Going through some of my travel writings, I discovered a fun story about traveling to Azerbaijan’s most remote and highest (7700-feet) settlement. Here’s my travelogue:
I never thought I’d find it, but i did: heaven on earth, deep in the
The story begins with haggling in Quba, a relatively big city in
Azerbaijan and the jumping off point to Xinaliq, what the Lonely
Planet Guide (an indispensable piece of shit) describes as the
“ultimate adventure in Azerbaijan.”
A guy I met on the Marshutni (shared bus-like thing) guided me to the
Jeep corral. Since this city is so far into the mountains and
inaccessible in the winter due to both snow and the ridiculous state
of the roads, a Yaz – short for unforgiving Russian Jeep – is the only way to
get to this hamlet deep in the Caucus Mountains, at the end of the
He got me a price I thought was acceptable and I was ready to go. But,
I had to wait for some guys who were also going to come to the
village. With the addition of other people, my price instantly because
insane, but there was nothing i could do. Eventually we left for the
mountains, our journey punctuated by a few stops for the riders to pick up
fencing, a natural-gas balloon and some other provisions.
About 20-minutes after we started on the real roads…let me
clarify: gnarly dirt paths torn apart from rain and jeeps
hovering precariously on the edges of massive cliffs. After 20-minutes
on the real roads, trails, whatever, we stopped for tea.
Some fresh vegetables arrived and tea, but so did the 1/2 liter bottle
of vodka and a tall boy of Azeri beer, for the driver. After finishing the tall
boy to the last drop (he actually shook the bottle for 10 seconds to
get everything out) and three shots later, one shot remained. As one
of the guys poured the shots, the driver said, “None for me, I’m
driving.” A typical scene in the Caucuses, but I wasn’t worried, my 4
shots erased any misgivings I might have about my drivers ability to
conduct his worn out 4×4.
The journey then started in full. I’ve already described the roads. At times the road disappeared into rushing rocky rivers and the jeep forded through
the swirling broth. I was impressed as the driver maneuvered his
The road began as a narrow canyon, the tops of both sides dusted in
grass, the rest barren rocks baking in the sun. As the road continued
further into the Caucuses, the canyon relaxed into a wide valley where mountains gilded in dewy grass flirted with fluffy clouds.
I felt like a pinball as the jeep trekked through the mountains.
Luckily for the handle on the dashboard, my head didn’t score any
points on the jeep’s ceiling or windows.
We arrive at a village, and I’m thinking, this is it. It’s been 3-hours of washing machine tumbling, but we’re not there yet. One of the
two passengers gets out and everyone shakes hands with everyone in the
village, myself included. Friendly people.
I can only imagine what they were saying after I left. Wondering what
I represent to them: western encroachment, progress, America (I hate
using this adjective, but I will), money.
We continue onto Xinaliq. Snowy peaks shimmer in the fading sunlight.
Finally after 4-hours in the Yaz (jeep), we arrive. It’s as if I’ve
stepped back 500-years into the arms of simplicity. Flat roofed
houses, made of small jagged stones, the same ones that littered the
riverbed, decorate the hillside.
I’m a spectacle. A long-haired tourist with a camera wandering through
the dirt alleyways. Kids shout and chase me. They show off kicking
around a basketball like a soccer ball, or a hackey sack. People stop
working to see who is this interlocutor.
But, it’s only me and off I head to the remaining guy in the Yaz’s
home. He invited me to stay with him for the night. His home is
simple. I noticed three rooms, but maybe there are more. We go into
the main room with a TV as its centerpiece. He switches it on and
there’s J Lo getting down on MTV.
My mind swirled. Here I was who knows how miles from humanity and
there was J. Lo.
My host was very proud of his two satellite dishes, what he called
Sputnik, and even through dinner, we watched TV. Bad manners in the
home I grew up in.
The guy didn’t have running water. No heat. There was electricity, but
no shower. Only a few sparse bulbs and satellite TV. Is western
culture encroaching the rest of the world or is it technology?
His wife serves dinner. A fine dinner of potato’s and chicken (I
assume they slaughtered it just for me). I turn the meat down and eat
the potato’s and cheese and bread and garnish. Tasty. Once again,
another bottle of vodka with dinner, 4 or 5 shots. I can’t quite
remember. This is the Caucuses.
More TV: animal planet then sleep in a bed that’s way too short.
In the morning I get up and the host serves breakfast. More bread and
cheese. Tea and halva. (Drink the aforementioned together instead of
putting a sugar cube in the mouth as is traditional in Azerbaijan).
For dessert, well maybe not dessert – but it seemed like it – sheep’s milk.
Yes, that’s correct, sheep’s milk filled with four heaping spoonfuls
of raw sugar. It was delicious after I stopped thinking about his young
son milking the sheep the night before.
And tasted like rice pudding.