Some time ago, while looking through my Facebook feed, I came across a picture of the mountain village of Khinalug in Azerbaijan. I immediately fell in love with the place, and knew I would have to visit it one day.
A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to live in the neighbouring country of Georgia, and decided to grab the opportunity. Together with a friend from Russia, I ventured out to explore this little oil exporting country by the Caspian Sea, and found that it was rich in more ways than one.
The road to Khinalug is long and windy, and combined with the intense summer heat and the kafkaesque nature of the country's public transport system, it was quite an effort to get there. A bus from Baku took us to Quba, the apple capital of Azerbaijan.
The name of the city induced a certain anticipation, but we found nothing revolutionary about it. The city has a significant jewish population, mostly located north of the river that flows through it. The difference of living standard between the two sides was staggering, with most of the wealth clearly concentrated on the northern bank.
It was quickly getting dark, so we found a guesthouse, but continued our journey towards the hills before the sun set again. We were tired from the lack of sleep, but the astonishing mountain views and the winding road kept us awake. We passed small villages, herds of sheep, and mountain rivers. At times, it felt like our car was the only vehicle moving in our direction.
The driver masterfully navigated along the serpentine road, and soon enough we saw the village, floating like an island in the sea of velvet mountains. Our jaws dropped. I think I even spotted a tear in the corner of our driver's eye. What a beauty.
Khinalug is a wondrous place, located at an altitude of 2.300 m above sea level, with a history stretching back more than 5.000 years. The distinct culture of the village has been preserved through isolation - it was only connected by road 10 years ago. Before that, most contact with the outer world had to happen by horse, and mainly during the summer months.
While most inhabitants have a command of the Azerbaijani language today, their own Khinalug language is still widely spoken among the 2.000 inhabitants. It forms its own independent branch within the Northeast Caucasian language family, and is classified as a "severely endangered" by UNESCO.
The current buildings in the village are between 200 and 300 years old, and they're constructed with cobblestones and bricks made out of manure and straw. These bricks are also burned for heating, since the temperature can drop as low as -30°C in winter.
An interesting aspect of the architecture is that the houses are layered, so that the roof of one house serves as a yard for the family above. There's a hole in each roof, that functions as chimney, window, and a shortcut for neighbours dropping in for a quick visit.
The day we visited there was a wedding taking place in Khinalug, and people were preparing for the feast. We were dazzled by the amount of meat skewers the two men on the picture below were making for the guests. Generally speaking, meat is reserved for major celebrations, and the day to day diet consist mainly of potatoes, cheese, milk and eggs.
We got invited to partake in the celebrations, but unfortunately didn't have enough time to stay. From other accounts, these are events full of old traditions. There's a lot of dancing, but the genders are strictly separated on the dance floor. Men dance with each other, or in groups - and the women also keep to themselves. As for the bride, she's not supposed to be seen on her wedding day, and not even invited to the party. When the event is over, the groom picks her up, and brings her to her new home.
The culture also prohibits marriage with people from other villages. If you're born in Khinalug, you will marry a Khinalugian.
After strolling around for a while, some locals advised us to take a hike up to a couple of mountain springs. While the springs themselves didn't impress us much, the views of the village where magnificent.
I'm happy to have visited Khinalug before it becomes a mainstream tourist destination. The area has been protected from new construction, but it's hard to imagine a future where tourism will not eat away at least part of the uniqueness the village has today.