There are few greater landscapes on this wonderful planet than the thunderous green Caucasus Mountains running like a dramatic curtain along Azerbaijan’s northern border, the other side of which lie the infamous Russian republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. Spending time in the likes of Quba, Qabala and Zagatala soothes the soul and strengthens the spirit and quite apart from anything else makes you feel as though you’ve been whisked into JR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Quba alone is home to 28 different ethnicities often living in isolated villages with magical names like Khinaliq, Qriz and Laza. The only difficulty – without a car, a map or a smattering of Azerbaijani – is how can I explore this region?
One answer is a young Azerbaijani explorer named Javid Qara and his Facebook-based business Camping Azerbaijan, which gathers small, informal groups of expats and Azerbaijanis for short expeditions, mainly into the Caucasus Mountains but also to other parts of Azerbaijan. Javid is somewhat of a pioneer – a 24-year-old Baku-based graduate with a passion for the great outdoors and the ability to build bridges between the local villagers, Azerbaijanis and foreigners.
In my childhood I had a longing to explore, he said, everyday there was a new street, a new corner, a new shortcut. One question used to keep pushing me to explore - what is behind that next building?
On a recent weekend I joined him and a small multi-national group of expats for a three-day hiking trip to Quba and the Shahdag National Park.
Sleepless in Qriz
Four hours after gathering on an autumnal Friday morning at Elmlar Akademiyasi metro station, bustling as per usual with students from nearby Baku State University, we had arrived at a junction deep within the Quba region, en route to an altogether different world. Continuing onwards would lead us to Khinaliq and the well-documented mountain people with their own ancient language and culture.
It’s hardly surprising then that Qriz retains a roof-of-the-world sense of isolation and a simple, agricultural way of life. Getting here is still a challenge, requiring the most formidable of Russian-made UAZ jeeps and fearless local drivers, which makes for an adrenaline-fuelled, stomach-in-your-mouth trip to the summit. The village itself has a peaceful rural charm with stone houses and walls and grassy plateaus chiming to the sound of roaming cows, flocks of sheep and colourful poultry.
The Qriz people survive on agriculture, with meat being the main product. In the village’s heyday, according to our host Rafig, there were about 700 houses but today the number was about 35, with a population of some 240 villagers.
Rafig and his mother shared the same piercing green eyes, light skin and well-defined features. They had returned to the village from Russia about 15 years ago and Rafig, whose lightly greying hair and weathered skin made him seem older than his 25 years, preferred the fresh and healthy mountain way of life, despite admitting: it’s a hard life, there’s no rest.
The family – Rafig, his parents and brothers – lived in a simple, cosy stone house with four carpeted rooms. In two of them we would roll out mattresses and blankets that night, but before that we spent the evening in the kitchen/lounge, sitting on cushions and chatting over several cups of tea, kept warm by the manure-fuelled stove near the front door. A truly authentic Azerbaijani experience, which must have echoed Javid’s summers as a child:
My father sent me to our family village Irmashli to help my aunt as a herder for her buffaloes. I did this during the summer holidays for six years. There I had more chance to explore, the village was surrounded by mountains instead of buildings and I always wondered what was behind the next mountain.
I had a plan to escape from home and explore the whole of Azerbaijan; I had a map and was planning all the time, but I couldn’t do it whilst still at school.
The dogs were now just a few metres away, stalking us into the camp with teeth drawn like swords and muscles ready to pounce
Hiking to Laza
The following morning the battle-ready jeeps sat poised in the soft golden sunlight and soon we were racing up impossible rocky roads and bouncing across deserted plateaus at the top of the Shahdag National Park. We stopped at the summit at Qizil Qaya – the roof of the world – where it was just us, the jeeps and kilometres of honey-hued, rugged grassland. Rising regally into the clouds in front was the great rounded figure of Mount Shahdag and to the left, Mount Bazarduzu, the highest peak in Azerbaijan. Beyond were endless peaks and ridges drifting north across the border into Russia.
Standing at the edge of a jaw-dropping descent we pondered our route to the small village at the bottom, the final destination for the day – Laza. It would have been remarkable to think it would only take us five hours. Javid guided us gently down with his slim frame and effortless stride, skipping along paths with the ease of a mountain goat; he truly was at home in the mountains. In truth the walking was fairly easy going and within the capability of most. The one truly hairy moment came a few hours into our hike and had nothing to do with the terrain but a ferocious creature on it.
It’s hardly surprising then that Qriz retains a roof-of-the-world sense of isolation and a simple, agricultural way of life
Javid had prepared us in advance – just stay together and don’t run. Although some way in the distance, our paths would inevitably and unfortunately collide. In the meantime we continued to cruise through the Shahdag National Park, bathing in sunshine and the refreshing autumn breeze. Shades of yellow and green lay across the rolling mountains like an Azerbaijani carpet, whisps of cloud clinging to the jagged peaks.
Having breeched a shallow ridge we saw a moving wave of sheep a hundred metres or so in the distance, patrolled by the infamous choban iti or sheepdogs. Rumour would have it the choban iti are bred in darkness and abandon and their ears and tails are cut to create the aggression and obedience needed to protect shepherds and their flocks from wolves and wild animals. We approached as the dogs barked, trembled and snarled and as they approached in turn the natural reaction was to simply bolt, but we held our ground and continued slowly into their territory. The dogs were now just a few metres away, stalking us into the camp with teeth drawn like swords and muscles ready to pounce.
Fortunately, the shepherds’ acceptance of us convinced the dogs to put their gruesome teeth away and they retreated back into their previous calm, giving us the opportunity to settle on a small plateau and enjoy the views with a refreshing cup of tea. Meanwhile, the shepherds, who had been camped up here for three months over the summer, continued to sort their sheep in preparation to return to the lowlands in a few days time. Theirs seemed both a lonesome existence carved out on the open steppes of the great Caucasus Mountains, but also an ancient, physical and free-willed way of life.
Laza may already be quite familiar to many expats, given that the Shahdag ski resort is only a few kilometres northeast. We arrived here mid-afternoon.
At first sight, like Qriz, this Lezghi village set dramatically within a valley of emerald green seemed peacefully rustic, surrounded by steep mountains stretching far into the clouds. In centuries gone by Laza was on an ancient caravan route and used as a stop-off for merchants and travellers who stayed with local families. Today, this mountain village sits on the boundary of the Qabala and Qusar regions, 1400 metres above sea level with some 150 people living in 25 - 30 houses.
We, like those merchants before us, were also billeted in a local guesthouse and spent the afternoon enjoying the hospitality, which included hearty soups and dolmas, pickles and fresh salads, and of course endless cups of coppery tea. That evening we walked the short distance to the Laza waterfalls at the edge of the village. Local lore says that the two falls, a few dozen metres apart, are actually two lovers who fell victim to an evil magician. In defiance, the legend goes, they began to flow into the same river. Sometimes at night the figures of a young man and a young woman are said to appear.
Javid guided us gently down with his slim frame and effortless stride, skipping along paths with the ease of a mountain goat; he truly was at home in the mountains
As darkness fell there was no sign of these unlikely apparitions, but Laza, like Qriz, was an ideal location for Javid’s simple brand of Azerbaijani eco-tourism. Camping Azerbaijan seems a win-win arrangement; invaluable for those wishing to see authentic Azerbaijan but equally to the local families benefitting from an extra source of income. Above all, Javid is a wonderful guide with the ability to bring people together in a shared appreciation of the life and landscapes of Azerbaijan.