The bus trip from Baku was little more than a geographic and sleep adjustment.
Gifted with two seats over the engine, heated to match, the unexpected and early-rising warmth quickly leaves us sedated.
We fall asleep shortly after leaving the Azeri capital. We only wake up at about eleven in the morning, with the bus checking in at Quba station.
There, Elkham and Idris greet us. Elkham, the small tourism entrepreneur, helps us exchange a few more dollars for manats.
Once the payment of what we owe him is completed, he hands us over to Idris, the driver and guide, who immediately tells us that the only foreign language he speaks is Russian.
More by gestures than anything else, Idris invites us to follow him and board the jeep in which we were supposed to carry out the trip. In a land still of Ladas, we realize that he was proud of his.
A Niva. Jeep instead of any Lada. “Niva!!” emphasizes Idris, with enthusiasm, the quality and extra safety of the model.
Above Caucasus Towards the High Khinalig
We leave. At first, we make our way along Quba's extended houses. A little later, along the ridges and meanders of a slender road that emulate those of the Qudyal Çay River.
We leave a village called Qimil-qazma behind. The road we follow becomes the Xinaliqolu. Xinaliq, the final destination also treated by Khinalig, Khynalyk, Khanalyk, Kinalugh, Khanaluka, among others, was just over 30km away.
An hour almost always on the way up that, for contemplative and photographic imperatives and not only, we'd do in twice the time.
The opening stop, we make it at the entrance to a canyon, where the road snaked along the base of a deep cliff, steeply sloping over the river and over huge rocks dumped by landslides.
Ladas and Mais Ladas also in the Municipality of Khinaliq
We appreciate the tight scenery, measure it by the scale of the traffic that ran through it, of Ladas and only Ladas. Idris takes the opportunity to smoke another cigarette in a hurry. After which we continue.
It's the end of November and the snows are late. We climb, thus, much more firmly than we expected, based on 4×4 traction and on the car's almost bald tires.
Along the way, we pass several other Ladas, almost always the more iconic but modest 2106 or 2101 models, leaning against the curb with mechanical problems.
We reach some intermediate summit from which a monument rises up It signals the Xinalig Municipality and it's crowned by an eagle with almost vertical wings that point the blue sky.
Idris signals to us that he is going to pull over again: “photo, cigarette!”, he explains.
He stops a short distance from an old Lada 2106 taxi, massacred by the brutal slopes and to which the driver adds oil or water.
While the elderly taxi driver took care of the missing fluid, we were joined by other visitors to the region. The younger ones insisted on going up to the eagle's stone and brick landing and photographing themselves in its company.
The taxi driver solves the mechanical problem and resumes trip. We follow him.
The Caucasus Mountains Announcing the Village
We travel up and down new mountains and valleys, between the heights on both sides of the road, over ravines ever more chilling and along straight lines that crisscross a hard, ocher earth.
Which pointed to summits above 3500m, loaded with snow, the Quizilkaya (3726m) and the Tufandag (4191m).
We climbed so much, we stopped so much that we end up arriving.
We see the Khinalig's houses perched on a hill, surrounded by slopes and peaks painted with resistant snow.
At that time, the configuration of the relief and the position of the clouds combined to give the village a luminous stardom.
Its smoothed and stacked stone homes gleamed, the tin roofs stood out from the darkened surroundings. Idris parks in front of one of these homes, under the inquisitive snarl of neighboring cows and sheep, released from their corrals.
A middle-aged man welcomes us. Idris introduces us to Orxen.
The Dedicated Welcoming of the Badalov Family
Orxen takes us inside the house where we would stayinvites us to living room table.
He serves us Turkish tea, the black kind but served reddish, from a flowery ceramic teapot to tiny glass cups.
Like Idris, Orxen spoke little or nothing but Azeri and Russian.
We, despite having promised time and time again that we would learn Russian, continued to master only five or six words.
At the time, with the hunger we all shared, those five words seemed to multiply, as happened with the platters, plates and small plates, the vehicles for the successive Azerbaijani snacks.
Tasked with welcoming us, Orxen was forced to interrupt some other activity . Idris would still return to Quba.
We, could not forget the splendid photogeny with which Khinalig had received us.
And we worried that, from one moment to the next, the entire valley would be in shadow.
In this shared restlessness, we all speed up the meal. Idris and Orxen return to their lives.
We put the backpacks on our backs and we set out to discover Khinalig, with more urgency, from a point overlooking from which we could admire it and its adjustments to the setting sun, in panoramic format.
As a result of this mission, we climb a ridge of land that rose from the village's hill. We come across sheep that descend from their favorite pastures.
We walk through small stray cemeteries, signaled by carved tombstones, just slightly more yellowish than the ground.
Finally, we reach a satisfactory top. By then, the sun already yellowed the clouds.
And little by little, it warmed the look of the town.
We sit back to catch our breath and absorb the Khinalig Caucasus epic story, a past that goes back a long way.
The Thousand Year Past of the Khinalig People
Despite the altitude, archaeological studies allowed anthropologists to conclude that the area had been inhabited for around four millennia.
In a more recent era, known as Caucasian Albania, the Khinalig people, one of the minorities that make up the Shadagh ethnic group (a term derived from Mount Shadagh, 4243m) were already present.
It is estimated, in fact, that they were one of the twenty-six peoples that the traveler and Greek historian Strabo mentioned in his “Geography”.
Isolated by mountains, the Khinakig formed a culture that, like the dialect they continue to use, is unique.
At the same time, they also developed a physical profile that has become characteristic: medium-short and bulky bodies, brown hair, blue eyes, or brown.
We walk down to the village, here and there, followed and provoked for photographic games by kids, one of them we would discover, shortly afterwards, was the youngest member of the family who was going to welcome us.
We take refuge from the growing cold, drinking tea in a café-grocery store. There, we realize how much the locals disputed the visitors.
The owner of the grocery immediately informs us that he can host us in his place.
When we retort that we already have it sorted out, he asks where, how much we're paying, and other questions.
We were still satisfying his curiosity when we receive an SMS from Elkham.
Hijalaba Badalov, a Proud Host
The message tells us that Mr. Hijalaba Badalov, the head of the family, was upset that it was night and he didn't know about us. Worried by his anxiety, we improvise a fast return home.
Back to the home, we are welcomed by Mr. Hijalab wife. She invites us to the living room table, already warmed by a stove that burned cow dung, to the ambient sound of a huge TV screen.
The table was set, with bread, starters, meat soup, tea and others, Mr. Hijalab show up.
Khinalig or not, he has the profile expected of an inhabitant of Khinalig, the pale blue eyes, not the brown ones.
The host spoke two dialects, apart from Russian and Azeri. None of the four were useful to us. We are again faced with a language barrier similar to the one of lunchtime.
Hijalaba felt, however, a strong duty to integrate us. He was, moreover, the proud patriarch of a large family, used to welcoming outsiders.
Throughout dinner, using the same five or six Russian terms, we are surprised by the fruitfulness of the interaction.
Hijalaba tells us that he had brothers living in Siberia, that, despite the 4.000 km away, he had already gone to visit them by car, we imagine that in a Lada. In a time other than his Soviet military service, spent in the Novozibirsk freezing cold.
We finish the meal. Badalov goes into cicerone mode.
He reveal us his favorite corners of the house. A lighted showcase-museum with an Azeri flag, full of old banknotes and coins, medals, stone relics.
A collection of weapons, shotguns, rifles, swords, sabers and alikes, hung in a wall corner.
Next to the L-shape ladder that connected the two floors, he shows us a painting of a summer Khinalig, with the surrounding mountains in different shades of green.
Hijalaba Badalov tells us that the painting is his work, but that he painted just for entertainment, that he didn't it give much value.
The Starry Night Spent at Badalov House
The time come for us to leave Hijalaba to his peace. To deliver him to the TV that he loved to watch, especially animal documentaries and, with unusual interest, episodes of Inspector Gadget, one after another.
Thanks to the Sputnik satellites, the family's various TVs picked up hundreds of channels. The only drawback: the Badalovs had to move the antenna too often.
We move from the living room to the bedroom. By comparison, it's icy cold. We sleep straight through until two in the morning, when the excess tea at dinner forces us to go to the bathroom.
It was outside. The whole house, not the bedroom. In an exterior of some random freezing minus degrees.
To compensate, as a roof, it had the celestial vault, as we saw it from those heights of the caucasus, bursting with stars.