By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
BAKU, Azerbaijan — Tourism is a relatively new industry in Azerbaijan.
Despite the fact that the tiny, landlocked republic can lay claim to three separate UNESCO World Heritage Sites — the medieval walled city of Old Baku, with its mysterious and emblematic Maiden Tower and the Palace of King Shirvanshah, built in the 15th century; the incomparable cave paintings of Gobustan, with complex petroglyphs dating back nearly 22,000 years; and the majestic 17th century Palace of Shaki Khans, with its awe-inspiringly beautiful, multihued stained glass windows — Azerbaijan receives only about 2 millón tourists a year, and a large portion of those are backpackers and day-trippers who hire a whirlwind eight-hour tour of the capital and immediately head off to other (supposedly greener) pastures for their around-Central-Asia-in-seven-days adventures.
But while there is certainly much to see in Baku (and, if your feet hold out, you can, with a good tour guide, cram in an impressive amount of viewing in just a few hours), if you really want to discover this fantastically diverse, cultural dynamic country where modern and ancient, East and West coexist in improbable harmony, take the time to spend a few days and actually expand your horizons beyond the bustling, busy capital and head north into the Caucusian Mountains.
Tes Tour, a small but highly personalized tour company based in the heart of Old Baku that has been showcasing Azerbaijan’s less-traveled roads for eight years, offers both individual and group trips to about 10 different destinations, with highly trained and extremely accommodating guides at reasonable prices.
The staff at Tes was a bit reluctant to send me off into the Caucusus in the dead of winter, since the region is generally considered to be a summertime destination and the one-lane “highway” in winter can be terrifyingly steep and curvaceous, covered in fresh powdery snow and slippery ice.
And, indeed, the photographs they showed me of the remote, rugged range where Europe and Asia meet in a geological clash of multiple canyons and exposed jutting rocks decked out in rich shades of verdant greens, crowned with a virtual cornucopia of wild mountain flowers, were breathtaking.
But, I was in Azerbaijan in winter, and so, despite warnings from fellow tourists and native Azeris, I decided to brave the snow, ice and winding, serpentine dirt roads that lead to Mount Khinalug, the highest peak in the Azerbaijani Caucuses Range, towering over two continents at 2,350 meters above sea level.
The 12-hour trek began with my guide, Elshan, picking me up at my hotel and us heading out of the city with our driver toward Caucasia.
For the first hour, the scenery was much like that of the suburbs of Baku, with seemingly endless rows of oil wells next to oil wells on flat, arid plains, with sparse and modest urban development peppering the roadside. (Oil and natural gas account for about 95 percent of the country’s exports and 75 percent of government revenues.)
Occasionally, there were barren fields filled with row-upon-row of solar panels, and there were even a few sporadic clusters of modern, slender wind turbines (both symbols of the government’s keen awareness that even Azerbaijan’s vast hydrocarbon reserves are not limitless).
But as we approached the Quba Rayon district of the country, the landscape began to slowly transform into a much more fertile region, with fresh-picked apples, dried fruit candies and various assortments of goat cheeses and butters. (I tried one of the pressed fruit candies, which was so sour that it threw my taste buds for a serious loop.)
We then arrived in the hilly village of Quba (pronounced Cuba, like the Caribbean island nation), a picturesque town on the northeastern slopes of Shahag Mountain, divided by the Kudyal River.
On one side of the river, the local Muslim community lives and works in a strangely congruous hodgepodge of modern and ancient buildings (very much like a miniature version of Baku), but on the other side, there is a community of well-heeled Jews (this is NOT a ghetto, by any stretch of the imagination) whose ancestors were granted asylum and land by Quba’s King Huseyn Ali Akhan back in 1731 when they were expelled from Persia.
Quba’s so-called Red Village is the largest of about 50 mountain Jewish settlements in Azerbaijan, and they practice their own brand of Judaism, mixing Old Testament traditions with local customs and practices, as well as a bit of mysticism.
Azerbaijan’s mountain Jews also speak their own language, Juhuri (also called Judeo-Tat), a blend of ancient Persian and Hebrew.
The mountain Jews of Quba have done well for themselves, becoming successful merchants and land owners, and have just recently built a sleek, high-tech museum in one of the town’s 10 abandoned synagogues. (There are three synagogues in the Red Village that are still in operation.)
The museum is not yet officially opened, but is slated to be inaugurated come spring (or maybe summer).
If you ask at the Jewish Community Information Center, you can get a sneak preview of the museum with an English-speaking guide.
And while some of the museum’s three-dimensional, multilingual video screens that tell the story of the Azeri mountain Jews are not yet operational, there are some extraordinary items on display that depict the community’s unique history, including a well-preserved scroll case dating from the early 18th century.
Also within the museum is a life-size photograph and tribute to one of Azerbaijan’s official “National Heroes,” Albert Agarunov, a mountain Jew who fought gallantly in defense of the Azeri people during the 1992 invasion of the Karabakh region by Armenia. (Earlier this year, the Azerbaijani government erected a statue of Agarunov in downtown Baku.)
Agarunov is a historic symbol of the tranquil coexistence that Azerbaijan’s Jewish population has long enjoyed in this predominantly Muslim nation.
As we left Quba, the temperature began to drop sharply as we wound our way into the ever-steeper foothills of Caucasia.
Just outside the town, we stopped to sample some local street food, a hand-rolled crêpe filled with crumbled goat cheese and diced spinach, grilled over an open charcoal fire and served with perfumed black tea.
Pretty much wherever and whatever you eat in Azerbaijan, you can count on the food being delicious, free from chemical contaminants and fresh off the farm, and the Quba crêpes were no exception.
I could have stayed and made an entire meal out of the crepes, but Elshan insisted that we continue on our way (a very wise move, since had we lingered any longer, we might have faced the downhill trek from the mountains in the dark, a potentially dangerous prospect considering how winding and icy the unlit road was).
The next two hours were filled with spectacular panoramic views of the vast Caucuses wilderness, blanketed in alabaster quilts of snow that glistened under the bright winter sun.
Stripped of their leaves by the chilly frost, the trees of the old-growth forests on the lower portions of the mountains became silvery stick-figure silhouettes that punctuated the otherwise pristine carpet of freshly fallen snow that stretched out into the distant horizons.
Where the sandstone, limestone and granite crags were too steep to hold the snow, the sedimentary and metamorphic rocks revealed their millennium-old histories in meticulously folded curtains of white, black and gray.
And as we moved higher and higher into the Caucuses hillside, the scenery became more and more magnificent and the spiraling, sleeted road became more and more narrow.
Midway to the mountain village of Khinalug, we stopped to take in the stunning vista of this sublime, frozen paradise, nature’s commanding towers draped in pure, virgin snow.
The crisp, mountain air was exhilarating, and the alabaster slopes extended as far as the eye could see in any direction.
The sheltering sky was a pale pastel blue with only a few cumulous clouds scraping the peaks in the distance, where a pair of Caucuses eagles soared gracefully above this mountaintop paradise.
The last hour of the drive was not only spellbinding because of the Caucuses’ incredible beauty, but also terrifying because the muddy, ice-caked road narrowed to what seemed like little more than a footpath carved into the commanding mountainside and because our vehicle, despite having four-wheel drive, kept slipping on the slick, frigid ground.
We finally reached the mountaintop village of Khinalug, a tiny cluster of 350 stone, wood, and straw brick shacks stacked haphazardly one upon the other, looking much the same as they must have looked when they were constructed more than a two centuries ago.
Founded during the early Caucasian Albanian period about 5,000 years ago, Khinalug — or Kyat, as the locals call it — is not only the highest village in Azerbaijan, but also the oldest.
The local residents speak their own language (distantly related to modern Albanian) and believe themselves to be the direct descendants of Noah, a Biblical heritage they proudly proclaim.
For centuries, the Kyatians lived in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world by the steep Caucuses summits and dangerously rocky cliffs.
Today, however, they have assimilated to some degree into general Azeri culture, although they still preserve many of their ancient traditions and customs.
As far back as the first century AD, the great Roman historian Pliny the Elder made reference to the people of Khinalug, and the Greek geographer Strabo meticulously recorded their location and history.
Tes Tour had made arrangements with one of the local families to receive us at their home and provide us with a traditional meal of fresh vegetables, steamed rice and grilled chicken.
Our hosts welcomed us into the center room of their multilevel but lopsided abode, where a newborn baby lay sleeping in an old wooden cradle strategically stationed against a giant, plasma, flat-screen television.
There was no running water, and the only bathroom facility was a primitive squat outhouse in the muddy front courtyard of the home.
We sat on a threadbare sofa and ate our meal off a rickety 1950-style coffee table as the incongruent sounds of modern Azerbaijani rock music wailed from the television set.
For dessert, our hostess served up a delicious pot of hot Azeri black tea and homemade white cherry jam.
But no sooner had I begun to savor the aromatic tea and preserves than Elshan and our driver were chomping at the bits for us to start the trek back down the mountain before we lost the afternoon light.
They were right, of course.
The sun was already beginning to set over the distant frozen crests and, clearly, had we waited any longer, there would have been no light to guide us back down the steep mountainside.
Other than the several heart-stopping moments when our car’s wheels would skid on the frozen mud and we were left staring down horrified into the snowy abyss below, the drive back to Baku was relatively uneventful.
I watched silently as the last glimmers of the fading afternoon light reflected on the snowy cliffs in subtle shades of coral, gold and auburn, making the already-mystical beauty of the Caucuses even more bewitching.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the knee-deep snow banks of the Caucuses dissolved into the barren limestone plains of Azerbaijan’s southern plateaus, and the twisting mountains and cliffs transformed back into the monotonously flat terrain of the country’s relentlessly dynamic oil fields and scuttling urban sprawl.
My Caucuses adventure had come to an end.
There are not many tour companies in Azerbaijan that offer excursions into Khinalug, and it was not until the construction of the (relatively) paved road through the mountains in 2006 that the country’s upper Caucuses communities began to open up to the outside world.
There is still something wondrously primal and untainted about the Azeri Caucuses, and while commercial and urban development will no doubt soon leave their mark on the remote ancestral communities of Quba and Khinalug, for now — at least for now — they offer an unsullied glimpse into this amazing nation’s rich ethnic heritage and diverse cultural past.
If you go
You will need a visa to enter Azerbaijan, which, depending on your nationality, you can obtain either through an online application or at your local Azeri Embassy or Consulate. Visas are usually issued for two weeks, but you can generally get an extension if you plan to stay longer. Your hotel’s staff can help you make the request on line.
Azerbaijan is basically a cash-based economy. You will be hard-pressed to find places (other than your hotel) where credit cards are welcome, and American Express cards are almost never accepted. You can withdraw money from most ATM machines, up to 200 manat (about $120) at a time, up to five times a day.
Baku has numerous quality hotels at exceptionally affordable prices, and the signature warmth and hospitality of the Azerbaijani people are sure to make your stay extraordinary no matter what hotel you choose. But the newly opened Boutique 19, located right behind the walled city of Old Baku, offers an exceptional blend of traditional art and modern luxury in a stately, meticulously appointed, renovated 19th century mansion. There is a swimming pool and an exquisite national and international food restaurant on the top floor, and some of the city’s best restaurants and boutiques are located just in front, and the Caspian is just a block away. The staff at Boutique 19 is extremely accommodating and can help you book tours, hire transport to the airport and even help you get a Turkish-style bath at one of Baku’s traditional hamans. The rooms are wonderfully spacious and the breakfast buffet offers fresh-squeezed juices, homemade breads and pastries, fresh fruits and vegetables and made-to-order omelets.