26 January 2012

Where Can I Park My Camel?

Caravanserais are the original motels. They were designed specifically for groups of travelers who needed a place to stay en route. Caravanserais began to pop up in great numbers along the Royal Road, a merchant trail that led into the Silk Road, all the way back around 600 BC. Open to the sky, the traditionally square courtyards were the "parking lots," as goods, people and animals were all settled into their appropriate places for the night. Some of these unique complexes still exist and a visit to one conjures up all sorts of images and scenes straight out of Arabian Nights.
Crafts and valuables were stored in cellar rooms, travelers stayed on the second floor and the courtyard level rooms were used for trading and selling. In Baku, a few caravanserai have been turned into restaurants. We dined at one called, simply, "Karavansara," which dates back to the 14th century. Ducking and squeezing into a slit of a doorway, we were shown our private dining room. A gas powered ring of fire was lit in the stone fireplace and we were left to imagine what kind of business deals went down centuries ago. Outside, a fez wearing quartet played traditional mugam music.
In Sheki, we were able to have an even more authentic caravanserai experience. The city, in Northwestern Azerbaijan, is famous for its silk factory. So, naturally, it was a major stop for merchants on the Silk Road. By the 17th century, four large caravanerais were built in the city - two of which remain. One of these historic travel lodges is restored and back to doing what it does best- giving weary travelers a place to rest their heads.
The 18th century Yukari Karavanerie Hotel is a huge square structure. Around the perimeter, facing out toward the sidewalk, small shops occupy the nooks and crannies. Simple tea spots, minimarkets, halva shops, copperworks, musical instruments restringing. The hotel's domed entry hall is incredible, spanning upwards in impressive narrow brickwork. Below the wooden balcony, a sign reads "WIFI."
Our room was not heated in the traditional way - carpets hung up on the walls - but, rather, with a radiator. It being wintertime, whose complaining? Even with the touches of modernity, it felt historic. A completely unique experience. We slept in one of at least a hundred identical rooms that wrapped around the moonlit arcade. The palm trees and courtyard benches were covered in snow.
The morning after our stay, we left before the sun rose. The front door was unlocked by a sleepy young man and we maneuvered our backpacks through and out of the door. The town was asleep, and popping out as we did, I felt like a cuckoo clock announcing the morning. Like the caravanserai's first visitors, we had a long route ahead of us. Onward west we went, over the border to Georgia and through to the capital of Armenia.

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