Xinalig – A Village Too Far
By Mike Walsh
I was beginning to think so myself certainly. This was my fourth attempt to make it there and it is fair to say the others were quite a failure, some more spectacular than others.
It was all Ruth’s fault of course. She did a four-day horse-riding trek from Long Forest to Shahdag via Xinalig last summer and on hearing that I thought I would try to accompany her by bike. At least to Xinalig anyway. I had to give up through bad weather that day but the idea had taken a firm hold in my head. I had been to Xinalig a few times before but always via Cloudcatcher Canyon. I knew there was another route, the “high road”, but I didn’t know much about it, other than some cars had come down this way but it was dangerously steep in parts and very rocky. Ruth was the only person I knew who had gone up the high road but her information was scant, due to heavy fog throughout most of her journey.
The high road goes up the Alpan Valley, past Long Forest and through Susay and, although not too clearly marked on the map, I understood that it basically kept going up and up until it reached Xinalig which is a beautiful village with its own attractions, being the highest and most remote village in Azerbaijan. You can understand the appeal.I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, however, and all I had to go on was that it took Ruth about 12 hours to reach the village by horse (arriving in the pitch dark at eleven o’clock at night). The few locals we knew in the area scoffed at the idea of doing it by bike, telling me it was impossible, which left me discouraged and in need of some inspiration. Fortunately, everyone has a fairy Godmother and mine came in the shape of John Connor. Not only had John driven up the high road on a couple of occasions and climbed Qizilqaya, the mountain which this road traverses, but he was able to give me a pretty accurate description of the route – distances, condition of road and amount of climbing I’d have to do. Pretty depressing reading actually but it was the kind of detail I needed. He confirmed that after Susay I would have a massive climb to the pass of about 1700 meters. I already knew this was the never-ending of never-ending hills as the last time
I had attempted it, I ended up pushing my bike uphill from Susay for three hours and still got nowhere. Worse than that, and more frustrating still, was the fact that I had no idea how far I had climbed that day as the hill was covered in fog and I could see nothing in front of me the whole way, apart from maybe 15 meters of road which simply wound up and on-wards before disappearing into the mist. Nothing else. This would be the “very rocky, very steep, very twisty” road described by John in his briefing. I couldn’t get thoughts of this climb out of my head and my concern was whether or not I could ma-ke it to Xinalig in one day. Should that not be possible, I could be facing the prospect of kipping down for the night somewhere in the hills. My difficulty was that the previous attempts had given me no real information to go on. All I knew was that three hours from Susay and the end was nowhere in sight. I went to bed each night before this latest attempt making my mental calculations: “surely I climbed at least half way to the top last time so it should take me about six hours to climb the hill” or “even if I only went a third of the way that would be nine hours so at least I should reach the top of the pass before night fall”. On and on it went.
As I set off again to attempt this run, I said to myself that it would be my last try and I would have to think about giving up on the idea if I failed yet again but this time the early signs were encouraging. I ma-naged to drive to Guba safely eno-ugh on the Friday night, which was a feat in itself, and I checked myself into the Shahdag hotel without any trouble.(Not through choice but I needed to leave my car in Guba and this was the easiest option. I won’t complain about the hotel but I wouldn’t take my family there eith-er). That night I took a gentle stroll through Guba. It looked beautiful and I felt I had never given the town justice before. It has a lovely charm to it if you stop to look around but I’d always been in a rush to get thro-ugh Guba as I headed to the mountains. In Nizami Park, all the men were sitting at the little tables and chairs playing backgammon and drinking their tchai or vodka. I had some tchai and then went off to try and get an early night sleep.
Saturday morning I woke up prompt and, looking out my window, saw clear blue skies.What an omen! I knew it was impossible to do this trip in the rain so one major hurdle was instantly overcome. I packed up, paid up, cleared out and cycled off as quickly as I could to the centre of Guba to find a taxi which would take me to Long Forest, my intended starting point for the cycle. This was easy enough and my taxi soon had me dropped off at the ent-rance to Long Forest resort.Immedi-ately I was on my bike heading stra-ight west along the banks of the ri-ver toward Susay.This was an exhilarating road as I could clearly see the mountains in front of me and Shahdag stood out majestically. The trail at that point is pretty flat gravel rising gently so the cycling itself was enjoyable.
Just over an hour later and I was crossing the river to Susay.I find Su-say a bit of an odd village really.Like a few places in Azerbaijan, it feels like time has stood still for two or three hundred years.It has incredible character but somehow does not have a happy feel to it.It has a stre-am that runs right down the middle of the main street and it is always re-ally muddy and dirty to pass thro-ugh. As usual, a lot of men and children were hanging around but none of the women, except the babush-kas. No doubt the wives had their daily work to do.
I couldn’t help but wonder when the men would get together and dig a channel for the water instead of sitting around all day (but no doubt that is an offensive and non-pc comment so apologies to anyone offended).The little kids came running after me through the village full of excitement which was a lot of fun but they fell away as I left the village behind and headed up into the hills proper. At least here I knew what to expect. Less than 100 metres after leaving Susay, the hill became too steep and I had to get off my bike and start pushing. I set my mind to this quickly as I knew I could be pushing for quite some time.First, however, I had to “dopro-of” myself.
My biggest fear on this trip was not getting lost (unlikely), not making it (likely), having a bad crash (possible) or going hungry (probable), but rather being bitten by one of the mountain dogs who protect the sheep in the hills. I prefer the description “half-trained wolves” myself. Those of you who have never ventured outside Baku might think I am being a tad pretentious calling them “half trained wolves” but anyone who has had experience of them will tell you how incredibly fierce they are. Frankly, I have never seen dogs like them.They are trained to be extremely vicious as they need to protect their flocks from real wolves amongst other predators and if you go anywhere near sheep when they are around you will certainly know about it. I do not even feel safe passing them in a car.
Not only that, but they had caused me to abandon one of my previous attempts to climb this hill. I was pushing past a grouping of nomad tents at the time and as it was fairly wet and drizzly, there was nobody else about – except the dogs. There were four of them and they came at me as a pack. Quite simply, I was terrified.The only thing I had to protect myself with was my bike and that did not make me feel too comfortable. I held them off for what seem like an eternity, in all likelihood about 90 seconds, as I waited and hoped in vain that somebody would appear from the tents to call them off. This didn’t happen. Worse than that, the longer the stand-off took, the more aggressive and intimidating they became. There was no doubting it – they were seriously pissed off at me. At that stage I was reluctant to give up. I had been pushing my bike up that tiresome hill for three hours with no end in sight and I had a certain determination to reach the top. For sure, I changed my mind quickly when one of the dogs moved around in a wide circular motion trying to get behind me. I kind of felt then it was time to say my good-byes. I managed to negotiate a successful retreat that day but it left me exceptionally wary of them.
I had no idea how best to deal with them. I asked around for suggestions, even seeking out advice from the few friends we knew in the area. Nobody could give me much comfort really. The best I could come up with was to carry some raw meat with me so I had something to chuck at them if they came too close to me. I even went as far as buying a kilo and a half of raw meat in Baku. Not bad for a vegetarian is it! I can’t say I liked the idea of handling it too much but if it saved my legs from being chewed off then to hell with principles. In the end I backed away from that option however as I was too scared that the smell of raw meat on me would increase, not decrease, the chances of attack.So, what to do? My final solution was not one but two pairs of shin pads. One pair protecting the front of my lower legs and one pair at the back to protect my calves. Okay, I looked ridiculous, but who was going to see me. Also, I figured that these were the parts of my body that were most vulnerable to attack from the dogs. Time would tell.After strapping on the shin pads, I continued my long push up the hill. Finally, I could see where I was going. The clear blue skies proved such a motivation as the views in every direction were stunning. Behind me I could see the long plateaus trailing off into the distant Caspian Sea. To each side I could see the hills dropping down into lush, green valleys. I knew the north valley ran up to Laza and the base camp for the climb to Shahdag and the south ran through Cloudcatcher Canyon and the nomal route to Xinalig. In front of me, well I still couldn’t see anything except this long winding hill but even that looked hopeful today. More encouraging yet, after an hour or two of pushing, I could see that where I had turned back (or been forced back) the last time was actually pretty close to the top. I knew then I was going to make it. At that stage, too, I had only suffered one minor dog attack. Encouragingly, the shepherds were there so the dogs did not take too much notice of me. I still took a wide berth as I had no interest in risking anything on that front although I did have to suffer the indignation of having a puppy follow me, snapping at my heels, for about 10 minutes after that. Obviously this one was still an apprentice, keen to show his masters he was learning his trade, but he didn’t half go on a bit.
I was now approaching the tents where I had been forced back the last time. I moved very cautiously with my heart thumping. I could see people moving around and this gave me hope but still as I came nearer a couple of dogs came running at me. I recognized one for sure as part of the earlier posse who had terrified me and who had given me sleepless nights for the last few weeks. My hopes rested with the shepherds this time. I’d naively imagined the shepherds would shout the Azeri equivalent of “Heel Boy” when they saw me but it didn’t work like that. As the dogs rushed towards me, I was only saved when one of the shepherds picked up a rock the size of a half brick and – I kid you not – launched it at the biggest dog hitting it smack on the forehead. That worked for me I tell you. I’d like to think of myself as a dog-lover normally but when I saw the rock hit that mutt I must admit I thought “Take that!” The dogs were not happy but they plainly got the message. Panic over, I was immediately invited for some much needed tchai and, as it was time for a rest, I readily accepted. The samovar was put to boil and we sat down to shoot the breeze whilst the tchai was made. There were about five tents and maybe fifteen to twenty people in total. All related as far as I could gather. I watched as one of the men sat the whole time stirring a large pot of goat’s, milk which was churning out cheese and I looked on wistfully at their simplistic life style, well, for the summer season at least I suppose. I stayed about half an hour, I needed the rest really, and shared some chocolate with the kids. I had my camera so I took some photos of the group which had them all tickled pink with laughter and I was even put on the back of a horse at one point (I can’t really remember why but I do have the photos!). Sadly, I couldn’t stay longer as there was still a long way to go and, after saying my good-byes, I set off again pushing up the hill. Everything felt lighter now for, although I could understand little of what they said, I was led to believe that the top of the hill was not too far off, which tallied with what I could see. Sure enough, it took only another hour and I was there, at the top. Not only did that mean I had finished the climb, but I could finally get back on my bike and do some cycling.
What followed was four hours of some of the best cycling of my life. The trail was great for mountain bi-kes and every corner brought fantastic views of the Caucasian mounta-ins.I still had a few scary moments with dogs – a couple where the shepherds would sprint over to reach me before their dogs did – but everything was coming together and I knew it. I was going to Xinalig.