Azerbaijan: hiking in some of the world’s unexplored mountains

(CNN) – In the heart of northeastern Azerbaijan, a cluster of centuries-old stone houses clings to a hill surrounded by some of the country’s highest mountains in the South Caucasus.

Steeped in history and legend, Khinalig is inhabited by a small ethnic group that speaks its own language and traces its ancestry back to the prophet Noah. The town is scattered with impressive monuments and viewpoints.

It is also one of Azerbaijan’s hottest hiking spots, with numerous trails leading to the Greater Caucasus Mountains. That’s why CNN Travel ventured out last fall to try a classic 25-kilometer route that connects the country’s three highest towns, all more than 2,000 meters (about 6,560 feet) above sea level.

Until recently, the isolated villages were inaccessible to the most robust Soviet SUVs, which helped them maintain a unique semi-nomadic lifestyle. For a large part of the year, most of the villagers are outside driving flocks of sheep between summer and winter pastures.

With new roads, technology and a possible flood of tourists, change is on the horizon, but for now, venturing into the remote mountainous parts of Azerbaijan still feels like time travel.

From Khinalig to Griz

Our journey begins on a disused jeep road through a wide valley cut by the Gudiyalchay River, with long-abandoned agricultural terraces and stunning scenes of pyramidal mountains criss-crossing the Gizilgaya plateau at over 3,720 meters (about 12,200). feet).

Shortly after passing the rural settlement of Galakhudat, the route reaches the edge of a wide canyon, where we pause to admire an imperial vulture, avoiding the need for binoculars. Four different species of vulture live in this high mountain in the Guba region of Azerbaijan, along with other birds of prey and regional oddities, such as the red-headed Güldenstädt.

After crossing the canyon, it’s a few more hours of easy walking through incredible scenery — deep valleys, forest foothills and miles of mountains — until you reach Grize, another rustic mountain town inhabited by a different ethno-linguistic community. .

Indeed, so formidable is the land around Mount Shahdag, Azerbaijan’s second highest mountain (4,243 meters or about 13,920 feet), that about half a dozen villages speaking mutually unintelligible languages ​​exist here within a few kilometers of each other, separated by deep valleys. and formidable mountains.

Loved by eco-tourists, Grizek is home to a medieval fortress and an VIII. It preserves the remains of a 17th century mosque, numerous ancient tombstones and cozy hobbit-like houses, on top of a plateau sheltered by high cliffs and offering stunning views of the valley.

A guide for hikers

Over 50% mountainous, many of Azerbaijan’s quaintest towns and most monumental landscapes are best enjoyed by hiking, a relatively new activity in Azerbaijan.

But it’s catching up fast as the country begins to really tap into the potential of nature tourism. There are three main ranges that cover vast areas of the country: the Greater and Lesser Caucasus in the north and southwest and the Talysh Mountains in the south.

All of them offer many opportunities for hiking, which differ from region to region thanks to the many climatic zones found in the country located at a geographical crossroads. Highlights range from the towering peaks and culturally diverse villages of the Greater Caucasus, to the crumbling castles and churches of the Lesser Caucasus and the Tolkienesque forests of the Talysh Mountains.

Two other unique experiences are crossing the otherworldly pink and white landscapes nicknamed the Candy Cane Mountains near the capital Baku. And Nakhchivan, an enigmatic autonomous region separated by part of Armenia from the rest of Azerbaijan, has the dry, rocky mountain ranges of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, largely untouched by tourists, and home to an entirely different set of wildlife, including the almost mythical Caucasus. the leopard

As demand has increased in recent years, the number of local mountain tourism companies and their offerings has expanded. Both day trips and multi-day trips can be made from Baku, with food and accommodation increasingly available in village houses and guesthouses on established tourist routes.

Trail development has also improved, with many of the best villages, viewpoints, waterfalls and other points of interest now linked by signposted trails. However, there are still countless unmarked trails and unpredictable obstacles — from river crossings to language barriers — to challenge even the most experienced hikers.

“For hiking, Azerbaijan is a little-known place with great potential, especially on the routes between the eternal mountain villages of the Caucasus Mountains. However, you will need to be quite confident, as hikers remain rare and homestays are quite possible. In remote villages, you cannot trust the locals when they speak English,” Mark Elliott, author of numerous guides to Azerbaijan, told CNN Travel.

Transcaucasian Route

Another boost to the local hiking scene has been the inclusion of Azerbaijan’s Transcaucasian Trail, a project launched in 2015 to build two long-distance hiking trails through the South Caucasus with the goal of actively, culturally opening up its diverse communities and landscapes. strange travelers

The one that crosses Azerbaijan will eventually cover the entire Greater Caucasus Mountains, from the Black Sea to the Caspian. And a large part of the Azerbaijan part is already walkable in 2022 thanks to the launch of two new stages of approximately 100 kilometers in the north-west (Sheki-Zagatala) and north-east (Guba-Gusar) regions of the country.

“Riding these two parts of Azerbaijan, and the Transcaucasian Trail in general, creates a unique opportunity to cross between mountains and villages, while experiencing local hospitality, stumbling upon old fortresses and religious sites, and seeing diverse, changing landscapes. quickly,” TCT Azerbaijan coordinator Nazrin Garibova, who charted many new routes, told CNN Travel.

Grizdehneri from Griz

At an inn in Grize, we fortify ourselves with buttery pilaf, followed by copious amounts of refreshing black tea and sweet white cherry preserves. Sitting cross-legged on the local woven rugs, a magical silence prevails beyond the small window, which is illuminated by an incredible ray of sunlight. The contrast between this mountain tranquility and bustling Baku, only three hours away by car, could hardly be more stark.

The final part of the route follows a path long used by the Grizdans to visit their ethnic relatives in Grizdehne, a village at the foot of the mountain. Ahead, a network of shepherd’s paths stretches across the hillside like a giant spider’s web, while to the right, the silvery crack of the Gudiyalchay River cuts through a wide valley, filled with swift-moving jewels of clouds.

And, suddenly, the landscape changes dramatically. At the tip of a grassy ridge, we drop into a steep, narrow gorge, where the path descends hundreds of meters to a thick forest below. Above this, it is covered with loose stones and across them is a continuous trail of bear droppings.

“They are attracted to the trash cans below,” said Togrul, our guide. Bears are actually very rare to see and extra care should be taken with aggressive shepherd dogs.

There is one last obstacle left — the slippery part of the scree slope — before the trail finally flattens out as it reaches the forest line. And from there it’s a relaxing 45-minute walk through deciduous forests of lime and harizz, a fitting way to end this short encounter with the fascinating cultural and natural diversity of the Caucasus Mountains.