September 7, 2014: After our little side trip to Ateshgah, we finally reached our intended destination, the village of Xinaliq (otherwise known as Khinalik, Khinalug, Khynalyg and Ketsh Khalkh). Xinaliq means “the land where henna grows.”
Perched high atop a knoll with 360 degree views of the valleys and mountains surrounding it, this unusual village is a long way from modern Baku. It is one of the highest, most remote and traditional villages in the Caucasus mountains.
Human inhabitation of the area dates back 5,000 years. One account I read said the village moved to the top of the hill more than 1,000 years ago after an older, lower village was flooded by the river below. Another said defense facilities, including a fortress, were built in the 10th Century so the villagers could defend themselves against nomadic tribes. Although the first mosque was built in 968, at that time, the main watchtower also included a temple with an eternal flame, and the people were fire worshippers. The numerous cemeteries dotting the adjacent slopes date back to the dark ages, with some graves having three and four burial layers.
For much of its history, Xinaliq was cut off from neighbouring villages and towns for much of the year by winter snows and mountains. The first rough road connecting Xinaliq to Quba appeared in the 1960s and that’s when some of the old traditions began to wane. When trucks began bringing goods from the outside, cultivation of crops on the surrounding terraced slopes dropped off dramatically. With electricity came TV and the first view of the outside world. After the building of the road and the fall of the Soviet Union, many villagers left to find work outside. We met one man returning to Xinaliq for a visit who now works in Siberia.
The first paved road appeared just a few years ago, built so the president of Azerbaijan could visit. Now the village sports a new school, a community centre and other modern conveniences like satellite TV and cellular service. Along with the new road came more tourists, although the numbers are still low at this time and there aren’t many services catering to tourists other than the local museum and a guest house or two.
Despite the modcons, daily life is still very traditional for the population that numbers somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000. Men herd sheep and get around on horseback. Women gather at community tubs to wash wool. Children run around and play.
Dung is mixed with straw, shaped and dried in the sun for use as fuel to heat their homes in winter. Dried dung comes in three shapes, round pies, flat squares and bricks. You find the bricks built into walls around town.
Wandering the narrow paths between the buildings, we kept getting spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The older homes are built from local materials, mostly rectangular dark gray stones that are meticulously put into place to create geometric designs in the walls. Despite being above the tree line, some wood is evident in the beams used to support the flat roofs which must withstand heavy snow loads in the winter. The roofs are accessed by ladder from the home below or from the road above. Some of the newer buildings make use of manufactured bricks, sawn lumber and modern windows.
Splashes of colour appear here and there on doors and shutters to break the monotony of the grey. You even find splashes of colour on sheep and chickens, bright blue here, bright green there. Apparently it helps the villagers keep track of their animals.
We’re saving the best for last. Next up, we’ll meet some of the people of Xinaliq.
Some of the photos (the ones with snow) are from Chris and Medjid’s first trip here in March 2013.