After my first night in Quba I catch a shared taxi to Xinaliq. The driver says he will take me for 40 manat, which for some reason breaks down to 30 manat to get there and 10 to get back. I protest that this seems to be an inflated price. He counters with the taxi driver’s universal phrase for ripping off tourists: “Benzin, benzin!”
The lowest I can get him to agree to is 20 manat to go and 10 to come back. I share the ride out with an elderly couple, and am fairly certain that I am paying their fare as well as mine. I am an idiot.
The drive to Xinaliq only takes a little over an hour, and is decently scenic. Xinaliq itself is quite cold, high up in the mountains, but at least it’s not raining as in Quba.
The Caucasus mountains surrounding the village are indeed spectacular. The village is perched on either a big hill or a little mountain. It is a collection of stone and mud houses, protruding from the hilltop like broken teeth. It is a fine scene, but hardly the momentously breathtaking vista described by the ubiquitous pretentious backpacker guidebook. Surprise, surprise.
The driver takes me to a homestay. At 15 manat a night for lodging and all meals, it’s a decent deal. I sit and have tea with the father and the taxi driver and ask about things to do in Xinaliq. I’d dreamed of riding a horse around the mountains. The father informs me that a horse will be difficult to round up, and would cost 60 or 70 manat for a couple of hours. I ask about other options. Hiking seems to be about it.
The mother serves me a surprisingly hearty village lunch, of which my favorite part is the home-made sheep cheese. It is exactly as I like it, tangy and pungent, tasting exactly the way a sheep smells. Afterwards I go outside and use the basic outhouse. I step back outside and look for a place to wash my hands. I see no water, but I do see a freshly slaughtered sheep with a slit throat, lying in a pool of blood. Guess I know what’s for dinner.
There are only two directions to walk from the house, and the father tells me that one way is blocked by a military checkpoint. So I strike off in the other direction. I am wearing many layers of thin clothing in an attempt to keep warm in the cold mountain air. Just a couple weeks previously, I had been sweltering in Malaysia’s equatorial climate. Now, trudging along a dirt road high in the Caucasus mountains, I ask myself again why I came here. I still don’t have a good answer.
Once I get outside the village, I am the only soul around. I see no shepherd or school child hanging around. I walk for a long time, the village receding into the distance. When the sun is shining, the cold is actually not that bad. Eventually I decide that I’ve gone far enough, and lie down against a steeply slanting hillside to rest a bit before walking back. And there I actually fall asleep for an hour. I awake to a view of the majestic Caucasus range, and actually feel rather peaceful. I make the long walk back.
That evening after dinner I play backgammon and checkers with the myriad of little kids inhabiting the house. They ask me some questions and look through all the pictures on my phone, while a loud Turkish soap opera plays on TV in background. After awhile I excuse myself to sleep in a bed made up for me in what appears to be a little-used dining room. The room is frigid, but once I get under the multitude of thick blankets provided to me, I am warm enough.
The next morning I catch the 10-manat ride back to Quba with a couple of teenage guys. Their car is a battered old Russian Lada that looks like it rolled out of a scrap heap. Yet the car has a rear-view mirror that can transform into a TV screen to play Azeri and Turkish music videos. It is the first time I have seen this technology.