It was early December, and there was no snow in Quba, but the town administrator still told me I was too late. “You can’t go to Khinalig now,” he said. “The road is closed. The Khinaligi come down for the last time in September and buy everything they need for winter.” I was set on going, so I cast around for the sturdiest car at the taxi stand. I picked out a Russian-made Lada that looked like a winner, that is to say the only vehicle without a rat’s nest of exposed wiring spilling from the dash.
Eldar, the driver, didn’t appear fazed by my request, at least much less so than my bargaining him down from $40 to $30. He said he had done the hour’s drive to Khinalig many times – he had even helped build the school as a welder back in 1995. The road was 25 years old by then, unpaved and often closed in winter. Only big trucks, such as the Soviet GAZ-66, could get through.
Northern Azerbaijan is a part of the world defined by isolation. The Caucasus Mountains are high and terrible, and they are full of caves for gnomic tribes and nomads to hide inside. It was an unconquerable land and remains divided into pockets of separate and singular cultures.
In an area roughly the size of West Virginia, there are two dozen languages, most of them unique to villages that spent centuries isolated from the rest of the country and each other. Not only Khinalig but also the settlements of Buduq, Qriz, Cek, Tsakhur and Nij, to name but a few, speak their own language. The world, however, always finds a way in.
An impending visit from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in 2007 saw the road paved, and subsequent publicity has seen the town’s esteem grow. Nearby Shahdag Mountain Resort brings in skiers from around the world. Now UNESCO World Heritage status looms for Khinalig, and the Azerbaijani tourism sector is rapidly promoting it as one of the country’s many hidden gems. Some worry that the creeping modernism threatens the historical essence of these villages, that they were better off isolated at the end of an impassable road.
It was a fine, crisp day. Frost coated the ground, but there was the promise of sun. To the west, snow-covered Mount Shahdag was so sharp against the bluebird sky that it seemed drawn in needlepoint. It was still early, and roadside stalls were lighting fires for chai and kebabs. It was a day of promise. But once on the road, Eldar lost his cool. He leaned forward, squinting at the road and holding his elbows high. Whenever he saw something of note (which was often), he jabbed them into my ribs.
Quba sits at about 2,000 feet above sea level, Khinalig at about 7,700. The ascent is long and winding. The minute it began, the sickly smell of gasoline fumes filled the Lada. I tried the electric window. Nothing. It was cold, around 32 degrees. I slid the heat on. Nothing. So much for picking a winner.
Snow began to pile on the road, and Eldar began to show signs of mental strain. Several times, he stopped to query someone on the roadside. “Will this car make it to Khinalig?” He sounded frantic, which wasn’t helped by receiving a “no,” a “yes” and a shrug in quick succession.
Cut into the mountain side, the road was paved but single-track and rough with frozen snow and ice. A few hundred feet over the edge, the Qudyalcay River was a line of quicksilver smashing against its frozen self. We pressed on, Eldar gripping the wheel with white knuckles.
Whether the effect of a growing confidence or the seeping fumes, Eldar’s anxiety lessened with time. He soon roared us up blind hills, only to slam on the brakes as we crested. We skidded into patches of ice, and as the rear end swung out, I reached for the door handle ready to leap for it. He was smitten with the views, sometimes swerving right into them.
The steering wheel appeared to have little relationship with the tires; Eldar’s wild, high-elbow twisting had little effect on our course. Luckily, Ladas bounce, and we were kept aligned by the snow piled on the wayside by a crew of local men using shovels to clear the road.
We burned through the last of the clutch on the final ascent into Khinalig, where we traded its gun smoke stench, along with the gas fumes, for the acrid smell of burned straw. Khinalig remains a farming community, and manure is a precious resource. Pressed into bricks, it makes a cheap fuel.
On a Sunday morning, Khinalig was peaceful. The main town is built on a hilltop, the houses scrunched together. Ruddy women with trousers under their dresses clomped their way up and down the icy paths, hauling buckets and manure bricks. The sun was out, and children had rolled the sticky snow into large balls, each one peppered with mud and pebbles. All the sounds were of water: the tick-tack of melting snow hitting tin roofs, the popple of gravity-fed pipes pouring mountain water into troughs.
The museum was locked, but the key holder was summoned. The display was a jumbled homage to Khinalig’s warrior-shepherd culture: dusty clay pots, carpet-weaving supplies, rusted scimitars and sheepskins. Painted onto the wall in Azeri were the words of Khinaligi poet Rahim Alxas: “In the spring, my Khinalig, from frost to frost, I will not change my village, not for one hundred Parises, for one thousand Londons.”
On our way out, we met a man in a rumpled suit carrying a cabbage the size of a bowling ball and a bag of apples. Herder Rehman was in town for a few days, preparing to head back into the mountains with his sheep. He spoke a pragmatic English and was an enthusiastic greeter, taking my hand in both his large, warm paws.
As we fell into step with him, he said, “There are 3,500 people in this area,” meaning the surrounding mountains, too. “Twenty-one hundred speak Khinalig. Not bad, not bad.” We passed the school, where classes are still taught in Khinalig. Four hundred children come to Khinalig to board, a significant number. Eldar mentioned his long-ago work welding there.
Rehman invited us for tea at his house, a two-story building on the southern edge of town. His compound was dominated by a large pile of wood, brought up from Quba for about $300 a load. He poked a few sticks into a dented silver samovar.
While we waited for the water to boil, Rehman was eager for me to connect to his Wi-Fi, a new addition to the house. He uses it to rent out his home, among other things. The village has had telephone and television for some years now, contrary to what many people told me in the lowlands.
“The world comes here now,” Rehman said, adding that being a known part of the world isn’t a bad thing. Wanting to be “off the map” is usually a self-fulfilling destiny; rather than willing yourself back in time, you will yourself out of existence.
Like most born-and-bred country people, the Khinaligi aren’t afraid of change, it just takes longer to arrive that deep in the country. They’re eager for improvements, Rehman said. They long for them. Khinalig has survived for a long time on self-sufficiency.
With no restaurants and just a few lightly stocked general stores, they have to. But the improved road means a less peripatetic life, with less time spent on the lower-altitude winter pastures. Wi-Fi means connecting with children and relatives who have left to seek out other opportunities.
“People do leave,” Rehman said, and mentioned his son in Baku, Azerbaijan, studying at a university. I asked why he himself had stayed so long. “It’s my homeland, and that’s enough,” he said. He wanted to improve on what he had before he passed it on to the next generation. He served us tea made from mountain thyme, and we ate peanuts and quince jam at a table abutting his bed.
As in most ancient places, almost everything within sight carries some holy significance. There are ancient temples tucked away into the mountains – relics of when the region was full of fire-worshiping Zoroastrians. There’s a legend that the Khinaligi are the descendants of the biblical Noah.
Rehman didn’t have a clue when I mentioned the flood, the ark or animals two by two. “Animals?” he said. “Oh, yes. In the mountains, there are bears and wolves, and at home, we have goats and dogs and cows …” The list went on. I looked up at the whiteness of the mountains. The wind was whipping a thin veil of mist off the peaks. I said a silent prayer: Please let me see this place again.