A World Apart: Azerbaijan's Highest Settlement
Xinaliq, a high-mountain village in Azerbaijan's portion of the Caucasus mountain range, is its own little world. Not much is known about the origins of the settlement, but its roughly 800 present-day inhabitants are committed to preserving a unique cultural identity, centering on the distinctive Ketsh language.
Getting to Xinaliq required a bumpy 36-kilometer ride from Quba through various terrains and micro-climates. A dense forest gave way to a damp canyon, where thick fog and the Qudyal Çay River kept temperatures cool, and where frosted tree branches offered a sharp contrast against the orange ravine walls. The drive, featuring winding roads and patches of ice, along with the ever-present threat of a rock slide, was one in which a sense of wonder could gave way to fright very quickly.
At four points, the road had eroded. But my driver, Nobruz, and his trusty UAZ-469 jeep, deftly found detours. Gaining altitude, the trees disappeared, replaced by winter grass, black rocks and snow capped mountains. Arriving in the village, situated between the peaks of Tufandag (4,191 meters) and Qizilqaya (3,726 meters), we shared a grin.
Once a week, Nobruz, 44, is paid $60 to complete a round-trip drive to Quba, the provincial capital with a population of just over 20,000. His main task is to bring supplies to restock Xinaliq's single store. This is his only work. The road, completed in 2006, is slowly transforming Xinaliq from an self-reliant, isolated village into a community now reliant on distant neighbors. Born in Xinaliq, Nobruz currently lives in Quba, where many Xinaliq men are forced to migrate to find work.
We entered Nobruz's family home where his mother and two sisters still live. I was served tea and cherries and they asked where I was from. When I told them I was an American currently living in Turkey, a sister responded; "We had a man here from Poland once."
The women of Xinaliq constantly buzzed around their homes cleaning, cooking, sewing or tending to the dung patties that fuel their fires. Stone walls are lined with colorful carpets. Homes are centered on a pillowed room and a sitting table where tea seems to be served all day to largely sedentary men, many of whom appeared to do little else but flip away at satellite television channels. Outside, men might be found heading to a tea house, fixing a vehicle or contemplating the mountains from their rooftops. Black and white photos of family members in traditional garb or military uniforms tended to decorate one wall. Posters paying homage to a pop star or hair model might adorn another.
Within my first four hours in Xinaliq, I was invited into six homes, was fed twice and drank 15 cups of tea. There were lots of shared glances, nods, smiles and small talk. I was fed salty sheep's cheese, fresh bread, boiled mutton and fish. Children showcased their pets, ranging from cats to goats. I found that most youngsters could not speak Azeri and many of the elders could only speak a few words of Azerbaijan's official language.
Later, I hiked past graveyards and found a water source above the village where a cave contained ice that dripped into springs which fed a pipeline to the village.
After a night of eating, television and swooning over a baby, Nobruz put me to bed on the floor under heavy red blankets alongside his family. After a deep sleep I awoke in the morning to the scraping of broom on carpet and a whistling kettle. Rolling over I found Nobruz awake looking at me.
"Tea?" he asked.
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