In the north of Azerbaijan, in the mountainous region of Quba, is one of the highest, most remote villages in the Caucasus area and indeed Europe, Xinaliq. Over 2300m above sea level, in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountain range that leads to Russia over the North side. Xinaliq is the local name, it is also known as Khinalug or Khinalig amongst many variations. This village was a place I had been told you have to see to believe. A place with a history well over 500o years, so unique and cut off through the thousands of years these unique people have their own distinct language, their own customs and traditions.
In 2006 a major development happened for the people living there and for tourism. A mountain road was built that connected Xinaliq to the nearest town of Quba way down the mountains. Of course this leads to many pros and cons. Electric, new school building, tourism etc brought things never seen here from the outside world and needs to be carefully managed to keep the historic heritage and identity.
To give an idea of the day ahead for us, the recent road from Quba, over the mountaintops and up to the village is about 50km or 30 miles. It takes about one and a half to two hours in a 4wd… in summer! ..when the mountain slopes are green and dry. The road is amazing in itself, zig zagging up and up over mountains, sharp drops down ravines on one side and more mountain tops on the other. Spectacular and adrenalin inducing at the same time. I was here in December, after heavy snow. Yes, we had been told the road was ‘sort of’ passable all the way up to the village. Our driver smiled cheekily and said ‘no problem’ .. let’s go!
Wow! Up and up we went. Gradually getting steeper, gradually getting bendier, the drops down one side getting bigger. The road could not be seen under the road. Our driver was fantastic, he really knew what he was doing and that allowed us to enjoy what I shall frankly say were some of the best mountain road views I have seen. I have climbed many a high mountain in winter but to see so much, over such a landscape, over such an area, by car, was absolutely stunning.
We were so lucky to have a day after the snows were the sun was shining. The outside temperature naturally grew colder as we went up by altitude but the car gave a nice warmth after each photos stop. Yes the drive was full of interesting moments, for instance you are winding up a steep narrow bit, with a sheer drop on one side, the track only wide for one…. Then a villager comes the other direction, in what can be described as a 30 year old Lada and calmly goes off road somehow to let you pass, no problem. Gotta love travelling
Then over your last mountain top you see the landscape within the mountain range change to a wide open valley, high up and miles from anywhere, except Xinaliq that is, you are nearly there from the other end and an eagle adorned sign statue greats you. The eagle is a great symbol for the area… we saw a few soaring around over the high miles.
We parked up on the edge of the village and couldn’t wait to wander through the narrow passageways between the buildings to get a glimpse into this long isolated world. Children rushed out to greet us, some toddlers running over the steep ice and snow faster than I could walk in hiking boots. Being so cut of the first thing you notice is that all has been built down the ages from local materials of course. Mud brick houses, intricate stone buildings perched on the mountainside. With the road in 2006 the first sign of modernisation of some of these ancient buildings have appeared, improvised modern windows for example on old stone houses.
Being so cut off, Xinaliq has managed to withstand many invasions, the complete history all the way back to its beginnings are also not entirely known. Surrounding the village there are many cemeteries that some may be 3 deep. Gives a sense of scale in history when you see. The earliest known religion here was fire worship, Azerbaijan is of course the ‘Land of Fire’ as I spoke about before.. and it is sometimes believed that christianity might have even made it here in early AD. At some point between the 3th and 12 century Islam was spread through the area and the village has 2 remarkable old unique mosques, one dating from the 12th Century here…
Then a young local girl ever so kindly offered to open up the village museum for us. A building brimming with artifacts and knowledge from the ages here.
Earliest pictures of these people adorned the wall. Pictures of the few men here taking arms together in the Second World War for the Soviets. Clothes, hand made that show improvisation and heritage. manuscripts from when the written word first reached here. Pots of all sizes and all ages. So much seen and too much to show here, a glimpse….
This is one of those days of adventure and learning that will live deep in the memory for a long time.. The views, the drive, the quiet expanse, the remoteness, the wonderful people, the heritage, the culture… every bit of it unique and special. A must see!
P.S. If you come in Summer the mountainsides are lush and green too and then the mountain tops a mix of snow tops and green river filled valleys. Xinaliq means ‘The land where henna grows’ and apparently the mountains here are covered in it during those months… Imagine a summer sunset from up here?