I strike out for the northern town of Quba, catching an early morning minibus to get there. The guidebook describes a small mountain village called Xinaliq, near Quba, to be one of the most picturesque sites in Azerbaijan. I have had good experiences in other countries visiting small mountain villages. Horse riding, clean mountain air, and home-cooked village food all appeal to me. I decide I will see this Xinaliq and experience true Azerbaijani village life.
I arrive in Quba and discover that the weather is even worse than in Baku. It is freezing cold, with a light misty rain coming down from depressing gray skies. All the streets are thoroughly muddy. Lovely.
I check into the Hotel Xinaliq, in front of which there is supposedly a minibus running to Xinaliq the next morning. The hotel is cheap and basic, but actually turns out to be my favorite in Azerbaijan. A room costs 10 manat per night, with a decent shared toilet. Amazingly, there is even fast WiFi that can be accessed in the rooms. The only drawback is that, to use the shared shower, there is a ridiculous additional charge of 2 manat. I decline out of principle, assuming that I can easily shower at the next accommodation.
I leave the hotel and trudge determinedly up the long road to Quba’s “downtown”. My feet slip in the mud as more and more of it cakes my shoes, and I shiver in the icy mist flicking into my eyes. I eat some Turkish food at the Istanbul Cafe, which turns out to be one of four restaurants that actually serve food in the whole town. I continue on until I stumble across Nizami park, the city’s main green area.
Walking down a long flight of steps, I see the river and a bridge leading across to what looks like a sister town. Many of the houses have red roofs. I realize this must be Krasnaya Sloboda, which I read about in the guidebook. It is one of the last remaining towns of the Mountain Jews, ancient Jewish inhabitants of the Caucasus. Despite the continuing terrible weather, I am excited as I cross the bridge.
Once on the other side, I begin walking down the main street of Krasnaya Sloboda. It looks much like Quba, except smaller, more rundown, and even more devoid of signs of life. I eventually come across a building with the Star of David on it, but see very few other signs of Judaism. After a long walk, I come to another bridge, and cross back over to Quba.
While attempting to find my hotel, I pass a Paxlava shop. Paxlava appears to be the main (or only) dessert of Quba. It looks like Middle Eastern baklava, except colored red on top and cut into diamond shapes. I buy a quarter kilo from a very kind vendor, who asks where I am from and comes out of his shop to shake my hand. I eventually return to my hotel, where I sample the paxlava. I want terribly to like it, but honestly it tastes to me like a less flavorful version of baklava.
* * * *
I spend one more night in Quba after my one night interlude in Xinaliq. The weather is just as cold and gray as on the previous day I had spent there. However, when I wake up the following morning to catch the bus to my next destination, I notice a strange sight coming through my window. Could it actually be…sunlight???
I put my clothes on and head downstairs. I cannot believe it. There is not a cloud in the sky, the streets are dry, and all of Quba is bathed in a lovely sunny spring glow. My heart lifting, I immediately decide to redo my loop around the city. I walk down the main street to Nizami park, marveling at how much more beautiful the city looks in the sunlight. It is all low, cream-colored buildings with red and gray tiled sidewalks.
I cross over and make the walk through Krasnaya Sloboda again. While it also looks better in the light, it still looks like a Wild West ghost town, missing only the tumbleweed. Outside the possible synagogue, I come across an old man. I try to ask him in Russian if it’s possible to go inside the building. He asks where I am from. I say America. He asks if I am Jewish. I say no. He seems to lose interest in talking to me. I continue on all the way to my hotel, and catch the bus out of Quba.