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The Village That Slowed Down Time

It was a cold and nippy winter's day in Azerbaijan - a destination I'd wound up in through a rather spontaneous plane ticket purchase. I'd had a long weekend coming up, and I'd been going through a delightful phase of taking any opportunity I could get to travel to any spot on a map within a short flight from the UAE that offered some natural beauty, and that I hadn't been to yet. Azerbaijan was a clear choice: then an up-and-coming gem with plenty of new oil money that was rapidly building its budding tourism industry - and plenty of interesting sights like mud volcanoes, fire-spouting mountains, mysterious temples, and historical districts to explore? I was sold within minutes of my initial Google search. The wide variety of options for outdoor recreation were a cherry on top. I was impressed the moment I set foot out of Baku's Heydar Aliyev International Airport: A truly beautiful spot that takes pride in its avant-garde design, its wooden "cocoons" (designed by Turkish studio Autoban), repurposed London Black Cabs in their bright purple and yellow hues, and fluid neo-futuristic architecture were a beautiful contrast to the quaint charm of the Icheri Sheher or Old City a 35-40 minute drive away.


My first day there was spent taking a walking tour with Alex, a half-Russian half-Azerbaijani fitness model turned tour guide, which began at the Qiz Qalasi or Maiden Tower - one of Baku's most-loved monuments with a curious history and a rooftop that offers a beautiful view of the city's astonishingly futuristic - and ended on the manicured promenade leading up to the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. My friend and I snapped a requisite photo with the Flame Towers in the background: a trio of skyscrapers meant to symbolize flames (unsurprisingly) that pay homage to Azerbaijan's strong historic ties to Zoroastrianism as well as its mountains that burst with natural, inextinguishable fire, and the country's love for the pomegranate. The latter is actually a national symbol, with the red fruit's flaming crown linked to flames and vice versa - a perfect modern symbol for "The Land of Fire".


Flame Towers, Baku / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

After a hearty dinner at the remarkably Parisian-feeling Fountain Square, we rose early the next morning to drive an hour outside town. There, we explored the mud volcanoes of Gobustan - curious rock formations that don't spew lava but instead, gurgling globs of mud - followed by the rock formations of Gobustan National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 6,000 ancient rock carvings that depict primitive life dating back thousands of years - then Atesghah, the “Fire Temple of Baku” that was once used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. Our final stop was Yanar Dag: a mountain from which a natural gas fire blazes out of the hillside, never extinguished, even by the strongest winds or most torrential rains.


But it was on the third day that we went up into the mountains - all the way to a village that had some curious ties to a story that has been historically linked to the creation of God's creatures.


Khinalig Village at Shahdag National Park / Photo by Toni Wöhrl - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79593990

Now, I should probably point out that I am not a religious person, nor was I raised to be, so I am not an authority on Biblical stories in any way - in fact, my knowledge on it is fairly limited. My parents - both of them brought up with a different religion - were not devout believers of the faith they'd been raised with, at all. They'd follow a few rites and rituals for the sake of ceremony, but generally speaking, their message to us was that if we wanted to follow a specific faith then we could be free to choose that when we were older - but it was more important to them that we simply follow the basic tenets of being a good person: Do not lie, cheat, or steal. Do not harm others with intention. Treat other human beings (and animals) with respect and dignity. Develop self-awareness, courage, and integrity.


As a result, I have never been attracted to the idea of following one particular religion - although I don't judge those that do - and in my adult life, I've moved between describing myself as "spiritual, but not religious" and "agnostic" in equal measure. Yet aspects of theology still fascinate me, not just because of the way humans tend to lean towards faith, but also the way that our belief systems can shape the way we interact with ourselves and the world around us. Another aspect that captivates me is the history tied to it all: and by this I do not mean the feelings, thoughts, and ideas tied to a religion, but rather, the stories, legends, and mythology tied to its history. I understand that these things are often inextricably linked - but I am not here to talk about religion today. I'm here to talk about how one of these stories cropped up unexpectedly in a snowy mountaintop village in Azerbaijan.


Caucasus Mountains, Azerbaijan / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

When the day began, our guide and driver were merely strangers with a friendly disposition and a similar sense of humour. By the time we drove home that night, we felt like old friends that had shared a profound memory for life. I suppose that kind of thing can happen when you've got a 4-5 hour drive ahead of you, to somewhere that feels not only removed from the modern big city but also time itself, and pausing to answer the call of nature along the way requires quite literally doing it in nature. People claim you can get from Baku to Xinaluq in 3.5-4, but with inevitable tea and snack stops - and yes, bathroom breaks along winding and remote mountain roads - I beg to differ. High up in the the mountains of the Quba municipality (not far from the border of Kazakhstan), there is nothing around for miles, and here, the sunlight sparkles across the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains as though they are made of diamonds.


A Journey Into The Clouds


By the time we reached Xinaluq - the highest altitude mountain village in all of Azerbaijan also known as Khinalug - we were slightly frozen and panting. There is only one road that takes you there, and not all of it can be accessed by car: vehicles must stop at the base of a slippery, steep, sludge-covered winding mountain path, after which you can only do the last part on foot. Once you're there, it's not just the altitude - around 2300-2500 metres above sea level - that leaves you breathless.


The village is small and dense, with the homes packed in tightly, and the scent of livestock and manure wafting through the air. Since there isn't gas in the village, the animal dung is mixed with hay and used to fortify walls, or compacted and burned as fuel for warmth. Beyond its tight winding paths, however, there is just space: an expanse of gleaming white, decorated with snow-capped mountains and sunlight that sparkles so bright it almost stings the naked eye. If you close your eyes standing just outside the village, you'll hear nothing but silence - the kind that, like snow, blankets the world with the feeling of velvet - and the whistle of the wind; perhaps punctured with the gentle bell or braying of a mountain goat. As you stand there looking out over the vistas beyond, it's easy to accept that this is one of the most isolated villages in Azerbaijan.


Khinalig Village / Photo by Nizinuri, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Khinalig Village / Photo by Nizinuri, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite its remoteness, the villagers seemed somewhat used to visitors even when I visited in 2017 - just before the ensuing tourism booms of 2019 and 2022 - often welcoming people with meals, even homestays, and tours of the village. But when we went, we were the only ones there that day. Village mayor Rehman invited us into his home for a hot lunch and tea, before showing us his chickens and lambs, and the village museum. The room, although small, was packed with a plethora of historical artefacts, from pots to guns and ancient shoes. I pored over it eagerly, captivated by its books on linguistics in particular: Xinaluq has its own language that is spoken only by around 3,000 people from this village and a couple of surrounding areas, and is actually considered to be an endangered language. But that isn't the only historical treasure to be found there: Some legends say that the people of this place - one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, with the tally at 5,000+ years - are the "Grandchildren of Noah".


In the 2000s, a group of evangelical explorers claimed to have found the remains of Noah's Ark in Eastern Turkey, at the top of Armenia-bordering Mount Ararat. Archaeologists and historians were skeptical, but the remains of a wooden structure with compartments found in a cave were enough to have inspired a team of filmmakers to go out there and see what they could capture. Meanwhile, over in Xinaluq, there was a different kind of connection to the Biblical Noah. In the Quba district nearby, there is a wide diversity to the residents' ethnic backgrounds, and stories about when the residents of Xinaluq moved to its current location vary from being between 2000 to 5000 years. Regardless of when they actually settled in their current specific spot, however, the people of Xinaluq have a unique history: they claim that this is where Noah's Ark anchored, and that the people living here in the mountains are his descendants.


Mountains With A Mysterious Past


The Caucasus Mountains, running through Eastern Europe and Western Asia in countries including Armenia, Georgia, parts of Southern Russia, and Azerbaijan, have a rich history linked back to many places in the modern world. An ancient nomadic race that reportedly once lived here called the Ossetians has been linked to Ireland through its Celtic history, while the ancient Greek legend of the Titan Prometheus describes him chained to the peak of a mountain in Scythia, near the Caucasus Mountains. This village was apparently even spoken of in the writings of Pliny The Elder of the Roman Empire. How the word "Caucasian" came to be generally representative of white people of European descent is also a curious and complex exploration. The word itself - the name of these mountains - apparently translates to meanings around its colour: a land of ice that shines white with snow. And the people that have lived in the lands around these mountains have spoken hundreds of languages, identified with various religions (four main ones), and had many rich and different cultures. Their mysterious history has been told in different ways, with numerous nomadic people and ancient tribes having called them home.


A Dance Between History And Modernity


Although the village was once more or less cut off from the contemporary world, the building of a road in 2006 connecting it to Quba has made it easier to bring modern products - and people - to the village. It was in 2006 that the President of Azerbaijan declared a plan to modernise some of Xinaluq's infrastructure, such as their educational buildings. The next year, the area was established as a historical-architectural and ethnographic reserve, so that the village's unique customs, language, and appearance would be preserved - and despite the fact that it was featured on the World Monument Fund's 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered's sites (not to stop tourism or other types of progress that could help the welfare of the village's residents, but to simply to ensure that any changes wouldn't come at the cost of its customs and historical value), when I visited almost a decade later, the villagers didn't show too many signs of wanting to leave their old ways behind.


Xinaluq's traditional homes generally don't have furniture - they mainly use pillows and blankets, and locals sit on the floor to eat, whether it is around a table or not. The home we visited did have one. Most of the villagers work around their farming efforts, whether that's sheep breeding or creating fabrics woven out of sheep's wool.

They also still take their traditional rites and rituals very seriously. Yet Mayor Rehman did have a smartphone - and was quite keen to take selfies with us - and he even had an Instagram account, which he eagerly asked us to follow him on (and vice versa). We haven't spoken since, but we're still "Instagram buddies" to this day. Upon discovering that my friend and I were both unmarried women, Rehman insisted that he would happily pair us off with the village’s bachelors. They were handsome - with their strong bone structure, luminous skin, and piercing eyes, the combination of these features made them look different than anyone I'd ever seen before. He didn't ask what religion we followed - the people here were once followers of Zoroastrianism, and now practice Islam. We responded to him equally jokingly: "I love the idea of living in the tranquility of nature, but if I can't communicate with my potential husband and neighbors, there isn't a cinema, and I can't get a good cheeseburger and fries here, unfortunately this isn't a life for me."


Combined with the village's unique customs, culture, and way of life, my trip to Xinaluq felt like I had stepped into a another world that was not only suspended in time, but in a sphere entirely of its own. It's pretty wild to think that something so far removed from modern everyday reality - and the high-tech futurism of downtown Baku - can be visited within the span of just one day. It felt like we'd been out there for much longer, with the esoteric atmosphere of our adventure making us feel like we were in our own time-suspended pocket of the universe, and deepening the bond between all of those who had set out on this journey. That night, after a stunning moonlit drive back through the mountains, that was accompanied by Azerbaijani songs on the radio that seemed to grow louder as the darkness grew, my friend and I took our tired but invigorated bodies out for a drink in town. Once there - in a bar with a live local band playing excellent original soft rock songs, with a glass of the country's famous pomegranate wine in hand - I thought again of Xinaluq. While I have a deep appreciation for Baku's modern architecture, gleaming technology, and global-standard comforts, there is something comforting knowing that somewhere in its mountains, there is a dedication to mystery, history, and upholding centuries of tradition just hours away.

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