An ancient village in the Caucasus
We finally managed to leave Baku and headed north on a bus to the town of Quba (pronounced Guba). This took us through the usual scrubby and rather dismal desert that surrounds Baku and into a higher, lusher area which is famous for its apples and carpets. Our destination was a small village that was high up in the Caucasus, called Xinaliq (pronounced Khinalic).
We spent the night in Quba, a pleasant small Azeri town, which has a small carpet factory, a market and a bus station and reputedly, the best shwarma in Azerbaijan. They were pretty good.
Although I liked the town, I spent a large amount of the time nursing a tooth abscess, which had chosen that day to become nearly too painful to think straight. I wondered at the wisdom of going to a remote village at 2350-metre height in that amount of pain - maybe the altitude would make it worse and there certainly wouldn't be any dentists there. However, I decided that I may as well suffer surrounded by beautiful mountains rather than in a hot, dusty town and we managed to find some cheap transport up there early the next morning. The road was quite a steep climb, through beautiful, remote, grassy mountains with little sign of habitation. Eventually we reached a small wind-swept village.
All I knew about Khinaliq was that it was an ancient village built on a hilltop in the mountains, consisting of traditional mud and stone buildings. Now that the road had been improved and satellite dishes had arrived, it was, inevitably, becoming more and more modern and the traditional ways were threatened. This was probably a last chance to see it before it became radically changed. I worried that we might have been too late as there seemed to be rather a lot of blue plastic tarpaulins and corrugated iron roofs in sight.
We were dropped off at the bottom of the village, which seemed to be made up of steep muddy paths leading to houses. The wind was bitter and my clothes totally inadequate. I had imagined my arrival (always an unwise thing to do) totally differently. At last, I'd thought, a chance to properly stay in a family house in a village. All we needed to do would be to hang around a central area waiting for people to come up and offer us places to stay. Instead we climbed up the steep, rocky paths to look for anyone at all. There was a small village shop that sold a few things that the locals didn't produce themselves - sweets, tea, biscuits, beer vodka and the inevitable cheap Chinese products you see in many shops around the world.
There were a couple of people in the shop, hiding from the biting wind and they looked at us with mild interest as we walked in. There was no rush to offer us accommodation and it seemed that there was a Guest House down the road by the river so we headed back down again.
Eventually we were settled in a large empty house with two big bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen and sitting room downstairs, which we were to have ourselves, with food brought to us. Not quite what we had expected, but we had lots of space! Soon the day cleared and we went back to the village to look around. We walked past the next house where a family were making mud bricks, which they left to dry in the sun. They told us that they had 3 houses, two near the river and one up in the village. This was easy, they told us, when the bricks came from the ground, the stones came from the river bed and there seemed endless space around to build in.
Everything started to look a lot better in the warm sun and I was noticing the traditional mud houses, rather than the blue plastic sheeting and the shiny tin roofs. We'd been told that there was a wedding on in the village, which was an event attended by everyone there at some point - they run over 3 days and only happen in the summer. As we walked around the lanes, we realised that the people were much friendlier than they had first appeared and had a few very limited conversations. We met the school teacher, who spoke English and was able to tell us lots about the village.
When we heard some loud music, we followed it to a blue plastic lean-to construction in which people were dancing. A couple of men told me to go and take photos as that’s what tourists do, and so I willingly obliged. The first people I photographed were a couple of women who were very shy at first, but soon one of them dragged me off to her house nearby and fed me tea. She told me off for not having come to stay with her, showed me photos of other foreigners that had stayed with them and then tried to sell me a pair of knitted slippers. I was itching to get back and see the wedding party but the music abruptly stopped and everyone went home. When we passed by again, the blue plastic was being dismantled. I imagined I’d had the bad luck to arrive on the last day of the wedding.
We wandered around the paths some more then and walked a bit away from the village. It’s hard to describe it without using the words "nestled" and "perched", but it was a village perched on top of a hill, nestled in the mountains! As I said, the houses were made of local stone from the river bed with mud roofs, with newer bits built in a haphazard manner. Each house had a large stack of dried cow manure, ready for the winter.
The next morning we decided to take a short walk up in the mountains for the morning and come back down to the village in the afternoon. The weather had become much warmer and sunnier and we walked up behind the village towards some small mountains. Those of you that have been following my blog know that I love walking up mountains and find it hard not to go just a little bit further than I intend. Unfortunately, this is coupled with a deep fear of going down anything slippery or very steep. I try and forget this fact when I’m going up and optimistically hope that it will have changed by the time I go back down.
Inevitably the one we decided to walk to the top of was a lot steeper and further away than it looked. The last bit was mainly composed of slidey, slippery shale which was even hard to climb up. However, the view was certainly more than worth the effort and not only did I, unusually, have no accidents, even minor ones, but the altitude seemed to have made my tooth better!
Just as we got to the top and were sitting relaxing and taking in the scenery, I could hear the music start up again. As it had only lasted a short while the day before, I was pretty sure that it would finish just as we got back there. I so wanted to be able to take photos at the wedding, but it looked a long and slippery way back down the mountain and given my track record of injuries, I realised I should really not rush! You might think I'm going about this too much, but my time in the Caucasus was often dominated by this! I'm absolutely fine looking over the edge of the steepest drop but once things start to slide, it’s my idea of hell. Going down the steep shale I did wonder why I liked mountains so much and the why I was spending so much time in them - but what is life if we don't challenge our fears? I eventually got into just sliding down - it was certainly quicker that way! As we walked back the music wailed out across the mountains, sounding so very wild and exotic. I imagined a band of strange Azeri instruments. Every time it paused I was sure it had stopped completely and they were packing up the blue plastic.
People were dancing to the music. Often the girls would dance gracefully with each other, while the boys pranced around in good natured competition with each other, resembling crowing cockerels. Occasionally a man threw money onto the dance-floor and the little boys ran around picking it up, making a pretence of trying to keep it before handing it over. Everyone was very welcoming and once I started taking photos, they wouldn't let me stop and various combinations of people were thrust in front of me. We had become celebrities in the village and were greeted warmly for the rest of our short stay there.
The Khinali are a Caucasian race (as is to be expected in the Caucasus!) and look somewhat different from other Azeris, who are a dark Turkic race. They are lighter skinned and haired and have a definite mountain appearance to them. The man who’d driven us up to the village, and was from it himself, had reminded me of someone I know back home. When we got there I realised that several other people did too! They all had similar features and sometimes I got different people mixed up with each other. This is to be expected in such a remote place where everyone is related to each other, I suppose. In recent years life has changed a lot with constant electricity; running water; different building materials; TV with numerous channels from all over the world; a school and of course, mobile phones. However they are also very proud of and aware of their culture and traditional lifestyle: the school teaches in Xinali (a language unrelated to any other); marriages are celebrated by the whole community and a large proportion of the men take their sheep many days trek away to graze in the lowlands for the whole winter.
I'm always surprised how different places can be from first impressions and that its best not to have any expectations, though hard not to. Xinaliq is definitely such a place. I'd like to go back again for a proper visit, not just for the beauty around it, but also to see how their traditional community is adapting to rapidly changing lifestyles and technology.
I managed to enjoy Quba a bit more this time, visited the carpet factory, ate the best shwarma in Azerbaijan, looked at the market, reassured some police that I wasn't a spy - they tourists round there - and then it was time to travel on.
Author: Sue Deegan