While visiting the village of Kish just outside of Shaki, the Azerbaijani long weekend getaway of choice, we struck up a conversation with a newlywed couple – a young dentist and his wife – as they gave us a ride back into town.
“How could you afford a car like this on $30 per month?” Audrey asked, as she sank back into the deep plush seat of his Mercedes sedan.
“Private patients,” he offered with a smile.
Another example of what we came to call “Caucasus Math,” where appearances, stories, quoted salaries and the cost of living simply didn’t add up. In this case, private clients heavily subsidize an “official” job so that a dentist with a salary of $30 can afford a big (albeit used) Mercedes and take a one-month honeymoon with his new wife.
From what we can tell, this is normal and it’s the way things work in the Caucasus. This is their new economy.
Easier to Drive
Our taxi driver, Samir, told us his story on the way from Sheki to Ismaili. He was a calm, friendly English-speaking driver – a profile you would be hard-pressed to find in taxi drivers in this part of the world.
As Samir tells it, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he used the opportunity of free movement to work in Yemen as a doctor. A few years later he transferred to St. Petersburg. He tried working there for a while, living with his wife and newborn son and sending money home to his parents. Later, his wife and son returned home to Azerbaijan. He continued to work in St. Petersburg, but eventually missed his son too much and decided to return for good.
We asked the obvious question: “If you are a trained doctor, then why are you working as a taxi driver?” Samir smiled. This question exposed our western sensibilities. For us, it didn’t quite make sense that a doctor would choose to be a taxi driver.
Samir explained that in Azerbaijan it was more lucrative and less stressful to work as a taxi driver than to juggle working for the state as a doctor while finding enough private patients to make ends meet. Another crack in another public health system and proof that not having enough money to pay doctors on the side in Azerbaijan can be dangerous for your health.
Most people go to Shaki, one of Azerbaijan’s top tourist sites, to visit the 18th century Khan’s palace and stay at the Caravanserai Hotel. We did all that, and enjoyed a side trip to Kish and teatime with some grandmas in their rose garden in Shaki. But conversations like this give us insight into how real people live in post-Communist Azerbaijan today as the country’s economy continues to evolve.
Practical Details – Accommodation in and Transport to Shaki
How to get there: Overnight train (or bus) from Baku to Sheki. Only third-class sleepers were available when we bought our train tickets. Very cheap ($1.50/person), but it’s open sleeping (no cabins) so beware of flapping random body parts as grandmas change into their nightgowns en plein air. When you arrive, the Sheki train station is around 20 km outside of the town. A taxi should cost 7-8 manats ($9-$10). Warning: taxi drivers may indicate that the distance is 35 km and increase the price accordingly. Embarassing the taxi driver about his lies in front of the police seemed to instill some new-found honesty.
Where to stay: Caravanserai Hotel is the place to stay and one of the draws of Sheki. It’s a renovated caravanserai that housed traders, their goods and camels during the 18th and 19th centuries. 20 manats ($25) gets you a basic, but comfortable double room. Call ahead for reservations – this place is often booked with weekenders from Baku. 0177-4-31-724-4814
Where to eat: There are a couple of cafes full of men drinking tea and eating shashlik and dovga near the market (Taza Bazaar). Audrey was the only female in sight. The restaurant in the park near the center has an extensive menu, but only a handful of items available to order. Ask in advance what’s actually available before overextending your hopes.
What to do:
- Visit the Khan’s palace – beautiful Persian-influenced paintings and shebeke (colored glass) windows cover the interior. It’s worth spending the extra 2 manat for the permit to take photos.
- Eat Sheki halva at the Taza bazaar.
- Take a rickety bus to Kish and visit the Caucasian Albanian Church. Note: Caucasian Albanians are not related to modern-day European Albanians.
- Wander Sheki’s back streets and have tea with the locals.
If you have a high-speed connection, stick around for the slide show: