September 7, 2014: Here’s a little detour we took on our way to the ancient village of Xinaliq. Just beyond the village we entered Shahdag National Park. This high alpine region of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range sits along the border with Russia’s Dagestan Republic to the north.
The park is home to two of the tallest mountains in Azerbaijan, 4485m Mount Bazarduzu (Marketplace Mountain) and 4243m Mount Shahdagh (King Mountain).
Getting into the park isn’t a problem, but just beyond the gate is a military checkpoint. Lucky for us, Medjid knew the right people and we were waved right through, but only after a few telephone calls were made and our passports checked. Normally, you have to get a permit in advance.
Beyond the gate, we travelled up a wide valley, the summer grazing grounds for huge flocks of sheep.
Shahdag National Park was established in 2006 and covers more than 130,500 hectares. According to the park’s website, it’s home to a wide variety of wildlife like the East Caucasian tur (a mountain dwelling goat antelope found only in the Eastern Caucasus region), Caucasian Chamoix antelope, Bezoar ibex, brown bear, lynx, wild boar and wolf (which we didn’t see) and eagles (of which we did see plenty riding the air currents high overhead).
A little further on and we came to a fork in the road. Here we met up with Mustiq, a local shepherd from Xinaliq with his Lada Niva. The Niva is a Russian built off-road vehicle very popular in the mountains of Azerbaijan.
We all clamored into Mustiq’s Niva and he set off up the rough, two track road to our destination, Ateshgah. After a bumpy ride in low gear, weaving our way through herds of cows, we reached the end of the road. From here it was just a short scramble down a steep slope to Ateshgah.
Sitting at 2561m, Ateshgah is a simple, naturally occurring “eternal flame” powered by natural gas that escapes through a vent in the ground. For hundreds (more likely thousands) of years, sheep herders have used this spot to make tea. There are more of these eternal flames in Azerbaijan, but the most famous one closer to Baku is now reportedly fed by a gas pipeline. There were no pipes in evidence here.
Interesting natural phenomenon aside, the best was yet to come, when we all jumped back in the Niva and Mustiq drove it straight downhill. Who needs a road?
Back at the bottom of the hill, we watched Mustiq and the other herders as they worked to separate a large group of sheep into their respective flocks. While the protection dogs lolled around and we waited for a samovar filled with mountain stream water to boil for tea, the men worked hard to keep the sheep sporting blue bums away from the ones with a circle brand on the shoulder.
With Medjid as our translator, we learned a fair bit about sheep herding on these high altitude slopes and valleys. The men told us that each year they walk the sheep for 15 days to summer pastures and then back again 15 days where they overwinter. The dogs provide protection against predatory wolves and bears. Bears are less of a problem as they’ll just hunt a single sheep for a meal. The wolves attack at random and seemingly more for sport than a meal. Thirty sheep were lost in one flock during one big attack alone.
After tea, I decided to take a turn to help herd the sheep back into position, but it wasn’t easy keeping up with the shepherds on the uneven, rocky ground. Especially in my flip flops.
All too soon it was time to move along before we ran out of time to see our intended destination, the village of Xinaliq. That’s coming up next.