There is no question about it, Azerbaijan is a stunningly beautiful country, and now that spring is in full swing with the temperatures just right, there is no better time to take it to the road and begin to explore the green nooks and rocky crannies of the Baijan.
Snow covered peaks
A couple of weeks ago, Josh (my stellar site mate), Emily (our mutual and wonderful friend) and I decided to free ourselves from our winter hibernation by making a day trip up to Xinaliq. I’d been hearing about this village tucked 7500 feet high up in the Caucus mountains for the last year and couldn’t wait for the weather to get warm enough to go up and have a look for myself. Needless to say, I was not disappointed at all. Every part of this trip was great from beginning to end.
The sign says it all
Emily (left), Glendene (center) Josh (right). Josh took this picture.
Apparently, just six short years ago, getting up to Xinaliq was not easy because the road was unpaved, which meant that to get up there you had to have some sort of a land cruiser, be willing to hike it, or travel by donkey. This would not necessarily be a bad way to travel, as the road up to the village is gorgeous. On one side of the road, steep rocky mountains ascend, while on the other side cliffs descend into deep river canyons. Occasionally, we passed a small village set idyllically into a valley. We had the luxury and safety of traveling in a comfortable six-passenger van. I say safety because I’ve heard horror stories of people riding up in cars that were not meant to be traveling roads as steep as these. Our driver stopped at one point to show us a memorial on the side of the road dedicated to five people who had gone off the side of the cliff. We all got out from the van to have a look at the pieces of colorful fabric blowing in the wind. Two years later and the car was slowly rotting away in the riverbed.
Memorial on the side of the road
Xinaliq sits atop a mountain peak that has a 360° view of the surrounding mountains and valleys below. Most of the houses are made from stone as the village is above the tree line and wood is a scarce resource. Cow dung mixed with straw is the main source of fuel for heating and cooking. These fuel bricks are made by hand and stacked in the sun to dry. There is no running water that flows by pipes into people’s homes, but there are several mountain springs in the village and water can be easily fetched and brought back home. Power lines obstruct the pristine view as does aluminum siding and roofing, but I’m sure the villagers don’t object to these improvements in their living standards.
Houses made from stone
Life is simple up in this mountain village. Day-to-day there is a lot of work to be done as there are few conveniences such as restaurants or tea houses. There is one store that serves the entire village and it is very small. Women work tending their homes, which includes doing laundry by hand with water that you have to get from the spring. Farming, shepherding, and home repair also keep the villagers busy. Children run about playing with dogs and following tourists laughing all the while. There is one school that serves the entire village and it was made known to us that it has wifi. The people of Xinaliq speak Ketch, a language that is only spoken in this remote village.
It was an honor to be able to get a glimpse of the simplicity of these peoples’ lives. Being in Xinaliq made me think of how much more complicated my life is with all of the gadgets I use and am dependent, and how much easy access I have to what I need or want. It’s not to say that one way is better than the other, or that I want to live in a village as remote as this one, but it is certainly different and interesting to observe. Westerners often idealize this kind of life. We want to protect places such as these from development, and while I see the importance of wanting to preserve culture, I can empathize with the hardships of these peoples’ lives. A little aluminum siding may be a blight to the tourists’ eyes, but it sure beats having to re-surface your mud roof after every winter. Hard physical work is only one aspect of village life. To a foreigner that wants to get a way from it all we may think, “It’s so quiet and peaceful up here,” but to a local, what they may feel is boredom, isolation, and a lack of opportunity– particularly if you’re a woman. Not to mention the lack of diversity in the nuptial arena.
After walking around the village, we arranged to have lunch with one of the host families that works with CBT. The home was simple, but comfortable and in Azerbaijani style, we were served enough food to feed an army. After tea was served we hit the road back down the mountain. Conversation was light as the three of us were tired from the day’s excursion. Our driver turned on some music to accompany our daydreams as we soaked up the beauty on our way back into the big city.