• Michael Knock

Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 6

We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.

On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.

Baku - Caucasus Mountains/Lahij

Today we left Baku heading for Shamakhi, Shamakha, Şamaxi or Shamakhy (on the map below) and then onto Lahij/Lahic in the Caucasus Mountains. This is a journey on the E119/ M4 for about 130kms (up to 2hrs with stops) and we are heading from the low of Baku at -28 metres to a high of 1375 metres at Lahij. The temperatures will not change that much - the past few days @ Baku the temps have varied between 12C overnight to 25C during the day - perfect travelling weather!

If you slavishly followed the Lonely Planet guides (as many of us used to), you would be informed: "Baku to Ìsmayilli

Rolling semi-desert starts to become greener as you skirt Şamaxi, with a superbly rebuilt mosque but little else to show for centuries as northern Azerbaijan's leading cultural and trading capital." p235 5th ed.

By exploring a bit further you will find that Shamakhi is a Silk Road city with a rich heritage and has provided the backdrop to major political events throughout much of the last two millennia. Shamakhi is a former capital of Azerbaijan and is often referred to as "The City of Poets". Eleven major earthquakes have rocked Shamakhi, but through multiple reconstructions it maintained its role as an economic and administrative capital and one of the key towns on the Silk Road.

The only building to have survived eight of the eleven earthquakes is the landmark Juma Mosque of Shamakhi, which dates from 743AD making it Azerbaijan's 1st mosque & the 2nd in the Caucasus and which has been recognised as one of the world's most beautiful mosques.

We also had a very quick look at the Shamakhi Astrophysical Observatory. This is a significant observatory, established at 1500m altitude and has up to 200 clear nights per year. It has a number of telescopes including a 2m wide Zeiss-lensed one and plays a pivotal role working closely with other observatories around the world.

We then had a quick walk through the Yeddi Gumbaz Mausoleum - a cemetary dating back to the 18th Century where only 3 of the original 7 mausoleums remain intact. The name Yeddi Gumbaz means Seven domes and it is a significant site as the mausoleums are the resting places of the family of the last ruler of the Shamahki khanate.

We then moved onto a highlight of the tour - yoghurt making .

I won't say that this was easy - there are only 2 ingredients (milk & yoghurt) but there is a technique to be learnt in heating/cooling the milk, adding the yoghurt then storing it (and being able to leave it alone long enough for it to set). Fortunately, we were able to samply some that had been "prepared earlier" and we enjoyed another amazingly fresh and flavoursome meal in a simply stunning setting.

We left Shamahki behind and headed a further 60kms (80 minutes) into the Caucasus Mountains to Lahij (not to be confused with a similarly-named town in Yemen) which is well-regarded locally for the quality of its handicrafts especially copperware. It is a popular destination for both international and domestic tourist (who tend to buy their everyday copperware from the Lahij smiths) and a great place to purchase high-quality, reasonably-priced souvenirs.

Azerbaijan's Tourist Board's comments about Lahij suggest "About three hours’ drive from Baku via a geologically spectacular canyon, the pretty little village of Lahij woos visitors with its antique cobbled streets, stone houses, souvenir shops and crafts. In the past over 40 different crafts were practised in this historic village, which is now a historical and cultural reserve and whose inhabitants converse in their own language. They included hat making, leather production and carpet weaving. However, Lahij is most famous for its unique copperwares, which in the past were sold all across the Caucasus and the Near East. It was always thought that the best coppersmiths hailed from Lahij. The cool mountain air makes travelling here especially appealing in summer."

We visited a local coppersmith's shop and then had the rest of the afternoon to explore before heading to our home for the night - the Lahic Guesthouse.

The locals use their own language, Tat, and Azerbaijani & Russian are the other 2 major tongues. There is just enough English around town for us to navigate as Azerbaijani and Tat are not on the menu for Google Translate (without internet at least).

Lahij/Lahic is one of the oldest permanently populated places in the world (dating back over 1000 years) and the facilities and master plan of the village are very unique.

As a result of frequent earthquakes, the locals have developed sophisticated and authentic construction techniques where they used the ground floor of houses as workshops and workrooms and lived upstairs - supposedly if there was an earthquake you only had to worry about the roof falling on your head!

The Lahic Guesthouse is located at the end of the village and has awesome views of the surrounding lakes and mountains.

Dinner tonight was in the Guesthouse's dining/lounge room and it was a good chance for everyone to get together and compare travel notes and experiences.

One of the things we all noted is the travel times/distances. In Australia we don't often refer to how far our destination is but rather how many hours it will take to get there (in this regard, we subconsciously allow for travel @ 90km/h). We noted it today (and on previous tours to Georgia & Turkey) that here we average @ 60km/h - allowing for comfort stops, coffee stops, tea shops/stops, photo stops or just the opportunity to walk around a village.

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