When I first read about Xinaliq in Jonny Blair from Don’t Stop Living’s excellent post on the town, I knew immediately I wanted to visit. Hiking in Xinaliq seemed like the perfect cure to my time spent in Baku. Dubbed ‘the most remote town in Europe’ by some and objectively the highest town at 2,350 meters above sea level, it’s a place most travelers to Azerbaijan never reach. Access has been made easier in recent years by the construction of a paved road, so it’s only a matter of time before people begin to go there in droves…
When springtime comes to Xinaliq, I wouldn’t swap this village for a hundred Parises or a thousand Londons.Quote from the wall of the museum in Xinaliq
Getting to Xinaliq is a challenge — as getting to ‘the most remote village in Europe’ should be. Unless you spring for a private tour, you must first get to Quba, a dusty little city in the northeastern corner of the country that’s nothing like the Caribbean nation its name brings to mind. The bus there leaves from Baku’s main bus terminal and costs 4 AZN. Once you disembark, your next task is to find a taxi to take you to Xinaliq. We opted to go into town first, as Vasilii and Ana had to drop their luggage off at a hotel beforehand.
The Journey to Xinaliq
We had success asking around in the local bazaar for a driver. A helpful man walked us through a warren of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, and more before introducing us to a stocky man with a gold-capped smile.
Fifty manat seemed the going rate, far more than the 20-30 we’d expected to pay. Left out of the negotiations because of my inability to speak Russian, I stood there stoically trying to ‘act like a Russian’ as Vasilii and Anna worked out a price with the driver, settling on 40 manat split between the three of us. After gathering a few bags of fruit from the market stalls, we set off on our way.
Leaving Quba plunged us almost immediately into a bath of color — through an autumnal forest dotted with roadside picnic areas. When we emerged from the trees, we found the mountains on either side closing in, until the road plunged headlong into a towering gorge. The tops of the encroaching cliffs weren’t visible, as a heavy fog shrouded them from view.
We stopped for photos at several other places along the way: at the valley of Jek, on a gentle slope overlooking the churning river; and at a viewpoint providing a vantage of the nearby village of Qalayxudat, our hiking destination for the coming day.
By the time we finally reached Xinaliq, it was time for dinner, the sinking sun painting the hillsides in shades of gold as we met our host family — Rustam and his wife and children — before stepping inside for tea. Dinner came after, a heaping spread of plov, a potato and chicken dish, and more. We spent some time talking with our host family as best we could and rifled through the mother’s collection of knitted slippers made by her and her friends.
The people of Xinaliq have lived there for thousands of years. They speak their own language, a dinosaur forming its own branch within the family of Northern Caucasian languages. Only around 1,000 people are still native speakers of the language, earning it an ‘endangered’ status.
As we nursed our last cups of tea, we could feel the drowsiness kicking in. It had been a long day, and we were exhausted. When we finally did sleep, it came quickly.
We woke to the daylight shining through our window and blinked the sleep away from our eyes. After a breakfast of fresh yogurt, butter, and cheese with homemade bread (as well as hearty amounts of tea!), we set out for a short hike to the nearby village of Qalayxudat — the one we’d seen from across the gorge the previous day.
We hiked through the village, greeting a few children as they played a game and nodding to a group of old men talking in a corner by the public fountain. The homes of Xinaliq are built in a terraced fashion, with the roof of one home often serving as a balcony of sorts for the next. They are made of stone and are often hundreds of years old. Stacked outside are dried bricks of manure, the best method of fuel for the people of the town. It’s an efficient fuel, which is good considering that winter temperatures can be absolutely frigid.
The village receded from view as we followed the old dirt road which used to be the only route between the two towns. We went slowly, wary of the altitude, and soon found ourselves at a junction. After checking the route we were following, we determined that the fork would take us up the mountain before doing a giant loop and returning down to the main road.
After some discussion, we decided to follow the route to the village, only to change our minds a few minutes later and head up the hillside. That turned out to be the best decision of our trip.
The old shepherds’ road ascended quickly, taking us by pastures divided by stone fences. A local family worked in one, the parents tilling the soil together as their young child watched. We raised our hands in greeting, and the mother and child came over to say hi. Anna gave the kid an apple, which was received eagerly and devoured immediately.
We stopped often, feeling the change in elevation as we climbed and being careful not to exert ourselves too much. After my scare in the Pamirs, I’ve been overly cautious — hiking in Xinaliq would only be my second high-altitude hike since then, the first being my 4-day adventure to Yubeng in Western China.
When we were just approaching the starting point of the loop, we heard a shout and a shrill whistle from the next hilltop over. A man hurried towards us, moving easily over the rough terrain. Great, we thought, he’s here to tell us we can’t go any further.
That turned out to be the case, with the man explaining we couldn’t carry on hiking toward the mountain, as the area was an ecological preserve. When Vasilii explained our plan several times in Russian, the man — who we now knew to be an Azeri border guard — pulled out his cell phone and called his commanding officer, putting him on the phone with Vasilii. The man sounded old and knew Russian well, coming from a time when the USSR controlled the region. When he realized we weren’t attempting to summit the mountain ahead of us, he gave his approval for us to continue. The guard took the phone back and waved us on. “Yes,” he said, gripping our hands in farewell.
We thanked him and continued, looking back to a distant peak where we could just barely see the border outpost. Had the poor guy come all that way? By the time we looked for him, he’d disappeared back the way he’d come, moving quickly through the mountains as we labored upward.
We began to tire near the top, stopping more and more often for water and snack breaks — even refilling our empty bottles at a mountain spring just in case we ran out of water. We decide to stop one hundred or so meters from the top of the loop, as we were beginning to feel too tired to carry on with the ascent. It was a happy accident, as the detour allowed us to find a beautiful little patch of wildflowers.
We reached a high point of 3,016 meters before heading down. The view from the top was staggering, with the peak of Xinaliq rising across the valley from us — capped by an ever-present covering of clouds. Hiking in Xinaliq is incredible!
We traversed the hill-line for a few hundred meters to rejoin the tracks we had been following. The terrain became rocky and alien, the grassy hill we’d ascended giving way to a rock-strewn wasteland that looked to be from some alien planet. The grass was sparse there, and brilliant orange lichen covered some of the rocks. Chilling winds blew darkening clouds against the stony massif to our right, and we could feel the temperature dropping. It was time to descend.
The way down seemed to take ages, as we had to pick our way down the hill while carefully visualizing our route to make sure we didn’t end up at a place from which we could no longer descend.
When we finally caught sight of our village again, we felt a surge of relief. Soon, we would be able to sit, to eat a hearty meal, and to warm ourselves with steaming cups of tea — perhaps the best part of hiking in Xinaliq. Bliss.
We left early the next morning, saying goodbye to Rustam and his family before piling into his Niva and jostling our way down the road back to Quba. The sky was blue and clear despite a forecast of rain, giving us a stunning view as we left Xinaliq behind.
The ride to Quba seemed to pass by in a blur, as Vasilii and Anna had to catch a flight from Baku back to Moscow that day. Luckily, everything went as smoothly as it could’ve, and we caught a bus in Quba which left mere minutes after we boarded — a frickin’ rarity in this part of the world.
By the time I got back to Sahil Hostel — my home in Baku — I was exhausted. I checked in and enjoyed my first shower in 3 days, feeling the grime and sweat wash away as the heat eased my body’s aches. Doing things like this make me realize I’m not as young as I used to be, but what the heck. When life serves up experiences like hiking in Xinaliq, what’s to whine about?
From the main bus station in Baku, board a bus to Quba. Buses depart every couple of hours and cost 4 AZN. The journey takes about 2-3 hours, with one stop along the way to go to the bathroom or have a snack.
From Quba, find a taxi driver (preferably driving a Niva Lada) and get ready to negotiate. The price most will quote you is 50 manat, but you should be able to bargain them down. We paid 40 and could probably have bargained lower if we’d gotten there earlier in the day.
The ride will take between 1.5 and 2 hours, and your taxi driver should be willing to stop for pictures along the way.
Your taxi driver will most likely be able to take you directly to a local family who will be more than happy to host you. If you’re not comfortable with that, just wander through the streets of Xinaliq and mime sleeping when you meet someone. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The locals know who will put someone up for the night — consider finding a place to sleep part of the adventure!
We paid 20 AZN per person per night for full room and board. Again, we might’ve been able to find as low as 15, but 20 seemed like a fair price. Beds will almost definitely be on the floor and toilets will be squatters. Want to stay with the same family we did? Connect with Rustam on Facebook, and I’m sure they’d be glad to have you!
Hiking in Xinaliq
The easiest hike is probably to the nearby village of Qalayxudat, as the route follows the old road connecting the two towns. If you’re up for more of a challenge and want to follow the route we took, check out my Ramblr trip! Just be aware that hiking into the mountains in this region will almost certainly lead to an encounter with border guards. They may or may not let you continue your hike, depending on the situation.
Altitude is a factor when you’re hiking in Xinaliq, the village sits at 2,350 meters above sea level, and the loop trail involves over 1,000 meters of ascent. Go slowly, hydrate well, and don’t exert yourself too much. It’s important to read about the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to prepare for a high-altitude hike before you go!
As we found out, once you stay with a family in Xinaliq, they have a monopoly on your tourism revenue. Either a family member will drive you back to Quba OR they’ll arrange for someone to take you. Again, negotiate on the price. Many of the people in Xinaliq commute to Quba on a regular basis. They may be headed that direction already, giving you a tiny amount of bargaining power. We paid 35 AZN for our host to drive us back.
The buses for Baku leave from the bus station on a regular basis and cost the same as the journey to Quba: 4 AZN. Congratulations, you did it!
How about you? Have you ever been to an extremely remote village? If so, how was your experience? Any tips to share with other readers? Let us know in the comments below!