Azerbaijan: the fascinating country you never thought to visit
Deep in the mountains of north-east Azerbaijan I am discussing Noah with an elderly villager. Wrapped in a headscarf and woolly hat, Malaksima, a formidable 80-something (she isn’t sure) with a weathered face like a walnut, is collecting spring water in a silver teapot, James Stewart writes in an article published by The Telegraph. I ask about a tale that the people of Khinaliq are direct descendants of Noah. Had the Bible’s original sailor really dropped anchor on these flat summits?
“Noah?” says Malaksima. She laughs. “Show me: where’s the ocean? Noah’s not even Muslim.”
Though Khinaliq lacks two-by-two wildlife, from aardvarks to zebras, it might pass as somewhere from the Old Testament. At the head of one Azerbaijan’s remotest valleys, the village coils over a mountain spur above the valley floor. In the silence you can hear the river below. Natural gas fires burn like divine portents in the surrounding mountains. Before Islam – before the Hebrews wrote about Noah, even – Azerbaijanis were Zoroastrians, fire-worshippers who discovered magic according to Pliny the Elder.
Old habits die hard. Azerbaijan’s favourite name for itself remains “The Land of Fire.”
“Anyway,” continues Malaksima, “everyone knows an angel founded this village. He was called Nabi. He was sent by Allah to build a mosque in the valley. Maybe he came along with Noah, I don’t know. But it’s true. I swear on bread.”
“On bread?” I ask.
“Of course. It’s older than the Koran,” she reasons.
In the jigsaw of nations that forms the Caucasus, the least accessible, most interesting country is Azerbaijan. While Georgia is on the cusp of travel superstardom and Ryanair launched direct flights from Italy to Armenia in January 2020, Azerbaijan has a blank-slate appeal.
Capital Baku has tarted itself up with oil money, ringing a historic core with ego-architecture in an aspiration to become a Dubai of the Caspian Sea. But life in rural Azerbaijan carries on much as it has for centuries: venerating bread, ritualising tea-drinking (see panel below), tending sheep. Figuring the way to experience that is on foot, I want to walk.
Sheki is in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, a five-hour drive west of Baku. That sounds a drag after your flight until you see the price of fuel (40p a litre) and the scenery. Beyond the capital, the desert ends abruptly and you are rolling past wooded hills and vineyards and blokes scything rhythmically in fields. It resembles a long-vanished Provence, if Provence had ever included samovars and Soviet trucks for sale at the roadside. They go for a song since Azerbaijan shrugged off Russia’s bear-hug in 1991.
In July 2019, Sheki won World Heritage status for its “tangible Silk Road heritage”. In the cool water garden of an old caravanserai, I sit beneath arcades where merchants once bartered for metalwork, ceramics and silks. In the Palace of Sheki Khans, I tour rooms with Persian carpets, a decorative fusion of the Middle East, India and China, of geometric Islam and the pictorial west.
The culture clash continues in a café beside the market. The owner flashes me a mouthful of gold teeth, then rattles through the day’s dishes: Central Asian sheep kidneys, Russian borscht, oriental dushbara dumplings, all accompanied by watery sheep’s yogurt served by the pint. The local delicacy is Ottoman, a sweet walnut baklava. Let’s just say Sheki has a lot of dentists.
For a change of scene I walk three miles to Kish village. As Sheki falls behind, woods take over, dotted here and there with former dachas. For the Russian elite, Azerbaijan was a Soviet shire, a place to breathe mountain air and enjoy a simple rustic life facilitated by servants.
Kish is the real deal, with cockerels strutting along rough-cobbled lanes. On the main square stands a bust of Thor Heyerdahl. The Norwegian adventurer has a cult following in Azerbaijan having funded the restoration of Kish’s first-century church, the country’s oldest. To understand why, you need to know about his pet theory concerning Azerbaijan as the wellspring of Scandinavians. They went west when the Romans arrived, he thought, citing an Icelandic saga that describes Odin’s homeland as “Aser” east of the Black Sea and petroglyphs like Viking ships at Gobustan, 40 miles from Baku.
Azerbaijanis seem happy to indulge the idea. At the church, an attendant shows me two skeletons.
“You see?” he asks pointing into the crypt. “They’re giants.” They are, although Bronze Age skeletons over 6ft 6in seem on the large side even for proto-Scandinavians.
Throughout my time in Sheki, people mention Quba Rayon. Near the Russian border in the north-east, the district is said to be a throwback even by Azerbaijani standards; a mountainous place that was almost isolated until a road was built in 2006, where traditional culture still thrives in sheep villages. It is beautiful, remote, fascinating, people said.
I return to Baku and head north. Beyond Quba town, in the taxi of a rakish cove with a brigand’s haul of gold teeth – my driver refuses to risk his new car on the roads ahead – I ascend up a narrowing valley past new guesthouses and slow cows. The road swerves through a ravine, ducking under overhangs, to emerge on a broad plateau riven by canyons as if God has gone mad with a pickaxe.
An hour up the road we come to Khinaliq, the highest village in Europe (7,645ft), heaped above a shallow river like a braid of rope. As we arrive a boy canters past on a horse, a blanket for a saddle, a toddler clinging to his waist.
The modern age has encroached with the new road but Khinaliq hovers uneasily beside the 21st century. Compacted manure and hay is burned for fuel. Most water comes from a spring – the hammam turns out to be the village shower (singular) in someone’s basement – and loos are long drops which smell several stages beyond ripe.
There is a shop selling tea and wire, a school, two mosques and the air of permanence that can only be acquired through 5,000 years of existence. The 2,000 residents farm sheep, speak a unique language and live in boxy stone houses hunkered down against the weather. I stay in that of Rauf and his wife Junata: four rough-walled rooms with space for the sheep downstairs – a budget way to take the bite off chill mountain air if you don’t mind the smell of ammonia.
In a place that seems beyond time, stories swirl like the clouds over surrounding peaks. In 1988 a goat-herder fell asleep in a cave. Babaali Babaaliev said he woke to see a huge hairy humanoid staring at him. Understandably, he has never quite been the same again.
I want to believe it. If Azerbaijan could accommodate Noah and angels and Vikings, why not a lost yeti? Bilal, my hosts’ 16-year-old son, is unconvinced. “But there are bears in the mountains,” he said. “Wolves too: you can hear them at night.” He takes me for a stroll around the village. Anything to avoid his parents – they are furious he has dropped out of school.
“What would I do at college in Baku?” he asks. “I’m a shepherd. I only know sheep and mountains.”
There seem worse things to know. We stop on a terrace. A few villagers in crumpled suits grin shy grins and shuffle awkwardly. They direct my gaze across the valley to Shahdag (King Mountain), propped between peaks. Gilded in the sunset, it shines like a crown.
The next day I go for a walk. Beyond women thwacking fresh wool in a trough, the old dirt road clings to slopes above the valley floor. I spend the day in this wild place, swishing through buttercups and harebells, watching jackdaws tumble across big skies and waving to shepherds who trail behind their sheep.
When I drop into Kalaykhudat village, after a few hours a man invites me for mountain-thyme tea. He tells me about a fortress of the Quba Khans that had controlled this ancient trade route and of a fire temple recently rebuilt in the Shahdag National Park. Apparently the shepherds use it to make tea.
Yet change may be coming. The Azerbaijani government is keen to promote Khinaliq. It has plans to transform my walking route into a tourist drive. Another project would create the world’s longest cable car from Khinaliq to Qabala ski resort.
This is the point where you are expecting me to condemn both. I won’t. Frankly, life is tough enough in these remote villages. If residents want a road and it sustains their futures, good luck to them.
In the night, after a dinner of kid goat and shots of Tsar vodka, Rauf envisages Saudi bus tours and new hotels. He makes them sound as fantastical as abominable snowmen or Noah dropping anchor on a nearby summit. “Great news isn’t it,” he says.
“No,” I reply. “Terrible.” There is a brief silence, then we both begin to laugh.
I’m still not sure who is right. But I’d go there sharpish if I were you.