Saturday, 27 October 2012
Day 215 - A fiery mountain, a construction site, and two very peculiar meals. (Azerbaijan)
Leaving Baku we headed towards Yanar Dagh (Flaming Mountain). Like with Darvaza, the gas crater in Turkmenistan (Blog Day 182 – The BurningGates of Hell), a supply of natural gas is seeping out of the ground and having been set alight, is now continuously burning. We’ve heard a couple of stories as to how it was set alight: one is that it was lit 1,000 or 2,000 years ago; the other story involves a shepherd in the 1950’s dropping his cigarette on the ground and getting a surprise when it exploded. Our problem is that having seen the 70m gas crater in Turkmenistan, probably nothing in our lives will ever live up to it, so this 10m of flaming hillside was a bit of a let-down. This is much more an indictment on how amazing Darvaza was and how ridiculously high our standards are now set. Any piece of rock that has been on fire for either 60 or thousands of years is pretty special.
We’ve seen a few relics of the almost extinct first monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism. Our first experience was a very friendly group of them from Shiraz, visiting Gonbad e Kavus and using an ancient tower as a haven where they could remove their headscarves and sing traditional songs. Throughout Iran we came across various fire temples and visited a couple of ruined ones. Not far from Baku we visited Atashgah, a fire temple which is in the process of renovation. Some of the fires have been relit by connecting gas mains, which although not true to history, seems the only way to maintain the essence of the temple. Around the walls are small rooms that would have been used as sleeping quarters, or in fact torture chambers. Now they are inhabited by manikins depicting examples of self torture, and an amusing array of workmen’s gear and food supplies. The men rebuilding the walls have quite clearly moved in for the duration of their contract, and claiming the place as their own did not adjust their work just because they had a few tourists. Rocks were being thrown off 5m walls with complete disregard of whether anyone was below, and we had some cement scraped off right on top of our heads.
Covered in dust from being amidst a construction site, we headed towards the town of Shaki, taking a small detour off the main road to visit the mountain village of Lahic. Aside from the spectacular drive and the quaint town, the detour was well worth it for cheaper saffron than we can comprehend. Not usually in the market for such a product, I am led to believe that in Australia it is horribly expensive, costing over $5 per gram (this figure may be inaccurate). In Iran we were told about how cheap it was compared to the world market. The family who kindly invited us into their home in Shiraz gifted us with a small box with a couple of grams in it, which they had bought for a couple of dollars. In Lahic however, we were able to buy a bag weighing probably over an ounce for only 2 Manat ($2.50).
Shaki is a rural town with a renovated old town. There were a few things we were interested in visiting there – a couple of museums, a Shar’s Palace and examples of the local unique style of making stained glass windows. The thing that really drew us though was the opportunity to stay at a beautifully converted karavan saray. Sure enough the place was charming with a lovely garden courtyard surrounded by two-storey walls of arched entrance ways leading to the renovated sleeping quarters. The entrance to a cafe offering shisha, tea and traditional Azeri sweets lay at one end of the courtyard, whilst the large brick entrance hall, lit by brass chandeliers and fitted with a small pond, lay at the other. With soft beds, couches, bathrooms and a television in each room, it’s the best accommodation we’ve stayed at in a very long time.
As with most old towns, it was a bit deserted so we headed towards the real town for a bite to eat for lunch. Before we got there though, a fast food place caught our attention and we decided to give that a go. The building was new, but done in the traditional naked brick with arched windows and doors. Inside was fitted with brand new Ikea style wooden tables and round light fittings, and decorated with Grill’d style “trendy” posters and wall hangings. Apart from a lady stroking a sleeping baby who was laid out on four chairs, the restaurant was empty. We approached the spotless, brand new counter, and feasted our eyes on the extensive overhead menu of chicken, burgers, fries, ice cream and soft drink. When nobody appeared from behind the shiny silver kitchen fittings, we got the attention from the lady with a baby and tried to order. She apparently did work there after all, and informed us that actually that menu wasn’t available and slid a laminated doner, soup and salad menu towards us. We made our choices, ordered and sat down at a table. She walked past the unused post mix machine, switched the extractor fan on and exited the kitchen through a back door.
A few minutes later she returned and pulled cold sausages and bread from a cupboard in the kitchen, which she then fed to her baby and ate herself while we waited for our lunch. After 10 minutes or so we were seriously considering whether there was anyone cooking our food. We could see an empty doner meat rotator, none of the bain maries were switched on and no one other than this lady had appeared from anywhere – and she certainly wasn’t cooking our food. She had switched on the fan, but was that just for show? Had we found ourselves at an exhibition-only fast food joint?
When her and her baby had finished their lunch, we asked how much longer we’d be waiting. She indicated 5 minutes, and rushed on out back again. Was there really someone there that she was talking to about our food? Then a few minutes later, we watched in bemusement as a man carried a plastic bag from his car to the front door of the restaurant, and our “waitress” rushed to meet him. Obviously embarrassed, she grabbed the bag from him, and briskly walked straight past us to the kitchen. He was obviously supposed to deliver it to the back door, but had made a heinous mistake. Our food had actually been ordered from elsewhere and delivered! We were right – there really wasn’t anyone in the kitchen cooking for us. She returned from the kitchen a few minutes later with our food emptied from the plastic carry bags and laid on a selection of mismatched side plates and paper bowls.
According to all the leaflets lying around, this place was open 24/7, and when we passed at 11pm or so that night, all the lights were off, but the sign still said “open”. I guess she and her baby just sleep there on the off-chance that a customer will show up at any hour. We considered how amusing it would be to go in at 3am and just order a bread or a serving of chips.
This wasn’t our only ridiculous meal experience during our one day stay in Shaki. That evening we made our way into the real town centre. After we stopped for a drink in a cafe/bar where I was the only woman, we were the only group under the age of 60, and the only customers not drinking tea, we sat down for a meal at the only restaurant we could find. The interior was adorned with stuffed animals and birds, brass chandeliers, antique bottles and ornaments, and a huge group of Asian tourists. The seats we were guided to were up a narrow staircase, along a thin landing and through a wooden door which even I had to duck to get through. Behind this door was a room that can only be described as a large barrel (large for a barrel, not for a room), in which our table was waiting for us. The waiter adamantly closed the door on us, not understanding that we weren’t particularly keen on absolute privacy, and would prefer not to be cooped up in a 2m x 2m barrel. Unlike lunch this was certainly a real restaurant with a functioning kitchen, but we ate our meal inside a barrel.