Monday, April 11, 2016

Into The Remote Heart of the Caucausus Mountains. Quba and Khinaliq.

On the way to Khinaliq.

We arrived into Baku last evening.  It was already dark by the time Rafael parked the car outside his family home.

We got to meet the whole clan -  his mother, father, brother, sister in-law, niece, nephew, uncle and grandmother.  I still could not believe that he simply called home that afternoon, told his mother that he was bringing two complete strangers home not just for dinner but also to spend the night and then have breakfast!  Apparently, she was okay with all that.  If it was me, I would have said....no.  Thankfully, Azeris are far more hospitable than I am.

Home sweet home for Rafael.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner of barbecued chicken, dolma and veggies courtesy of his family.  Every one was involved in some aspect of getting the meal together except they would not allow Pat or I to get our hands dirty, so to speak.  We were the guests.  Both Pat and I appreciated the hospitality but we had to admit, we felt a bit awkward being served hand and foot.

Pat sitting on the bed she slept in in Rafael's bedroom.

Rafael's family home is located in a near suburb of Baku.  It's very spacious.  On the first floor are a large living/dining room space, a kitchen, a bathroom and two large bedrooms.  Rafael took our luggage to one of the two rooms.  It had two twin beds.  Very comfortable.  Later, we would find out that was his bedroom.  All the rooms were pretty sparsely furnished by American standards.  Rafael's brother and his family live upstairs.  We didn't go up but I presume it's just bedrooms upstairs.

Pat in the living/dining room.  Aside from the furniture in the photo, there was china cabinet.  That's it.

Waiting for breakfast.

Rafael asked that I not post up any photos of his family so I will honor that request.  The photos that I did take will remain in my private album.

It was a simple breakfast and that's all we needed.  We said our thank you's and goodbyes after breakfast.  I had hoped to stop into store last night to pick up a gift for Rafael's mom but in our rush to make it home by a decent hour, we didn't stop.  Luckily, I had bought a small Chinese New Year bell when I was in NYC.  It wasn't anything special but it most certainly is something different as you would not find such a thing in Azerbaijan.

From Rafael's house, we drove about 2 hours to arrive into Quba, a small city nestled at the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus mountains.  We would be spending the night here but before then, we had several sights to see, including the remote mountain village of Khinaliq.


We're in a different region of Azerbaijan and the architecture here reflects that.  Unlike the stone buildings in Sheki, here it was simple brick.



We made a quick stop at Ardabil Mosque.  It was quick because the doors were locked and we couldn't enter.  The building was a most unusual looking structure painted in a garish color combination of burnt read and neon leaf green.  Later I read that the building was originally built as a church in 1312 which explains the shape and the fact that I did not see a minaret anywhere around.

In Soviet times, the building was used as the hostel, store-house, and archive.




In 1966, the building burnt to the ground and remained that way until 1988 when reconstruction efforts were begun.



I stuck my camera lens up to the one of the door's window panes and took this photo of the entry hall.  It most certainly does not look or feel like a mosque!


Our next stop was to small shop for Rafael to top off his phone card.

That silver dome and minaret on the right  belong to Quba's Juma (Friday) Mosque.

Pat and I waited by the car while Rafael did what he had to do.


Curious Pat had to check out what the men were playing. 

This man's hat caught my eye.  He was sitting all by himself, enjoying his morning cup of tea. 

Then it was off to a convenience store to buy water for Pat and cigarettes for Rafael.  Like so many Azeris we've crossed paths with on this trip, Rafael is smoker.



After that, we made our way to the outskirts of Quba and checked out a place called the Retro Hotel, a resort hotel and spa that Rafael thought we would like to spend the night in.   As we stepped out of the car, we both commented that it looked like a very nice place.  It was quiet - not a soul around that I would have labelled as a tourist.  In fact, the only people around though were workers who looked like they were hard at work doing tasks intended to get the place ready for the summer tourist season.

Not surprisingly, there were rooms available and we asked to see the room that we would be assigned to.  Pat approved it.  For just 60 manat ($40 USD), we're springing for the night.  I knew it would be too pricey for Rafael but apparently, he knows of a place in Quba that he can spend the night at for a very reasonable price.  We would return later in the day but for now, we had to continue our journey to Khinaliq.

The first part of our drive took us through a forest.  Flashback to our drive from Qaraqaya to Qabala.



We passed through a few small villages.


Before we knew it, grass covered mountains were all around us.  Where there are mountains and grass, there are sheep.  We stopped to take in what Pat described as a most bucolic scene.  Indeed it was!

Grazing Sheep
Use the scroll bar to pan to see the entire panoramic photo.


The field of sheep was on the right side of the road.  On the left was the vacation home of the President of Azerbaijan.

The presidential vacation mansion with wonderful views of rolling hills.  It's good to be President!

Remarkably, I was expecting that we would have to go offroad at some point but the road was entirely paved.  The road got very narrow and windy at times so Rafael really had to concentrate on driving.  Pat and I just enjoyed the beautiful views of mountains and rivers.


We did make quite a few stops along the way to stretch our legs, water a tree (so to speak), and take photos.  For Rafael, it was often a much needed cigarette break as well.


I think Rafael took as many photos with his cellphone as I did with my dSLR!

A path of icy snow.  A small glacier perhaps?

In no time, we said good bye to trees.  The landscape was just grass covered rocks.


The rocky landscape turned dramatic when the snow capped peaks appeared.   We would occasionally see small villages situated on the mountainsides.  Every time we see these places, we simply marvel at how people can actually live in a place this remove and ask a bunch of questions that only city slickers would ask -  "What people do to make living?  Do they have electricity and running water?" 











Pat and I got out and walked around the village a bit. Had to climb steep unpaved, rocky path. Did not go up too far. Nice view. Nice stone houses. Many now with tin roofs which were brought in once the road was paved. Piles of dung for fuel. Children roaming around. Friendly people. Pat stalking chickens. Mosque (?) door. Bumped into boy with cute little puppy. Boy pointed up to museum. Rough path up. We decided not to go see the place with Lonely Planet was a one room museum.

After what seemed like an eternity of driving on windy mountain roads, we arrived into Khinaliq.

Approaching Khinaliq.   Notice that as remote as the village is, they do have electricity though they still don't have running water!

Part of Khinaliq.

Khinaliq is so remote that up until the road was built and paved in 2006, the village was pretty inaccessible for nine months of the year!

Looking back at the road leading into Khinaliq.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere!

Our one lane road was blocked by one broken down car and another one that had stopped to help.




Initially, the white car, which was the usable one just sat there.  Then, the driver moved it to the side so we could pass.

Rafael drove into the village and parked the car in what he referred to as his favorite parking spot.  He then left Pat and I to wander the village on our own.  We had to bundle up before we headed out on our walk.  Though it was a sunny mid April day, it was chilly.

The village sheep. :-)

There was a path leading uphill.  Seemed like a good a path as any to take so we decided to wander up.  It was bit muddy with the occasional slippery rock so I really had to be careful.  It was also a bit steep so I wasn't sure I could make it all the way to the top of the village but I decided to just go as far as I felt comfortable hobbling up.

The buildings here are all constructed of stone and wood.  It sorta, kinda, reminds me of the villages I had seen on my trip across the Tibetan Plateau.  


Looking down at what I guessed was the school yard.

A cute little local boy.  His sweater pattern, with its reindeer (or are they moose?), looks very Scandinavian to me. 
I don't think there are any reindeer (or moose)  in Azerbaijan.

There were piles and piles of dung everywhere.  Presumably, this is both cooking and heating fuel for villagers.

Every house is surrounded by a stone wall.  You can appreciate the effort it took to create a pattern to make the wall more attractive looking.


In the first decade of the 21st century, Khinaliq, because of its remoteness, has still managed to preserve its ancient way of life. There is no running water but the stream nearby, no gas except the natural fires sprouting from the gas-pocked mountains. The light-skinned and blue-eyed race speaks Khinaluq, a unique and dying out language attributed to the northeastern group of Caucasus languages. The only source of income is sheep breeding - husbands graze their flocks in mountain pastures, women weave traditional carpet designs from wool at home. There are little over 1000 shepherd families living in Khinaliq at an elevation of over 2300 meters above the sea. Before 2006, the village was inaccessible for nine months out of the year, but four years ago, the president of Azerbaijan decided to visit Khinaliq and the government built the new road. This newly asphalted road will surely alleviate the hardships associated with winter and mountain isolation, but it may also threaten the unique culture of Khinaliq. - See more at: http://www.oseweb.org/stories/khinaliq-village#sthash.0sP6Lrca.dpuf
A local girl.  We crossed paths with a few but she was the only one who would pose for a photo.

Most of the houses use quite a bit of wood in their construction.  Considering there are no trees, let alone forests, in the surrounding area, residents must have to go quite a distance away to chop down trees and bring the lumber back to the village.  Sometimes it doesn't dawn on you how unusual something is until you put it in perspective.  I would have never expected to see so much wood used in the construction of a house.

Typical looking *Khinaliq style* house but atypical satellite dish!


Dramatic mountainscapes surround the tiny village.





Supposedly, there are 10 mosques in the village.  I think I spotted one.




The only source of income, for families living in Khinaliq, is raising sheep.

Pat stalking a few chickens. :-)

We did spot a few satellite dishes.


Those little brown dots?  Sheep, of course!

Standing in *uptown* Khinaliq looking at *downtown* Khinaliq.  Definitely uptown is the place to stay!

On our walk, we crossed paths with this young boy.  I was surprised to see how fair skinned he was.  His skin coloring and facial features make him standout from the typical Azeris we have seen - they look more Persian.  The sweater he was wearing really looks Scandinavian in design!                     


The residents of Khinaliq belong to an ethnic group that speaks Khinlaq, a language that is unique to them.  He pointed us to a building, situated high up atop the hill, and  repeatedly said word that remotely sounded like *muzey*, the Azeri word for museum.

Indeed it was the museum.  Later, Rafael pointed to the same building and asked if we had visited it.  Had my left foot not been injured, I would have trekked up the hill and checked out the place but today, I was not about to entertain the thought of hobbling all the way up there, on a muddy and rocky path.


Those little brown colored things near the bottom of the photo.  Tombstones.  That's the village cemetery.

We didn't stay long in Khinaliq.  While the village does welcome visitors, there really is no tourist infrastructure here to keep visitors hanging around i.e., no restaurants or shops.  I think that's intentional and I can't blame the residents for not wanting hordes of strangers to wander about their *streets* at all times of the day.

There is only one road in so we basically retraced our steps.  It was more photo stops on the way back to Quba.  As so often is the case, the view in one direction is very different from the view in the opposite direction.











At one point, we stopped to take a look at a small waterfall.   The muddy water was raging over the rocks.



The waterfall emptied out to a small river.  The fast flowing water was muddy with sediment.  Presumably, the water was ice melt from the surrounding mountains.  There is no shortage of water here!


It's a bit hard to make out but the waterfall is streaming down on the left side.


On the way back to Quba, we made a stop at a mountainside resort called Mest Dergah to use the facilities.  I think he was also wondering whether or not we would be interested in spending the night here but we were fine at the other place.




Rafael also mention there was a waterfall here so Pat wandered up the hill to check it out.  I opted out of walking up hill on a cobblestone path.  I really did not want to risk further injury to my ankle by hobbling on uneven cobblestones.  It was a very nice resort.  The buildings were all nestled among the trees.  Apparently,  this part of the country is also a popular place for city folks to come to to escape the sweltering heat of summer.  We're here ahead of summer season so the place was empty.  If I remember correctly, there are also some ski resorts here.


Just before arriving back into town, we stopped at another waterfall and met the only other tourists we've seen on our entire roadtrip.  The two men were from Dubai and they were accompanied by a driver who did not speak either Arabic or English so I don't know how they communicated with each other.  Rafael struck up a conversation with the driver and gave him his phone number - he was offering to help as a translator.  Rafael's English is not all that great but it's better than nothing! :-)



Rafael chatting it up with the driver.

The water from the waterfall flows downhill to a small river.

It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived back into Quba.  It was late for lunch but early for dinner but we had to eat.  Rafael took us to his favorite restaurant in townn -  Chinar Kafe.  Their specialty is qutab which we both enjoy eating.

The doors lead to individual dining rooms.

We got our own private dining room.  Seems to be the way folks like to eat here.  We left the ordering up to Rafael after going over our choices with him.


Rafael ordered pear flavored duses (fizzy pear juice/soda) for drinks. It's a tad too sweet for my taste but I don't mind having an occasional glass.



The ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad.  By the time this trip is over, I will not want to see either vegetable for a LONG time!

I had dushbara, the dumpling of Azerbaijan.

A plate of meat qutab which we all shared.

After our meal, Rafael drove us back to the Retro Hotel.  We checked and then said good bye to Rafael. We relaxed the rest of the day and night away.  I was also finally able to enjoy a nice shower....with hot water!

Our room. Very spacious with a view looking at the woods.


Hard to believe but tomorrow is our last day in Azerbaijan.   We have to be back in Baku to catch our 8:30p train to Tbilisi!  I cannot believe we have been here for more than a week already!  Time has really flown by.   I don't want to think about it.  Time for bed.

Goodnight from Quba!