October 7, 2008 Tuesday – Tbilisi/Sheki
In the morning we ventured a short distance outside of Tblisi to the open air Ethongraphy Museum. Spread across a couple of hundred acres, there are 50 homes collected from around the country providing you with a comprehensive view of the variety of archictectural styles that dot Georgia’s countryside. The woodwork craftmanship of architectural details is extraordinary as you will see in the photos.
One of the larger structures is a bit like an 18th C. country inn that you find in the eastern United States. Here we had a pleasant lunch in one of the inn’s banquet halls before beginning our drive to the eastern border of Georgia and on to the Silk Road Caravaserai at Sheki, Azerbaijan.
We had wonderful views of the Tbilisi skyline as we departed the city. I had glimpses of the skyline during my previous visits in 1988 and 2005 but this was the first view on a clear day. The city bears its share of Soviet architectural scars in terms of dreary block apartment buildings. Yet, there is a magical quality when viewing the buildings that stair step up the mountain sides from the Mtkvari River.
In 2005, our Georgian bus driver took a wrong turn on the way to the border. Fortunately, one of the tour group members had GPS on his laptop and noticed that we were moving away from the border instead of toward it. Before too much damage was done, we got the driver back on track.
Then, when we arrived at the border, the bus driver did not have proper registration documents for the bus. The bus was not allowed to cross the 800 meter “no man’s land” between the Georgian border station and the Azerbaijani station where a local bus and guide awaited us. We had to walk between stations. Some of us wheeled our luggage and we secured a couple of porters with primitive hand-pulled carts to transport the rest of it.
This time much of the road to the border hand been resurfaced, perhaps widened and was better signed. The route out of Tbilisi took us through Sagarejo, Bakurtsikhe, Lagodekhi and the border town of Tosdna. The border crossing went smoothly and our Georgian bus was permitted to drive us right up to our awaiting Azerbaijani bus. The first village in Aberbaijan was Postbina where the time changed from 1600 to 1700. In all, the drive to Sheki from Tblisi took about 6 hours not including the time change.
Our Azerbaijani bus also included a new guide who I remember from 2005. Among the things he shared during our drive was that 95% of the Muslims in Azerbaijan don’t participate in the dawn to dusk Ramadan fast, a figure I have heard in other less conservative Muslim countries.
There are numerous river beds descending from the Caucaus Mountains. They tend to be quite wide with immense deposits of grey gravel. Since it is fall, there are only a few thin rivulets of water flowing through the gravel beds.
The highway is lined with fruit orchards. Last year most of the crop was lost to a hail storm; this year there has been a bumper harvest. The persimmon groves are especially attractive. The phrase “until the cows come home” takes on a new meaning in northwest Azerbaijan. Virtually every homestead owns one or more head of cattle which, during the day, wander about the countryside to find patches of greenery to graze on amid the arid landscape. In the late afternoon they instinctively return home and clog the highways as they make their way.
We arrived at the quaintly restored Sheki caravanserai shortly after sunset and enjoyed a festive dinner in a tunnel-like banquet hall. Though the rustic caravanserai has been restored to include some modern conveniences, you still have the feeling that you have entered a time capsule as you stroll the grounds and settle into your room. It is second favorite hotel on the trip although certainly the most primitive.