Great fun to relay with permission the following email from author Laurence Mitchell. He's a photographer too, but since he's still out on the road, updating the Bradt Guide to Georgia, I'm augmenting his emailed remarks with photos from EarthPhotos.com. Here's Laurence:
I am writing this from the very splendid vaulted atrium of a converted caravanserai in Sheki, Azerbaijan. I don’t suppose the original camel merchants ever envisaged that their overnight lodgings would ever have Wi-Fi! It’s been converted into a hotel now – majestic surroundings although the rooms are rather austere, with even a touch of Midnight Express about them. I am informed that I have to relinquish my cheap room today as there is a big tour group arriving. Hard to imagine a tour group of any complexion coming to Azerbaijan but if you are going to visit anywhere other than Baku then I suppose Sheki might just be the place.
I arrived here yesterday after yet another long and exhausting journey but let’s first go back to Tomsk, which seems an age away now. Tomsk to Irkutsk required one whole day and two nights on a train but it was comfortable enough. I arrived at Irkutsk station at 1 am Moscow time, 6am local – it was very cold and still dark. I decided to head straight out to Lake Baikal and managed to get a marshrutka straight away. But it was even colder there, and by the time I had walked to my pre-booked homestay I was visibly shivering. Listvyanka, where I stayed, is a sort of low-scale Russian tourist resort but it was the end of the season and many places were either closed or thinking about doing so. Away from the coast road the village was really nice and rustic, with a pretty Siberian church and lots of typical wooden cottages that had cosmos and cabbages growing in the yard. A shame about all the noisy barking dogs. Fortunately, weather-wise, the next day was completely different – blue skies, sun but still pretty chilly – and I did a couple of good walks in the locale. Lake Baikal is big – very big (20% of world’s fresh water!) – but it is hard to get an impression of size when you are close up to it. Frozen solid for several months of the year, it certainly didn’t beckon me in for a bathe but, there again, I am pretty squeamish when it comes to cold water – and this IS cold.
From Irkutsk, it was an 18-hour back track to Krasnoyarsk as that is where I had booked my flight to Baku from. I had arranged to stay in the family apartment a local tour guide/political science lecturer/ wheeler-dealer called Anatoliy. He came to pick me up at the station and on the drive to his place he asked if I would not mind giving a talk that evening to an English language club he was associated with – just an hour or so (!!!). My default response of saying ‘no’ to everything seems to have turned on its head in Russia and I agreed (maybe because if someone says something to me in Russian that I do not understand I instinctively seem to say ‘da, da’ – a potentially dangerous thing). To sweeten the deal, Anatoliy took me out to show me his country dacha with its enormous cabbages. It’s tough in Siberia: in the few months of the years when it is not cold enough to freeze your gulags off there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably awfful mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Really, September is the best month to be out here when both are no longer a force to be reckoned with.
The ‘talk’ went OK; I tried to make it more of a Q & A session – I was so tired I was past caring. The next two days were spent in and around Krasnoyarsk in lovely autumnal weather, visiting a national park just outside the city that was packed with locals on a sunny Sunday. It helped me appreciate the fact that, whatever their attitude may be to the environment, Russians – and especially Siberians -really are more in touch with nature than we tend to be in the West (maybe because when its -30 outside, you can hardly ignore it). They genuinely seem to love their own local patch, having picnics, picking flowers, visiting their dachas, collecting mushrooms, drinking beer and chain-smoking cigarettes in the fresh air. But the birch leaves were turning yellow – a glorious sight – and this may be their last shout of decent weather until next May so you could see why they were making the most of it.
Anatoliy took me to the airport early Tuesday morning and it was plain sailing all the way to Baku: fly to Moscow (get 4 hours back) then to Baku (lose another hour). Rather than stay in expensive Baku, I had decided to take an overnight train (£3 Kupe sleeper!) to here, Sheki. By the time I got on the train I had been awake for 23 hours – hot and very tired.
I’d been to Baku before in 2000 but the city has grown an awful lot since then and the place looks like a high-rise building site. Dreadful traffic too, but I braved it to seek out the statue of Tofiq Bahramov at his eponymous football stadium – not easy to find or get to, having to cross lanes and lanes of teeming manic traffic. Tofiq Bayramov was the so-called ‘Russian linesman’ (actually Azeri) at the 1966 England –Germany World Cup game, the man who (let’s face it – incorrectly) judged Geoff Hurst’s shot to have crossed the line. The Queen presented him with a golden whistle as a memento apparently (a knighthood might have been in order too). According to Wikipedia, a deathbed confession suggested that he was, indeed, biased against the German team, having fought at Stalingrad during World War II. Anyway there is a statue of him, and a stadium in his honour, in Baku. And who unveiled the statue? Geoff Hurst, no less.
I am rather enjoying Azerbaijan – it’s friendly, warm and all rather Turkish, and when you ask for tea you get a pot that does 8 glasses- but I do have a job to do in Georgia (updating Bradt guide) and so will head there this morning. It’s not far from here – neither is Daghestan. I’m looking forward to that delicious, if cholesterol-laden, Georgian food and now it’s the time of the wine harvest.
Safe travels, Laurence, and thanks.