Being both longer and higher than the Alps, the Caucasus is difficult to describe in a nutshell. It reaches across Eurasia from the Black Sea to the Caspian, has a complex geological make up and around fifty plus ethnically diverse people, and, isolated as some parts of it are, many of them have their own specific genetic make up and language. The Bible describes Noah landing his ark within the area of the Caucasus. In Greek mythology, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock here to have his liver pecked out by an eagle as punishment for introducing the miracle of fire to mortals, and Jason and his Argonauts found the fabled golden fleece in this region. Modernist German author Bertold Brecht set his parable ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, a rewrite of a 14th Century Chinese story about motherhood and loyalty, in this area too, and, of course, we are all aware that white skinned people of European ancestry are referred to as Caucasians, which is likely to be due to the fact that humans initially migrated from Africa to this mountain range around 50.000 years ago and, where, in time, their skin and physiognomy adjusted and lightened in adaptation to the changed climate before many moved on to modern day Europe and others to Asia and beyond. Home to bears, wolves, leopards, bison and golden eagles to name just a few, it is claimed that Snowmen/Yeti/Alma have also been spotted in years gone by. Without doubt, the Caucasus is an interesting place and certainly one of quite outstanding and dramatic natural beauty.
During our final days here in Azerbaijan, we once again rented a car from Rentekspress and made our way to Quba and onwards, to the mountain village of Xinaliq. It has to be said, quite frankly, that the high road from Baku to Quba is not only thoroughly boring but also quite spectacularly ugly. Left and right for almost two hours, nothing but a barren, parched landscape sporting a jungle of pylons, the turquoise waters of the Caspian occasionally visible to our right but its shoreline completely bare and undeveloped, due apparently, to the fact that various chemical plants were established here by the Russians after WWII. We passed a military convoy and, at one point, a tank with its gun pointing menacingly at the traffic by the roadside, the odd cow grazing on virtually non existent scrub, a rickety old lorry driving at speed in the wrong direction on the hard shoulder, then finally, just before Quba, the landscape became greener, prettier and more agricultural.
We passed by the sign to the Rixos golf hotel complex and headed into Quba town proper to search out a café for a quick lunchtime bite and a cup of coffee. They certainly like their crenelations and crazy paving claddings here, and the town as such is not particularly attractive with its low slung tired buildings and a sense of out and out sad greyness. Still, lose yourself in the side streets, and you see a slightly more attractive side to the place with a few, now somewhat shabby, grand old pre Soviet buldings.
Quba is known for its apples and carpets, and for the fact that it has the highest population of Jews in Azerbaijan, but it is clearly not big on café’s or roadside inns! Eventually we located a doner place near the Juma mosque where, charming as the staff were, they served hot water with lots of milk, very well sugared and called it coffee but could not offer a WC. At a mere 80 Gepik for the drink, we allowed ourselves the luxury of leaving it, and as nature was beginning to call rather urgently, we hurriedly backtracked to the Rixos.
Well, what can I say? After a few kilometres through a stunning rural landscape and little country lanes bordered by low stone walls and hedges, with yellow and white butterflies dancing around delicate wayside flowers, we came upon a huge brand spanking new palatial development surrounded by intimidating high fences and barriers and rather threatening looking, dark country weekend datchas by a pretty lake. We carefully crept past the lodge, got a nod from the guard and made our way to one of the smaller buildings which houses a casual looking Steakhouse Restaurant overlooking the golf course. Attractively presented as it was, with a superb view, alas, neither culinary nor bladder relief could be found here. They were experiencing a power cut and could not provide either a cup of coffee nor light in the loos. So back in the car we hopped, by now squirming and with strained facial expressions, raced up to the main building, screeched to a halt beside a couple of mini Hummers and literally hot footed it into the reception area.
Wowsers, what a sight! There, deep deep in the countryside, virtually within spitting distance of the border to Russia, was a super glamorous, completely OTT rococcoesque homage to Versace! Glistening with marble, enormous glittering chandeliers, brocade, velvet and gilt furniture, sweeping drapes and massive orchid arrangements, this place looked more like a Las Vegas extravaganza than a country club in the northern reaches of Azerbaijan – and those were just the bathrooms! I am no friend of ostentation and showiness but I have to admit that it was incredibly impressive, comfortable and grandly inviting.
Outside was an enormous, very elegant swimming pool with chic loungers under umbrellas on a smart terrace, all with incredible vistas over the greenery and on to the peaks of the Caucasus. We had, what I think, was probably the best club sandwich and coffee ever, with some delicious Turkish bakhlava to follow in the ‘Mosaic’ restaurant on the lower ground floor. Staff were charming and efficient and we felt thoroughly cossetted and spoilt. Okay, now comes the humdinger, the shared sandwich was AZN17, the Americanos AZN7 each and the bakhlava AZN9 for a plate of five but I tell you what, expensive it might have been, but we loved every minute and every morsel and so, for us, it was worth every gepik we spent. The Rixos golf complex might lack local authenticity but it makes up for that by sheer unadulterated luxury!
Then onwards and upwards we went, our goal being Xinaliq, also known as Khinalug, apparently at 2350 m above sea level Europe’s highest village. Quite where Europe comes into the equation, I’m not sure, since to my mind this area is most definitely east of Europe but there you are. We have had the Eurovision song contest here and the European Games too, so I guess it’s a question of interpretation.
Xinaliq is so high and so remote, that until quite recently it was pretty much inaccessible. As a result, the local population has developed it’s own language, Ketch, which is entirely unrelated to any other local dialect and barely researched; not all locals even speak Azerbaijani. They have retained their own local customs and traditions, including the shaved heads of the young boys with just one long tress of hair at the back, otherwise found only in Siberia and Mongolia.
Supposedly Xinaliq is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the world, with a history of at least 5000 years. As you head through the breathtaking scenery, on and on, further and further up the mountains towards it, you see many caves, which undoubtedly offered shelter and accommodation to man from the earliest ages. Many of the Xinaliq houses (there are around 300 of them built on the steep slope of the mountain) are built one on top of the other, so that roofs equally serve as terraces and apparently, the dwellings are unfurnished with just cushions and carpets for inhabitants to recline on.
In winter, temperatures at this altitude drop to -20 degrees C and summer temperatures tend to reach no more than around 18 degrees. Sheep farming and unique embroidery are the local sources of food, barter and income. Fuel is created by mashing manure and hay into bricks, a very ecologically sound concept.
Several ancient graveyards bear witness to Xinaliq’s long and fascinating history. Wikipedia claims that this is one of the world’s few almost completely pure ethnocultural places.
Local legend has it that Noah anchored his ark here and that while his sons Sim and Kham moved to other places, Iafet remained and became the forefather of these Caucasian people. This may not be as far fetched as it sounds, because fossilized remains of fish and shells have been discovered in this area, 2300 m above current sea level, proving that indeed at some time in the remote past, it was under water.
As we entered the village, young boys with, incidentally, full heads of hair and early downy fluff on their upper lips offered to show us around in halting English. It seems that western business mindedness has now reached this village, possibly by TV, evidence of which could be seen in the odd satellite dish, and also by occasional tourism, now possible via the one narrow asphalt road, putting theories of purity, perhaps sadly, to shame.
Snaking our way back down the mountains, we saw donkeys, sheep and goats, seemingly contentedly, grazing on the hillside meadows strewn with Alpine flowers, the mountain streams rushing in white swirling rivulets way way down in the canyons they had created since time immemorial. A shaggy sheep dog decided to herd us into the flock, crossing back and forth in front of the car, and much to our amusement at his dedication, forced us to drive at walking speed until he eventually gave up, exhausted with the effort of trying to corall this big beast.
Here and there, enterprising farmers had set up one or two plastic tables and chairs with a barbeque nearby, offering the rare passer-by sustenance, the most spectacular one a single table all by itself, high on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the snowy peaks and the world below at a simply mind-blowing 360 degree radius. Back in the valley on the main road to Quba, we had to slow down once again, this time for a hay laden cart pulled by a mare, her foal trotting behind, a thoroughly picturesque rural idyll, before heading onto the uninspiring Quba to Baku stretch of the motorway.
With barely a handful of days left in Baku, our apartment littered with packing boxes and cases, many of our temporary belongings sold off and a full schedule of farewell drinks and dinners, this was Azerbaijan’s final kiss goodbye to us, an unforgettable embrace to be remembered when hectic, fume filled London life envelops us again.