud of it.

Her job was that of tour guide at the gorgeous little church up in the mountain village of Kish. As always the countryside had quickly lured me from the town and the cute little building with its dome shaped roof and pretty gardens had turned out to be the star attraction. Ilhama explained that the site had been a place of worship dating back to the first century – proof that the Caucasus was where Christianity had first begun – and that this temple had been painstakingly reconstructed as recently as the year 2000. In Azerbaijan the religion has long since been replaced by Islam but the church, now a museum, will always be preserved as a national treasure and all thanks to a Norwegian gentleman name of Thor Heyerdhal.
Church, Caucasus, Azerbaijan

Yes, it’s the same incredible man that sailed the Kon-Tiki raft across the Pacific way back in 1947. Thor visited Azerbaijan frequently in the last twenty years of his life (he died in 2002, aged 87) and was convinced by the rock carvings he’d studied, particularly those of ships, that his countrymen originated from an ancient people of these parts who eventually moved north to populate what is now Scandinavia. Hence the funding, the international co-operation, the restoration, and the reason Ilhama has her job to this day.

She was engaging company and determined that I should sample the nearby restaurant for lunch and stay in the local guest house the next time I visit. It then became evident they were one and the same, it was the house opposite the entrance to the church not thirty metres from where we were sitting. Her house, in fact.

We struck a deal whereby I would go for a long walk while she prepared the food and I returned as agreed two hours later a very happy old Hector. She showed me to one of several tables amidst the flowers and the fruit trees of her courtyard and I sat contentedly in the sunshine admiring my newly acquired photos. Shot after shot of the orchards creeping up the mountainside, the fresh snow on the peaks (so much closer now) against the rich blue sky, the Japanese style houses with pyramid roofs, old ladies in country costume bent double as they walked along the cobbled lanes, the ubiquitous water spouts jutting out through the walls. It could indeed have been rural Japan I now decided and for somebody who barely knew which way up to hold the camera the pictures looked like a work of art. Should I apply for a job with National Geographic Magazine?

A large, ornate teapot was placed before me together with an 8-man portion of mashed potatoes and parsley, freshly picked tomatoes, hot bread (that looked like flying saucers) and home-made blackberry and whitecherry jam. The sun was warm now and the only sound was that of the insects hovering around the flowers. It could not have been a more idyllic setting. And then they arrived.

Now I have nothing at all against American folk, they are amongst the friendliest people in the world but what a terrible shame that the power and energy of their voices can’t be harnessed to provide a defence against tsunamis or to counter the threat of nuclear attack. The Peace Corps and their family took up camp in one corner and I found a pretext to move to the furthest point away but it really made no difference in an area so small. Every word came my way, though one in three was actually the same. If only they could avoid using the world “like” (pronounced lake) all sentences would be thirty percent shorter and a 100 minute, 100 watt mega-drone could be over and done with in little over an hour. Better still, why not dedicate Tuesdays and Fridays as “lake” days and then have five days off for normal conversation? What really concerns Grumpy Old Man is that the annoying habit is moving like a hurricane across the Atlantic and is already on the verge of wiping out what is left of British civilisation.

So where was I? Having eaten as much as my body needed and then, all too predictably, the same amount again I took out my wallet and went in search of Ilhama. She was chatting in the kitchen with her staff, a couple of jolly ladies who spoke no English but nonetheless were eager for me to sit and have a natter. My chance to get a female perspective of a woman’s life in Azerbaijan.

The picture they painted was an all too familiar one wherein the sum of their experiences involved little more than the drudgery of basic family survival. But did they have any sort of social life at all? Had they ever had boyfriends before they got married? These were completely alien concepts in the rural life of Azerbaijan and how they laughed their heads off on hearing stories of our promiscuous European world. Could they really be expected to formulate an image of a girls’ night on the toon in Newcastle?

I was invited to make a donation as opposed to being billed for lunch, a nice touch by my hostess whose trusting approach would win her lots of friends and no doubt more money than she would ever have the nerve to charge. The enterprising lady did however stipulate a fixed 5 Manat fare for a taxi back down to Sheki, a service she could now perform herself having recently passed her test.

A few heads turned on seeing a lady at the helm of the Lada, a situation no doubt made even more gossipworthy with a lone foreign man as her passenger. But Ilhama was too busy concentrating to notice, her eyes staring wildly and tiny hands nervously pushing the steering wheel back and forth to negotiate the steep, twisting road.

“I’ve only driven down to town a few times and am really quite scared” she eventually confided.

Then a pause as we both wondered what best to say next.

“But it will be OK”, she finally added. “It will be OK”.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from or

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock (and isn’t necessarily the right one).

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