Pronounced Sheki, this town in the foothills of the Caucusus Mountains in northwest Azerbaijan is an unexpected delight off the beaten track. We spent only one night there. We could and should have stayed longer.
Seki is a strange place to western eyes, and visitors will see much to entice and tantalize them. They will also find it puzzling here and there. I think foreign travellers do not often make it out this far into rural Azerbaijan. The infrastructure of a medium sized town: Paved roads, street signs, and strip shopping centres are all there, but so also are things that seem not to quite fit.
The local butcher shop operates without refrigeration but local marketing ingenuity more than makes up for lack of signage. Tumbleweeds, litter, and wandering livestock detract from the impact of a section of well lit dual carriageway sealed road. Occasional cars, commonly old Russian made Ladas, scoot up and down this entry statement daring pedestrians to try their luck. However, on the outskirts of town lies a hotel complex that, more than anything else, epitomises the enigma that is Seki.
Called 'Seki Olympic Hotel' or something close to that, it is a baffling complex of accomodation buildings, sporting venues, and landscaped parks and paths standing neglected and largely empty. Built twenty years ago to house Azerbaijan's Olympic team during their final preparation, it was undoubtedly a bold statement of national pride at the time. We were, as far as I could tell, the only guests in the complex that had hundreds of rooms. The swimming pool was empty and paths overgrown. Oh, and while I think of it, the room was comfortable but the airconditioning did not work. Outside paintwork had seen better days. What can you expect from twenty years of ad hoc caretaker maintenance? I guess the Azerbaijan tourism authorities do not expect tourists to travel out this far.
The whole experience was fairly creepy. The movie series Mad Max came to mind. Post apocalyptic scenes were everywhere, and I snapped a couple:
The highlight of Seki for me was a visit to the town markets the following morning.
Friendly, everyday people traded anything and everything. Beautiful fruit including plums, pears, grapes and pomegranates, competed alongside baskets of the spice saffron at unbelievably low prices. Rows of shoes, clothing, car parts, brooms and tools of all types were patrolled by cats, hungry for scraps tossed by meat sellers.
Language didn't seem too much of an issue, even if little or no English was spoken. Smiles, hand gestures and “Australia” brought smiles of understanding in return.
I could have spent longer in Seki. A pity our itinerary did not allow that.