This was another major highlight of Azerbaijan: The tiny mountain village of Khinalug (also spelled Xinaliq) is an isolated settlement more or less in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by daunting mountains on all sides. It’s gorgeous.
While Baku is busy continuously reinventing itself with high-rise buildings and brand new stadiums, the mountain villages in the north, centered around the city of Quba, look as though they haven’t changed in centuries…except maybe for the occasional addition of satellite TVs, and the cars which have replaced some of the horses. But only some.
It used to be more of a challenge to get out here, but a relatively new road has connected the town and some of its neighbors to the rest of the world, and tourism has become far more common. The town swells by several hundred people in the summer, when more tourists come for a visit, and more residents come back to the village to accommodate them.
But even with the new visitors, not much has changed. Sheep still roam along dirt roads, and houses are still made mainly of the only raw materials in town—stone and dung.
But, despite the houses looking almost paleolithic when you first see them from the street, step inside and it’s all traditional carpets and fancy tea sets, giant samovars and crystal glassware.
I don’t recall a single decorative addition to the outside of any of these houses. It’s just the inside where they spend their efforts making life pleasant, and it was a nice surprise to find such a nice atmosphere hidden inside the otherwise utilitarian structures.
But of course that’s not why most people come here. Though I found it fascinating to get a glimpse of mountain village life, it’s generally the gorgeous mountain views that attract the most attention.
Khinalug is surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains, and the hiking around here goes through pristine valleys, flanked on either side by spiky ridges, inhabited by little more than shepherds and their flocks.
The mountains were also what kept Khinalug and other nearby villages so isolated from their surroundings. For better or for worse, the rocky landscape and bitterly cold winters kept these areas so cut off from the rest of the world that some of them—Khinalug included—even have their own language, distinct from the next village down the road. It’s part of what makes the Caucasus region so diverse, but also what makes it so politically complex, and its borders so fragile.
But, like everywhere in the Caucasus, the reputation for hospitality is well-deserved. Staying for a few nights in a tiny mountain village in the home of a welcoming family was easily a highlight of the trip, and the home-cooked meals and endless cups of tea were the perfect way to end a day of hiking through the snowy mountain valleys.
If you’re ever in Azerbaijan, try to get out of Baku, at least for a little while. Though Baku is great, places like Khinalug might make the best memories.