After a busy summer the sun is tired: rising later, retiring earlier and taking longer to achieve a lower afternoon temperature in between. Autumn is most definitely here and it was with this in mind that an impromptu and probably last-of-the-season trip to the countryside was made over the weekend.
It was deemed to be already too late in the year to drive the estimated five hours south to Lenkoran and the tricky little roads to Lahij near Sheki received the same judgement: both desirable destinations will have to wait until next time. Instead four of us piled into the little Niva and headed north towards Guba, our destination being a part of the mountains described by Mark Elliot in ‘the book’ as including his “favourite viewpoint in Azerbaijan” and named by him as Cloudcatcher Canyon.
During the drive north I was able to glimpse in wonder once more the remnants of the Soviet industrial leviathan that was Sumgayit. Glancing left and right I spotted several huge derelict flare towers amongst the vessels, pipe-racks and other rusting ironmongery. Driving that same road during a hot, smoggy summer dusk with those flares gushing vast columns of fire into the sky all around must have felt similar to entering Hades.
Approaching Guba from the south we were met by long, straight and uninspiring dual carriageway but this suddenly gave way to a large, neat and tidy town with many of the buildings white-washed and highlighted with brighter colours. It was also a pleasingly low-rise town with virtually nothing built higher than five floors. Baku must have looked similar not so long ago, before the tower-block craze took off.
Guba is on relatively flat ground but our exit westwards soon had us climbing into the forest-clad foothills of the mountains. Autumn’s first golds, ochres and russets added dashing highlights to the verdant scenery as we headed away from civilisation. Our escape took a little time: this area is a hugely popular weekend retreat for city folk and for the first half hour we were passing holiday cottage complexes every few hundred yards. Then the surfaced road ended, the built environment receded and we were soon at our chosen cottage in a tree-filled valley with steep rock towering above us, a lively stream below and no company save for the sheep and the shepherd staff who were serving us.
Having checked in and unloaded our bags we set forth to cover the few remaining miles to Cloudcatcher Canyon. We were exceedingly fortunate to discover that a new asphalt road was laid along the route only a few months ago. It looks like it has been built in the typical Azeri manner and will be lucky not to get washed into the gorge by the next spring rains but in the meantime it spared us a lot of bumping about in the dirt and fording of rivers.
Cloudcatcher Canyon does exactly what it says on the tin. It is an exceedingly narrow, deep ravine with a stream at the bottom, occasional small waterfalls to the sides and the road clinging to edges only a few metres above the stream. Approaching from the east you complete a climb and find that the already narrow landscape suddenly gets an awful lot narrower as you plunge downwards. Beyond the western end the terrain is far more open and on the sunny, blue-sky afternoon we were there we could clearly see the white clouds shrouding the top of the canyon from many miles back. The whole area really is quite beautiful and those who had cameras (I stupidly forgot mine, hence no pictures with this posting initially) snapped away merrily.
Catching Clouds… (photograph used with permission)
With the weather being so good and the road that much better than expected we chose to continue westwards to the village of Xinaliq (the initial X pronounced in a similar manner to the ch in loch). Reportedly 2300m above sea level (and the wheezing Niva suggested that report to be accurate), Xinaliq is a remote village of unknown origins where the only arable crop you can just about grow is potatoes and you have to migrate to lower altitudes for much of the year to graze your livestock. It is famed for having its own unique language that defies categorisation but that language is now disappearing and there are insufficient records with which to save it.
The village buildings are set into the steep mountainside and constructed in a manner reminiscent of dry-stone walling using flat stones cut from the surrounding grey crags. It gives the settlement an organic feeling as if it has sprouted from the mountain like a natural growth; an effect that is partly enhanced and partly diminished by the large haystacks that are piled atop several of the flat-roofed dwellings.
Before arriving we were warned that there were no restaurants or tea shops in Xinaliq and not even a bakery as everybody continued to make their own daily bread. This appears on first acquaintance to hold true but there is certainly a general store in the village now and the new road is helping to stock it with a wide variety of goods. Nevertheless, we experienced Xinaliq hospitality the old-fashioned way: we got into conversation with a man of the village and he invited us to his home for tea and food.
In contrast to the grey, understated exterior, the interior of the room we were ushered into up firm but uneven wooden steps was a colourful jolt to the senses. The lower half of the walls was painted red and the upper half blue, perhaps in homage to the upper two thirds of the national flag. The ceiling was covered with a blue tarpaulin to complete the effect. We sat at a simple rectangular table beneath two photographs of female Azeri singers and a large gold-on-black Sieko (sic) quartz wall clock while the contents of the room were completed by a ‘fridge-freezer of indeterminate age at the other end of the room.
Our host, Ghafar, was a man descended from a generations-old Xinaliq family. His weather-darkened skin and greying stubble suggested him to be around forty or so but I have never been good at guessing ages. He soon invited two other guests to join us, both teachers and the village’s brand new school. One was a young man of twenty who looked much younger and had come from Guba to earn some money before marrying. He taught biology to sixteen and seventeen year-olds and was a very quietly spoken chap. I knew that in a similar position in a British school he would be torn to shreds in five minutes and I hoped that scholars were less aggressive in Xinaliq.
The second guest was a city-boy, probably somewhere in his mid to late twenties (unspecified) and he spoke English and Russian as well as Azeri. He had only arrived to start his new job two weeks previously and claustrophobia was already setting in. Our company provided him with an opportunity let off a little steam and provide an alternative view of the village to that offered by Ghafar. Why was he there? No direct inquiry was made or answer given but I would imagine than earning much more than he would for the same job in Baku and not having to ‘arrange’ connections to get it might help sway the vote. Will he last the two years of the posting though…?
We enjoyed enlightening conversation, good home-made food and a quick look at the village ‘museum’ before leaving Ghafar with a small something for his troubles and racing the setting sun back to the cottage. It looks like Xinaliq is already changing and if the asphalt road lasts change will no doubt accelerate. I felt most fortunate to have been able to go there when I did and share an experience that may soon be unavailable to later visitors.
A typical Xinaliq house and a proud mother (photographs used with permission)
Sunday morning dawned grey and damp, making us doubly-glad that we had chosen to visit Xinaliq the previous afternoon. After a leisurely breakfast we started our gentle route home, first pause being a town across the river from Guba called Krasnaya Sloboda. Why the very Russian-sounding name has been retained is unclear but the town is notable for being one of the largest wholly Jewish settlements outside Israel.
As if on cue, we saw a teenage boy in a pristine white skull-cap only moments after starting along the main street. Some of the houses here were much grander than those in Guba, with ornate balconies, bay windows and multiple pitched roofs to see. Elliot describes such dwellings as being funded by family members who have moved to Israel and are sending money home. Regardless of the motivations, the architecture appears more tasteful and in keeping with the surroundings than many of the nouveau-riche creations that are springing up in and around Baku (Let’s not mention the government fairytale castle that we saw on our way back to Guba from the cottage).
Further along the same river bank is Gusari. Here we found a café with single-table terraces set into the steep sides leading down to the flood plain and the part-filled river bed that commanded a magnificent view across many miles.
The cuisine of the region is praised for its qutabs: sort of thin savoury pancakes folded in half with a filling that in Baku is typically fresh green herbs, lamb with pomegranate or – when in season – pumpkin. In Gusari that day they were offering green herbs and; for want of a more exact description; chitterlings. The green qutabs were simply gorgeous: far larger, better filled and strikingly fresh-flavoured than the restrained little offerings back in the city. In the interests of experiencing the local speciality I tried one of the chitterlings qutabs. It tasted rather like the average livestock farmyard smells and I am told that it was quite a mild example. I managed to finish it though.
We also had a sort of pie that I had never seen before. I say pie, what arrived on the table was a round of deep-fried pastry about an inch thick and eighteen inches in diameter that might have been used as a discus by Herakles in an original Olympic games. Filled with minced meat, potato and some herbs that we think included marjoram, it tasted gorgeous but was so heavy it was also more than enough to feed ten people rather than the four of our number. Doggy bags all round once we left.
After a stroll into the hills to savour the last of the quiet and the fresh air we got back into the car and returned to Baku. It was drier and warmer there as expected but also noisy and dirty, again as expected. The satisfaction of returning safely home was augmented by the contrast between Baku and the regions and realising that we had enjoyed a good weekend away in a completely different part of the country. Whenever the next trip may be, I look forward to it.