Sometimes the most extraordinary adventures have unpromising beginnings.
That was the case when I set out on my mission to reach Khinaliq village in Azerbaijan. Secreted away in the peaks of the Caucasus range that demarcate the border with Russia, it is one of the highest settlements in Europe.
But leaving Baku in the early morning, there was nothing especially scenic about the start of the journey northwards, which was an uninspiring slog through indistinguishable desert scrub. It did — at least — offer some scope to catch up on some sleep before the visual manna started to manifest.
The scenic shift started to exert itself a short time after departing from Quba. As I was fresh from visiting Georgia, Azerbaijan’s neighbor to the northwest, I had lofty expectations I wasn’t convinced would be met. But my doubts were swiftly allayed as the grandeur of the Caucasus began to work its magic.
Tracking the course of a raging river, the road ascended higher and higher: twisting one way and then the other and testing the extent of my driver’s chops.
He emerged with flying colors, but my guide admitted that the journey would be too dangerous to undertake in the rain or the winter. As I peered tentatively out of the vehicle window towards the series of steep abysses that opened at the sides of the road, I could well gauge the risk factor.
Dangerous or not, it was a road that was well worth the odd hairy moment to ascend. Indeed, the view kept getting more impressive as we approached Khinaliq: emerald grasslands flanked by snow-capped mountains. It reminded me a lot of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, another place where nature’s bounty is rich and wild.
It always humbles me to be lucky enough to experience these special places. I felt especially like a VIP given the lack of people around. On our road trip, it sometimes seemed like the only breathing creatures within the radius were the members of our party and the sheep grazing along the side of the tarmac.
Finally, after around 5 hours on the road, we reached Khinaliq village. The scenic views were as stunning as I could have hoped for, while the sight of Russian military camps in the near distance over the border offered another geographical sense of perspective.
Legend has it that this settlement has been inhabited for the past 5,000 years. It is considered to be one of the oldest villages in the region. Due to its isolation, the villagers have been able to preserve their language, tradition, and their indigenous roots.
We parked our SUV at the base of the village and zig-zagged our way up through the streets. In contrast with the near-deserted landscapes on the journey, the village was full of life. Kids rushed to greet us with smiles and jokes and jovial shopkeepers displayed the woolen textiles that are the craft specialty of the area. Elsewhere, another woman was shearing a sheep on her rooftop.
I ended my all too brief sojourn to Khinaliq village with a chat, on a family rooftop, with two guys winding down after a hard day’s work. They were relaxed and wanted to talk. It was great to connect with some of the locals. I have to admit, though, that I kept getting sidetracked by the amazing views. When you are on the roof of Azerbaijan it’s easy to get distracted.