JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH SABINA YADULLAYEVA FROM SHEKI, AZERBAIJAN !
Originally from Baku, Sabina now lives and works in Sheki. She spent two years studying in Italy and has traveled twenty-one states, most of which are European countries. Out of work hours she is usually busy with travelling inside and outside of Azerbaijan. She is quite interested in learning guitar and loves exploring old stuff: old books, old houses, old music, outdated back streets, ethnographic items.
Azerbaijan is a country situated in southwestern Asia with the Great Caucasus Mountains to the north. It is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Icheri-Sheher, the walled city that once housed the entire population of Baku; Gobustan, home to hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs depicting ancient life and the latest inclusion is the historic Centre of Sheki with the Khan’s Palace.
Azerbaijan has welcomed the Silk Roads merchants and travellers from across land and sea, connecting Central Asia with Anatolia, the Black Sea and the west. Sheki is a a significant city at the crossroads of the historic Silk Roads, located in northwestern Azerbaijan on the foothill of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. It is the eighth largest city of Azerbaijan.
Sheki used to be a part of Caucasian Albania in the first century, after which it was invaded repeatedly, leading finally to the settling down of Shakas in the seventh century. Sheki’s historic centre is characterised by architecture of houses with high gabled roof which were built after the destruction of an earlier town by mudflows in the 18th century. Its mosques and churches, cobbled alleys and cultural diversity will surely mesmerise you.
Azerbaijan has been slowly catching up on the travel scene. As a local, what do you think distinguishes your country from the rest of the world?
It has been really interesting for me to realise that our country is less famous among Western/ Asian nations though the people of my country are quite hospitable. It is a country in which you don’t get a radical feeling of being a foreigner, because Azerbaijan is composed of different ethnic compositions which means religiously diverse people live side by side speaking Azerbaijani. Also, if you can manage Azerbaijani, a little better than average level, it can be assumed that you understand Turkish, Northern Iranian, Turkmen, Tatar and a bit of Uzbek and Kazak languages too.
Surprisingly, there is a rich variety of natural landscape & climate types from the sea up to mountains although the country is small in terms of territory (86.6K sq.km). One day you see oil-drills around you in semi-desert or steppes, another day you can find yourself in a hiking tour in the Great Caucasus which rises up to a height of 4466 m above sea level.
As a person who traveled to 21 states, I feel ‘Baku is the metropolis where the West meets with the East‘. It might sound monotonous, but in Baku you can find churches and mosques in vicinity, you can simultaneously feel oriental tastes and mentality while you’re surrounded with European manners and appearances in the environment. Last but not the least, Azerbaijan is home to the collection of about 350 mud volcanoes which ranks its name in the top of the world list of the mud volcanoes.
When would you say is the best time to visit it?
Best time to visit Azerbaijan is April-May, September-October. Summer is hot, winter is cold, depending on the climate of the city you are in, it can be rainy or freezing in winter mostly in mountainous towns.
What according to you are the best ways to reach Sheki considering most travelers land in the capital, Baku? Would you recommend renting a car in Azerbaijan for easy travel?
Sheki is 4.5 hours away from the capital Baku by car, in the northwest direction of the country.
Renting a car is possible and there are several car-rent agencies here, CarHireBaku and BakuRentACar to name a few. However, public transport in Baku city and overall the country is quite well-arranged and cheaper comparison to Europe.
- You can take a shared-taxi from Baku which is similar to Bla-bla car operation.
- Get a coach and minibus from Bus terminal (Autovagzal) of Baku which takes approximately 5hrs. Tickets are available online here or on spot.
- Hop on night train from Baku which takes 7hrs. But, while taxis and buses bring you to the center of the city, train station of Sheki is far away from the city center which means you need to take another taxi to come to the city after train arrives in Sheki rayon. For now (2020), there is no organized shuttle bus bringing train passengers to the city center.
There are also secondary international airports in Gabala, Ganja cities which are 2.5 hrs away from Sheki. The airports in Gabala and Ganja are connected with Sheki only with taxis and minibuses that can be taken from the center.
What are the must visit places in Sheki?
Khan’s palace (Xan sarayı) – Inside of the castle walls of Sheki there are several historical structures, but the most important one is Khan’s palace which was an administrative building of the local khan (king) of XVIII century. Palace was built in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in the shade of 500-years old plane trees. Palace museum offers multilingual guided tours for 10 AZN while entrance fee is just 5 AZN. Additionally, French traveler Alexander Dumas (father) traveled in Sheki in 1859 and admired this palace. He glorified the palace in his book “Voyage to the Caucasus”.
On the internet, mistakenly Winter and Summer palaces became famous, but after research, it became known that a building called as the ‘Winter palace’ is not actually a palace. It is just a house of Shekikhanovs which means a house that belonged to Khan’s family descendants. The relatives of khan lived here after the regime changed.
Karvansaray (caravanserai)– In 2019 summer, historical center of Sheki was subscribed in the World Heritage List of the UNESCO including Karvansaray and Khan’s palace. Caravanserais were used to function as a hotel in the past in the East. Sheki was a part of the historical silk route and caravanserais were key feature of old trading hubs like Sheki. Upper Caravanserai was built to accommodate traders and travelers, their goods and animals. Nowadays it is open to travelers as a budget hotel including teahouse and restaurant serving in its green garden.
Kish temple- Caucasian Albanian church in the picturesque village Kish. Dating to 1 AD, this is thought to be the first church in the Caucasus, and archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a cultic site existing here as early as 3,000 BC! The church now functions primarily as a museum to Caucasian Albania, featuring Bronze Age ceramics discovered during recent excavations as well as glass-covered vaults revealing ancient graves with two-metre long skeletons. Near the entrance is a bust of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, a pioneer of research into Caucasian Albania and ancient links between Azerbaijan and Norway.
We highly recommend you enjoy Azerbaijani tea accompanied by local homemade rose or walnut preserve at the teahouse next to the temple.
How To Reach : To reach from Sheki to Kish via public transport, you will have to catch a marshrutka (shared taxi) number 15 going north. Frequency is every twenty minutes.
What are the best day trips (a few hour drive away) for nature, culture and history from Sheki ?
You can hike to Gelersen-Gorersen castle ruins in Kish village. Kish is the start of a 10 or 12-kilometre hike or drive to the ruins of a wonderfully named fortress : Gelersen, Gorersen (If You Come, You’ll See), which lie along a mountain ridge covered by thick forest offering stunning views over the Kish river valley. Thought to have been built in the 15th century, its name is linked to a legendary episode in Sheki’s history when a local nobleman, Chalabi Khan, led a rebellion against Persian rule in 1743. Castle belonged to local king-khan, but it became famous after Nadir shah’s visit to Sheki because he couldnot climb to this fortress.
Second option to discover in the region is to drive to the next districts – panoramic mountainous villages of Gakh- Ilisu and Lekit.
Ilisu and Lekit settlements are famous for its waterfalls, local dough-made cuisine, cool and green mountainous climate even in summer encircled by the Greater Caucasus.
Surrounded by towering mountains, Lekit has a history of roughly 2,000 years. The village is famous for harbouring remnants of a complex of seven churches dating back to Caucasian Albania, as well as the enchanting, moss covered Mamirli Waterfall, both of which can be reached by a moderately difficult hike from the village. In addition, Honey House at the entrance of the village offers delicious local honey products and unique tasting experiences.
To note, Sheki is 2hrs away from the border check point between Georgia and Azerbaijan which means you can easily cross the border to continue your travel to Kakhetia region of neighbor country.
Are there any events or festivals in Sheki/Azerbaijan around which tourists should plan their holiday to feel the local culture?
Every year Sheki hosts International Silk Road music festival in the late June and early July since 2010. Due to pandemic-quarantine regime, in 2020 it was cancelled. It is a festival of classical and ethnical music and performances. So far performers and musicians from Turkey, Indonesia, Japan, Uzbekistan, China, Georgia, Bulgaria, Iran performed in the historical & natural stages of Sheki in summer. Usually, musical events of this festival used to be free-of charge or with invitation. No idea about the next years.
Novruz spring holiday is celebrated in Sheki as well as throughout the country. It is the oldest traditional common holiday of Azerbaijanis which symbolizes the arrival of spring in our souls, minds and bodies. While preparations start at homes before the spring season arrives in the country, but main public festivities – musical performances, dances, exhibitions, bonfire gatherings are held in city centers between 19-21 March depending on weather conditions outside.
Please give us an insight into Azerbaijani cuisine and local specialities of Sheki. Which are the popular places to try them?
Azerbaijani cuisine is mainly concentrated on meat dishes, but it does not mean that we don’t have veggies. Main dishes are plov-rice with several garnirs, sorts of shish-kebab, dumplings, other meals based on egg and vegetables. Sheki is famous for piti, dobu-dolma, sweet halva.
Dolma, whose traditions of making and sharing are inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list. Dolma is made from tender grape leaves deliciously filled with ground meat, onion, rice, herbs and served with yogurt with garlic. Sheki dolma is particularly wonderful thanks to the local tradition of cooking it in a clay dopu pot.
Piti is kind of soup for the cold or chilly seasons. Chickpeas, chestnuts, meat, onion, saffron and local spices pack the dish with flavour, but the key element lies in the earthenware pots in which piti is cooked and served. What’s more, this is actually two dishes in one: first you pour the broth into a separate bowl and enjoy it as a soup starter, then you pour in the rest for the main course – ingenious!
Halva is Sheki pakhlava made of layers of ground rice flour. Layers are filled with milled nuts, gulab-rose-scented water, sugar and syrup, decorated with saffron on the top.
Recommended places for trying piti and dolma are Gagarin restaurant, restaurant of Karvansaray hotel, Cennet bagi, VIP Karvan restaurant. The afore-mentioned places are the spots where I usually take my guests in Sheki. There are several traditional halva shops such as Yahya halva, Aliahmad halva, Azizoglu, Aliovsat halva are recommended in the city center for buying packages of halva and other local sweets.
Any suggestions on where to stay in Sheki?
The range of accommodations in Sheki is wide varying from the hostels to 5- star luxury hotels. If you are a budget traveler, Central hostel, Canal hostel and many guesthouses offer to stay for 10-15 azn per night. But if you wish to relax in the hotel with Spa treats, Markhal resort complex is highly recommended which is environed with Caucasus mountains. In case if you are a visitor for business mission, then, Sheki Palace and Sheki Saray hotels in the city center can also be advised.
What local crafts and souvenirs can one learn to make or collect from Sheki? Are there any popular weekend/night/flea markets in Sheki which tourists must visit?
Sheki is the city of the Craftsmen. It was the first Azerbaijani city to be included in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network (in the category “Crafts and Folk Art”). There is Craftsmen House in Sheki inside the Castle walls where you can buy or participate in making of wooden souvenirs, art painting, embroidery textiles and portraits, mock or original music instruments as well as silk scarves and accessories made out of silk on the second floor.
Here are a few great ways to get creative in Sheki:
Tar performance masterclasses in the workshop where you can make your own souvenir out of wooden or learn how to play tar –a traditional musical instrument by a local master.
Shebeke masterclass is an art of creating stunning mosaics from wooden network fitted with thousands of tiny pieces of colourful glass and held together without glue or nails. Commonly applied to windows, doors and other architectural ornaments. The centuries-old art is still practised by some Sheki craftsmen. Several of them offer masterclasses in the Sheki Fortress: one works in the shebeke workshop near the Khan’s Palace, while the others work in the House of Craftsmen.
Harking back to the days of the Silk Road, kelaghayi are exquisite women’s silk head scarves unique to Azerbaijan whose patterns are made using the batik hot wax technique. Formerly famous for its silk industry, Sheki is a great place to learn about the art of kelaghayi-making, which is inscribed on the UNESCO’s intangible heritage list.
Travellers can see and buy them in the kelaghayi shop on Akhundzade Avenue nearby Karvansaray hotel, or at the Sheki Silk Factory store. It is also possible to observe the dying and decorating process at the workshop of one local craftsman on Rasulzade Street and you can participate in making your own scarf in this atelier.
Would you suggest any shows in Sheki to drama, music or art lovers? Also, please tell us about Azerbaijan’s creative scene and where to hunt for the coolest of murals?
Sheki city has Drama theater performing spectacles in Azerbaijani but usually live music evenings are held in the most famous restaurants of Sheki like VIP Karvan restaurant, Old Town boutique hotel, and other outdoor restaurants on the banks of Kish river in summer. Performing arts can usually be seen during the festivals.
For the people wishing to hunt for the artistic murals in Sheki, I would suggest Soviet mosaics on the walls in few parks or streets of the town. Nevertheless, instead of murals, I would also suggest visitors to observe old doors in the old quarters which are mainly made of wood or iron which you can see from the pictures. Old quarters are the areas where Gilehli minaret, Fortress walls, Khan’s house, mosque, Sabit Rahman’s house museum are located.
Which are the most popular hiking trails around Sheki?
Three hiking trails are known among international and local trekkers:
- Kish village – Gelersen gorersen fortress ruins ;
- Yukhari bash district (historical quarter of the city) to Khan’s pasture (2100m)
- Karvansaray – Malyatan and Gullutapa hills –– “War memorial statue”
Any list of do’s and don’t’s in Azerbaijan that one should respect and follow? As a local would you give any suggestion/tip to tourists coming to your city?
- Kiss on a cheek of a person who was just newly introduced. We usually take hands to shake, or simply nod heads and smile.
- Showing affection – kissing passionately in the public places full of people are not well–accepted, especially in the regional districts.
- Entering houses, flats with shoes. You need to take them off at the entrance unless it is allowed by a host.
- We usually call the elder people with their titles : uncle Ali, granny. Or, in case of not knowing each-other closely yet, “khanim” for ladies – For eg. I would be called Sabina khanim (no matter of the marital status), “bey”- Ali bey, for example, for the men are recommended to use. Calling an older person with her/his name is odd though from foreigners it is received without problem.
As a bonus, for the male travelers in the rural destinations, waiting for the man of the house to be at home to enter in a family-house is the sign of the respect and honor. Yeah, I know it sounds a bit patriarchal, but you will witness the great smile of all family members when you’re in their home sharing their table which is perhaps filled with the most delicious food and drinks prepared for you ☺
THINGS TO KNOW
|Geographical area||8,840 km2 (3,410 sq mi)|
|68.9 thousand (as of 1.1.2021 )|
To Reach Sheki : You first need to get to Baku. Baku has a very well established connection with Istanbul and Ankara so you can easily fly into the city via Turkish Airlines or Pegasus Airlines. Other Middle Eastern airlines like Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad Airlines are also a great option as well.
To Stay Connected : You can buy the local Azercell simcard from the Baku airport when you arrive. The price ranges depending on the amount of data you need.
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