Monday, May 28, 2007


Wow, for the first time, I don't really even know where to begin...

Last week, I met up with one of the employees of the new office, Aybaniz, here in Baku. We hit it off and she invited me along on a trip with her alumni group to a "local village". She was decidedly short on details, but I was so excited to get out of Baku (temps topping the mid-nineties this week) that I accepted immediately. Also, sometimes with the best adventures - it's best to act first and ask questions later.

Of course, when I was crammed into a non-airconditioned van early Sunday morning staring out the window at the desolate semi-arid, oil-donkey dotted landscape while whizzing in between cement trucks and lost cattle, I had other thoughts. But...whatever.........

Turns out that Aybaniz's group were a bunch of mid-thirties alumnae of a program to study English abroad, so I ended up having some great conversations - from the war in Iraq all the way up to Borat. After about two hours, the landscape changed from semi-arid to lush green forests. At 11:30, we stopped for tea at a campsite nestled deep in a lovely gully, where one had to run nimbly up and down rickety metal steps to get to covered platforms where the tables were situated. It felt a bit like the Swiss Family Robinson!

We lunched on: raw tomatoes and cucumbers, feta cheese, roast tomatoes, roast potatoes, juicy lamb kebab and fruit juice. Plus, of course, plenty of that yummy bread! Then we had to wait around for the tea - which, I'm learning, is quite a production. We had thick bitter tea with plain jam (or, some people sucked on sugar cubes and drank the tea at the same time). Having grown up on bitter tea - I really liked the sensation of intense sweet and bitter together.

After a quick pit stop to the squat toilet, we were off again for a two hour drive through the beautiful Greater Caucasus Mountains. The views were so amazing - the lower sections belied a picturesque scene of enormous waterfalls in the distance bisected by large swaths of green pasture dotted with yellow flowers. Further on, the pastures gave way to jagged rolls of the earth's crust, pushing up perpendicular to the earth , exposing the layers like a big rock cake.

As we wound up and down through the mountains, I couldn't help but notice the lack of guardrails as we teetered through the switchbacks. At one point, you could look straight down into the rapid rushing of a mud black river 2,000 meters below. Noticing my white knuckles, my seatmate sardonically remarked, "Hey, if we die, atleast we'll have something pretty to look at as it's happening!" (Um, yeah.)

As we got closer to the village, snow capped peaks pushed their way into the horizon. It was so unreal - something out of a Hans Christan Anderson via Istanbul - storybook. The sun shone down, the sheep were fat, and I literally felt like I could touch the mountains. No sign of the Ricola guy, though.

Anyway, after we rounded through the rocky ravine and crossed over the river, we had another thirty minutes of climbing through the windy, barren, rock-strewn, heather before getting to the base of Xinaliq.

Xinaliq has the distinction of being the highest elevated village in all of Azerbaijan - and, as one student told me, all of Europe. (Wait, what? Europe? Since when did Azerbaijan become part of Europe?!) Anyway, living near the rooftop of the world, the people of Xinaliq have through the ages, developed their own language and own distinct culture. In fact, if my little internet search is correct,

"Khinalyg (Xinaliq) is amongst the most ancient and still active places in the world, the history of Khinalyg is 4,000 years old. Before the conversion to Christianity of Caucasian Albania in the 3rd century, and Islam in the 7th century, the people of Khinalyg were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who established Zoroastrianism. Because of the high altitude and remoteness of Khinalyg it managed to survive and withstand many invasions and therefore many historical sites in Khinalyg are still intact and are considered as holy places for Zoroastrianism."

After 4 1/2 hours in the car, I felt like I was at the end of the world.

The tiny village (which I later found out hosted about 1,800 people), looked so old, that instead of being perched on top of the hill, it actually grew from it, in stone shelter shaped warts. We pulled into the main square and tons of little children, in dirty sweaters and ruddy faces, fell out into the street. I was struck immediately by two things: 1) the merciless, unrelenting wind and thoughts of how bitter cold the winter must be here and 2) how none of the children asked us for anything (unlike at the Mua Mission in Malawi). In fact, it was so untouristy it was Peaceful.

As I wandered through the city - isolated both from my travelmates and the villagers - I watched two women taking advantage of the beautiful sunny and washing their rugs in a horse trough. A small kid peeked her head out from a doorway, underneath wildly flapping laundry, chirped and quickly - shyly - slipped back inside when I waved at her. Three little boys shouted "Salaam! Salaam!" from a rooftop at me, as I trampled below them. Overall, it seemed, people were happy to see us, but also shy and content to let us wander through their village.

Most stone buildings were in tact, with sheets of corregated iron covering a few sides, others were partially built (it seems like that way for most buildings in Azerbaijan) or partially abandoned. Dirt was everywhere. Horse patties lay either drying in the sun, or stacked as fuel along each house. The local mosque was closed - and really, the only reason I could see that it was mosque was because of the half-moon on the top. Otherwise, it was just a decrepit as the others.

Besides children, I didn't really see alot of adults milling around. I was surprised, as this touted "tourist destination" seemed to house neither tourists nor anything much to see (except, of course, the amazing views).

But...standing on top of the highest hill looking down into the valley below while the wind whipped through my ever snarling hair - that was quite a feeling.

And one fraught with lots of funny, insightful musings, not the least of which was, "Now how did I come to be HERE?"

M is for More to Come,

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