Xinaliq: Visiting the Most Remote Village in Azerbaijan Mountains
Xinaliq (or Khinalug), a remote village in Azerbaijan near borders with Russia still keeps its traditional atmosphere. Travelers slowly discover this part of the country, and in our ultimate guide, we will show you, why Xinaliq and Azerbaijan overall should be on your bucket list.
If asked, what the word remoteness evokes in our minds, we would probably think of Xinaliq.
The isolated village located in the northernmost part of Azerbaijan in Greater Caucasus is very close to the borders with Russia, and the mixture of various influences combined with beautiful mountain scenery creates the unique and fragile environment. Xinaliq (Khinalug) lies hidden in the mountains at 2350 meters above sea level and is one of the highest located villages on the continent.
The nearest city is Quba, only 50 km from Xinaliq and the question, therefore, arises how come that it felt like we emerged in a forgotten land.
The truth is that until 2006 there was only a rough unpaved road and even 4WD jeeps had a problem to get to the village in the summer, and it was almost mission impossible during the winter.
But in this very year, the President of Azerbaijan decided to visit Xinaliq to announce plans to modernize the area and on the same occasion to open the village to tourism. The asphalt road was built immediately and helped locals to live more comfortably, but thankfully the Xinaliq still keeps its own rural, traditional way of life.
It's hard to believe that Xinaliq belongs to the same country as the capital city Baku.
The difference couldn't be more conspicuous.
On the one hand, extravagant Baku showing off its richness coming from petrol and on the other hand village far in the mountains where people live in simple houses and mostly eat what they grow and breed, and moreover will probably never have a chance to visit their capital!
How to get to Xinaliq
To reach Xinaliq, it is inevitable arrive in Quba first.
From the capital city Baku, buses run to Quba hourly from 8 AM from The International Bus Terminal. The bus station is the absolute chaos, and probably only locals understand what to do and where to go.
First of all, some of the vehicles leave when full so do not rely on a timetable that much. Also, if you are looking for a bus, you might end up in a van, jeep or marshrutka in the worst case scenario. A car assignment to specific routes was beyond our understanding, but the important thing is, that it works.
After at least half an hour when standing on the wrong platform (with a board saying Quba and posted timetable on it), we decided to ask and a man led us to a minivan going to Quba.
The drive takes about 3 hours and costs 4 AZN. Tickets are payable directly to the driver.
There is no bus going to Xinaliq so when in Quba, go to a bustling market in front of hotel Xynaliq (possibly in the morning) and arrange a shared jeep. The price shouldn't be more than 10 AZN per person. Be prepared that it is not that common to have independent travelers in this region and you might be a subject of frenzy among drivers who will be the privileged one, and also it can be hard not to be overcharged and get a fair rate.
You can also arrange private tour or transport through a hotel desk, but expect to pay more.
The city is capital of Quba Rayon and population is over 38 000 people. At the time of our visit, it seemed that Quba was under renovation and it was incredibly dusty and hard to walk around because of missing pavements, holes in the road and more unexpected obstacles.
We stayed in the centrally located hotel Standart, it's one of the cheapest ones, and you shouldn't be expecting anything fancy, but it was ok for the night, considerably clean with private bathroom and hot water. There are small eateries around the city we tried one right next to our hotel serving kebabs only.
What to see in Quba
If you have time before setting off to Xinaliq, you can visit some of Quba's sights. Our aimless afternoon walk took us to Nizami Park then around beehive-like buildings and octagonal Cuma Mosque to War Memorial.
Road to Xinaliq
The actual drive from Quba to Xinaliq usually takes about three hours, mostly because the way is narrow with many turns and passageways very near to vertical drops without any barriers and mainly because the views are so spectacular that you will ask your driver to stop every other second.
Fortunately, our driver was willing and patient and seemed that he's enjoying the ride with us.
How to visit
You can visit Xinaliq independently or take a guided tour (from Quba or even from Baku).
To find an accommodation in the village, explore the nooks or climb hills above for better views, there is no need to have a guide, but if you want to do multiday trekking, or you don't speak Russian or Azerbaijani and don't feel comfortable to rely only on your body language, hiring a guide might be helpful. Make sure, that your guide speaks English (on the level you require), they sometimes can exaggerate their skills a little.
A guide will be easy to find in Quba or Xinaliq, for 30 AZN per day.
A long day trip from Baku in a party of at least ten members cost around 70 AZN per person, but why not to stay overnight?
All houses in Xinaliq are made of cobblestone and built in the same architectural style, and also the inside disposition is no different from each other.
The village is stretching up the steep hill, and because built so densely, the roof of one house serves as a small terrace for the house on the higher level, where locals can sit, cook or kids use it as a playground. There are about 380 houses in the village sharing the architectural integrity which is from time to time disrupted by metal roofing, a trend which came from Quba after the road construction.
When walking around, you'll notice the smell of dung wafting the village. The manure is widely used as an ecological fuel, and also when piled up and mixed with hay, the cubicles are dried up, and then find purpose in building high walls.
Xinaliq is one of the world's oldest permanent settlements, continuously inhabited for more than 5000 years.
The life here definitely changed since then, but still, when you see people outside, shepherding their herds up to the steep hills, you can get the feeling of old (almost ancient) times. Men usually work in agriculture and take care of their herds, women wove shawls and make carpets. Inhabitants are very religious, they practice Islam, but also follow traditions connected with the land which is sacred to them because it ensures their living.
Currently, around 2000 people live in Xinaliq permanently, and they even speak own language - Ketsh.
We could see it with our very own eyes when a man was trying to say something to us, but first, he had to translate it from Ketsh to Azerbaijani and than with vocabulary to English. Most of the villagers speak Azerbaijani and the national language is taught in the school as well, but they use Ketsch most of the time.
Without a guide, it's not easy to communicate with homestays owners, but it is not impossible with some patience, and effort and it is very often entertaining.
People of Xinaliq are friendly and open to meeting to people. When walking around the village, we collected a party of kids who followed us, and in the evening, we were invited to a local wedding, really unforgettable experience.
Because of the remoteness, it is nothing unusual about consanguineous marriages in Xinaliq.
When staying in homestays, you will most likely eat with the family and enjoy the cuisine they cook.
The meal usually consists of bread with home-made cheese in the morning and meat with potatoes and some veggies in the evening. The food comes with tea (don't let locals put sugar to yours unless you prefer crazily sugary one) and in the evening you might enjoy a sip of local spirits.
We were ok with the food we got and were not hungry at all.
There is a small shop in Xinaliq, but sells only basic food what locals cannot grow, tea and cookies.
There is no ATM in Xinaliq, so bring enough cash with you and try to have small bills and change.
We had troubles while paying with 50 AZN ($30).
The region, in general, is safe, and we didn't have a single reason not to feel comfortable.
You are free to walk around the village without restrictions, and when hiking on own, you can walk wherever you want, only make sure you won't get too close to the military zone of neighboring Dagestan where you could get in troubles. Some sources say that you can get a permit to hike nearer to borders with Russia, but still, it is not 100% guaranteed that you won't be stopped and turned back by soldiers.
When climbing up and further from the village, it is better to be aware of bears, sheepdogs and wild dogs which can be potentially dangerous and have a bear spray and rocks or piece of wood against dogs handy.
The weather is changeable how is it even possible in the mountains.
The first day we arrived, we experienced probably all seasons in one day, only snow was missing. Generally speaking, the hottest summer months are June until the end of August with spring-like temperatures around 18°C, winter is long and cold with lots of snow and sometimes impassable roads.
Even during summer months temperatures significantly drop at nights.
The network of homestays in Xinaliq is relatively extensive, and just like all around the world, we could see the slow changeover how tourism influences and takes over the reign over until now undeveloped region.
We haven't made a reservation in advance and stayed with one of the first families (Mr. Zaor, he was probably a friend of our driver because he took us directly to him) who opened doors to travelers, but nowadays the locals are adapting to the times, and you can even book via Booking.com.
Price range for a room is from $11 - $66.
The room was cozy with tapestries on the walls and decorated with carpets on the floor. We slept on large down comforters on the ground, with a dazzling choice of blankets. The common area consisted of small kitchen connected with the sitting area, there was no bathroom but only a bucket of water and sink with cold water and dry toilet outside in the backyard. Electricity works consistently but do not expect heaters in the room.
Even though it can get cold at nights, the thick walls and blankets will keep you warm.
WHERE TO STAY
Quba | We stayed in Quba overnight before setting off on a journey into the mountains and you might do the same. Shahdag Hotel Guba is a new hotel in the center of Quba offering a higher standard than other accommodations in the town with great facilities, and comfortable rooms.
Xinaliq | Staying in the lonely mountainous village will be the highlight of your trip and Xinaliq Qonaq Evi is a great option where you can stay overnight. Owners are kind and helpful, the rooms are spacious and clean.
Laza | If you have more time, you can consider visiting another village in the Caucasus Mountains. The Laza Guest House is located in the center of the village surrounded by beautiful landscape and majestic mountains. The family owners are friendly and helpful and the place is clean.
What to do
The beauty of visiting Xinaliq is not in world-renowned attractions, or must-see places, it is about the striking mountain scenery, village architecture, people and embracing the peaceful atmosphere.
We spent two nights and almost three days here, and even though it seems there is not that much to do, the time flew quicker than we appreciated.
#1 Xinaliq village
Walking around the village was something we didn't get tired of throughout.
It will take you a while to walk through the ancient cobblestone houses, terraces and pastures within the village. You will find here a post office and even tea house, which didn't seem to be open, ever. Some of the houses are in a good state some fall apart some have a crazy number of annexes that it is a miracle they still stand.
When walking around, you will notice people inconspicuously looking at you, and you will attract the local kids for whom tourists are great entertainment.
Believe it or not, when looking for a cultural distraction after the day spent outside, the village has Historical-Ethnographic Museum on site.
Ask around to find a key keeper and enter the two-room building where you can find traditional earthenware, historic clothes, coins, weapons or old photographs.
#3 Hiking & Horse riding
360° degree views to Khinalug Valley are spectacular, and you don't even have to climb that high.
You can observe green terraces on the other side, and the water running down from hills, creating a natural trough. After we reached the best spot to take pictures, we just sat down and relaxed with amazing vistas around us.
To do multiday hikes, consider hiring a guide if not experienced enough. You can walk to the nearby caves with waterfalls, explore surrounding mountains or walk to Laza village (2 - 3 day). We were not that adventurous this time and were satisfied with sceneries we could admire from nearby hills.
Ecotourism and horse riding are on the rise in Xinaliq. Ask for a guided ride in your guesthouse they will be happy to help.
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