First I must admit that we fell into a tourist trap like amateurs. Ok, maybe some people would enjoy staying in authentic Azeri home with a hole for a toilet, no TP, no hot water and ho heat, but we didn’t!! Really didn’t!!
This is how this came about: We went to a tourist information office in Baku to get some info about going north to Quba and maybe finding a guide to do some hiking. Since it’s still cold and rainy it can be dangerous to roam the Caucasus by ourselves because of the mud slides. The guy at the tourist office told us about his friend, an “alleged tourism guru” in this area. Apparently he had a guest house open to special friends and he could take us to places to which we can’t get on our own. Sounds great? So we met, Semed the next day. He showed us the brochure for his house, apparently few minutes away from Quba and promised to show us the region like nobody ever would. Plus the stories about the meat roasting over a mangal he can cook made our mouths water…The price was 15 manat per person. He was supposed to guide us thru the maze of the mountain villages and hikes, however he didn’t have a car but he would negotiate cheap rides with local drivers due to his connections while his guide fees are included. We would pay for meals outside and it was a little vague about the price of home cooked meals, but then it turned out that the whole experience is Saturday morning till Sunday afternoon so we weren’t too concerned about one dinner.
After we agreed, all of a sudden he said that it’s not one night but actually 2 days because we will be there half Sunday. It sounded strange but we didn’t want to argue about another 10 manat.
We met him at 7.30 Saturday morning in Baku bus station and boarded the bus to Quba. 4 manat p/p.
After getting off the bus and dragging our luggage for a kilometer in the rain from the bus station things were not looking as rosy. The house is indeed nice but turned out that it’s his summer home and nobody been there for few months so it was cold and damp. The sheets were clean but smelled moldy and he gave us a tiny face towel for both to share. Our toilet was an oriental style hole w/o tp and when I tried to go to an upstairs European toilet he wasn’t happy and later on locked it all together. Our “private” bathroom turned out to be in a common kitchen, and although we were the only guests, still there was no privacy since he was constantly there. Our private quarters on the first floor, were actually half way to the basement thru a low tiny door and obviously I banged my head on it shortly thereafter. He tried to convince us to go to a store in the rain and to buy food for breakfast but we refused to go back to the rain and just asked to get some hot tea. He did bring out some eggs, bread and jam and fed us.
During breakfast the negotiations about our plans began. When I stopped being annoyed, I began to find it extremely entertaining. Keep in mind that we speak fluent Russian so there was no misunderstanding about what he was saying. There was plain bullshit, lots of words saying nothing of substance. I already had a list of things and places that I thought are worthwhile seeing/doing. I don’t need anybody to walk around with me in a city while I have a map and a guide book. The idea of having him was to go to the mountains to some remote villages where I wasn’t sure we can manage by ourselves and also going on some easy hikes while being safe doing it. Funny thing, yesterday before we paid everything was – of course we can do it, but today everything is – too far and there is no time. After talking for half hour and telling us that he is a known person in tourists’ circles and showing his photo album and giving us some brochures about the area that are freely given in the hotels we understood that his thing was to take tourists to a nearest forest, have them buy meat and other food and cook it on the mangal. That’s all. When he saw that we are not interested in his talents, he called a “specialist/guide” to come in. The new person turned out to be a very nice young guy who works as a room service attendant in a nearby hotel who was as unclear why he was asked to come just as we were. Besides, he had to go to work at 2 pm. His information was less helpful then Lonely Planet and he couldn’t point to any of the places or hikes I have asked for on the map. Apparently, as he told us, they don’t use maps here…. (BTW, at this point I was still in the annoyed stage).
After this young man left, our host called another “specialist” who has a car and can take us to Xinaliq village, which is the main attraction in the area. The new “specialist” is from that village and he is “very trusted” and only to him our host can entrust us. Btw, our tourist guru of the area has never been to Xinaliq, which is only 60 km away. So, the new “specialist” arrived but turned out that his car cannot do the trip, it’s not good in the mountains, but.. Are you ready? He has a guy, “a really good guy whom he trusts who can take us there”…at this point I stopped being annoyed and transformed to being amused. Roman began to inquire about the trustworthiness of the new guide and whether our host knows anybody who is not trustworthy or a specialist in this region but the humor was lost on him. Luckily, those two did not call the next in line “trustworthy specialist” and quoted us a fee of 60 manat to drive us round trip to Xinaliq. As the time was nearing noon and we still didn’t progress, I just wanted to go to town and to start walking. The new guy took us to the center where we negotiated a trip to Xinaliq with one of the drivers for 40 manat.
Overall, there isn’t much to do or see in Quba, it’s mainly a place to sleep and to organize trips to the mountains and to the mountain villages. In addition to Krasnaya Sloboda, the only place that is worthwhile seeing is The Quba 1918 Genocide Memorial Complex. It’s an impressive concrete spiked monument with an audio guided informative tour inside a somber structure, surprisingly tasteful. I must admit that I never heard of Azeri genocide until now. After you are done with the audio tour, they take you to a gruesome display of real skulls and bones, a recently (2007) discovered mass grave from 1918. Without expressing any political opinions here since I am planning to keep traveling in the area, the site is very impressive and worthwhile a visit.
Other mentionables in this town are the Red Mosque, one of the oldest in Azerbaijan and the carpet weaving factory where we began to appreciate handmade carpets after seeing women hunched over weaving apparatus working hard. Apparently, hand weaving half square meter of a wool carpet takes one women one month. Both places are located near Meydan, the center square of the town. In the same place, there is a ridiculous pedestrian overpass/bridge spanning over a pretty narrow main street which we were told is never used by anybody. Of course we had to go up, so that the Azeri people don’t feel that their tax money was wasted.
The last but not least is an amazing bakery Mahir, next to a cafeteria with the same name owned by the same people. One should buy desert in the bakery and go next door and get tea there and enjoy both.
Xinaliq is a remote mountain village, about 3000 meters high, currently occupied by about one thousand people who are of an ancient ethnicity having their own language not spoken anywhere in the world. Our driver Rasim (+994 50 502 7809) turned out to be a real pro who was born and raised in Xinaliq. Besides being an awesome driver, which is very important since the road is not for the faints of heart, he is a good guide, he took us on a walk around Xinaliq (couple of kilometers), where he used to play as a kid. The walk involved a water spring and jumping over a barbed wire. The walk matched exactly our level of fitness and we enjoyed it a lot. The views are amazing indeed and later on we had tea with his uncle in the village. The uncle was a fun hospitable guy who has two wives, 12 children and 13 grandchildren.
On the way back to Quba Rasim wanting to test our nerves took us up to the village of Qris. Its only 4 km up the mountain but apparently weaker tourists prefer to walk up than drive. The narrow unpaved road full of stones, boulders and sharp turns is hanging over the steep mountain with no guard rails whatsoever. But, since we are lazier than scared we stuck to it all the way up. The scary drive was worth it. Even though this village is lower than Xinaliq the view of the snowy mountains is from a different angle and is worthwhile seeing.
After having lunch with Rasim in a local chayhana and having some homemade vodka, we went back to Quba and checked into a normal nice hotel Sane (55 manat per night negotiated down from 70). Clean warm bed and hot water felt so nice that we didn’t want to leave the room for the rest of the day.
TANGAALTI and AFURJA WATREFALL
This was another beautiful day trip to Tangaati Canyon, petty close to Quba, less than an hour drive but having a completely different terrain. While the mountains around Xinaliq are bare, here the mountains are green and covered with trees. The waterfall is about 4 km up from the Afurja village. From the parking lot it’s a short easy walk up to the beautiful waterfall. Unfortunately it was still too cold to jump in the water. We opted to walk back down the 4 km as an exercise for the day and then drove back to town.