The town of Sheki has been controlled by many powers in the 2,700 or so years it’s been a major settlement. Persians, Albanians, Georgians, Arabs, Mongols, Russians, Soviets, and Azeris have all had a stake here, and the treasures that Sheki hides bear proof to that diverse heritage. One such remnant, the fortress of Gelersen Gorersen, lies hidden in the hills above Kiş — and I wanted to see it for myself.
Hiking to Gelersen Gorersen can be a bit tricky, as the trail isn’t signposted very well and only shows up on certain map applications. Maps.me is a good resource, or you can follow the route I made with my Ramblr app.
Start by taking the #7 bus from the city center to its terminus in Kiş. The bus driver should let you know when to get out. Follow the road across the river. From there, the way devolves into more of a forest path, leading past a creepy cafe populated by Smurfs (don’t ask) and a few more seemingly abandoned buildings.
It wasn’t until the trail turned up the hillside, drawing closer to the fortress, that I really felt like I was on an adventure.
It had rained that day, and the ground was slick. A path up the hillside veered off from the main trail in the direction of the fortress, so I followed it — still unable to see anything due to the tree cover. The way up was difficult, with roots and rocks providing the handholds I needed to haul myself up. In the process of looking for suitable grips, I nearly missed the fortress gate as it materialized out of the forest.
Gelersen Gorersen (Gələrsən-Görərsən) is famous for one brave stand against the might of Persia. Nadir Shah, the Persian ruler, decided to attack the local Shaki Khanate and laid siege to the local lord, Haji Chalabi, and his forces. When the Shah offered to let the Shakis surrender, Chalabi answered, “You will come and see,” which is the inspiration for the name of the fortress. Talk about a 300-esque, “Come and take them,” moment! The Persians attacked but were beaten back, retreating in defeat and failing to take the fortress.
Now, the stronghold is in ruins, and the only barrier to entry is the steep terrain the fortress was built upon. While climbing up the hill, it wasn’t difficult to see how the Persians failed in their endeavor. The ascent was tricky enough without an arrow-storm falling about me.
Once through the gate, signs of the past linger. Big stone pits can be found around the grounds, and what may seem like a natural drop may, in fact, be a stone wall grown over with vegetation.
The path was difficult to follow, and I began to realize this wasn’t a very popular tourist attraction. The trail was overgrown, and the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of the forest and my clumsy attempts to walk through it.
After circling around to the back of the fortress, I gained the summit, finding the ruins of a keep and the perfect spot for a picnic. I got out my snacks and Kindle and spent some time enjoying the stillness.
Walking along the ridge led me to another viewpoint from what may have been another keep. This one had a couple of the now-familiar stone pits and a fantastic view out over the river.
I descended sometime later, seeing my first fellow tourists on the way back down along the river on the road to Kiş. I had one more thing I wanted to see, and it meant taking a different way back so I could pass directly through the village.
As you may know from my hike in Xinaliq, Azerbaijan shares a border with Russia which is tightly patrolled by the Azeri military. Sheki is even closer to the border than Xinaliq, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when two border guards rocked up with machine guns and waved me down.
We talked as best we could, with them trying to say I should go back the way I came, and me cutting them off to show them my route and intended destination. I wasn’t going on a hike, I assured them. I was just coming back from one.
The two guards ended up accompanying me to the village before breaking off and resuming their patrol. I carried on through the cobble-stoned streets, saying “Salam” to whoever looked like they might say it back.
Kiş has one main attraction, and it’s a bit of an odd one if you don’t know the history of the area. This little town in a predominantly Muslim nation has an Albanian church that’s remarkably well preserved — as a matter of fact, it’s a pilgrimage site. How the heck did that happen? Well, there was an ancient Caucasian kingdom of Albania in the region, which predates the incursion of Islam. Pretty cool, eh?
It’s an incongruous place, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to one of the Caucasian countries neighboring Azerbaijan once you pay your 2 AZN and enter.
The grounds are beautiful, with a number of informative placards in English detailing the history of the region and site. There are a number of artifacts, as well, but those are not the star attraction. No, that would have to be the uncovered crypts of some poor souls peppered about the premises. Peering down through the safety glass gives you a front row seat to some nameless Albanian’s final resting place, bones all laid out nice and pretty for your inspection.
Thoroughly creeped out, I carried on through Kiş and headed towards the bus stop. A litter of puppies bumbled about at the base of the hill, leaving me with a lingering impression of cuteness to wash away the morbidity of the open crypts.
Waiting for the bus was a failure, as a taxi driver screeched to a stop in front of me and offered me a ride to the city center for 1 AZN. I hopped in, and we were off — leaving behind the old Shaki fortress on its hill, and the rotting Albanian bones in their crypt beneath the restored church. When you put everything together — the forest, the fortress, and the church and its crypts — it had been a pretty awesome little hike, with just enough oddities to make it truly memorable.
Pro Tip: Check out this great little homestay in Sheki — breakfast is included and the family is super nice!
How about you? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at a tourist site? Let me know in the comments below!