In the heart of northeastern Azerbaijan, a collection of old stone homes cling to a hilltop surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the South Caucasus nation.
Khinalig is home to a small ethnic community speaking their own language who may trace their descent to the biblical figure Noah. The area is rich in history and tradition. There are numerous monuments and breathtaking vistas across the hamlet.
It also happens to be a popular location for hiking in Azerbaijan, with many paths leading into the Greater Caucasus Mountains. In order to test out a traditional 25-kilometer trail connecting three of the highest settlements in the nation all of which are located at or above 2,000 meters (about 6,560 feet) above sea level CNN Travel came here last fall.
They were able to maintain their distinctive semi-nomadic way of life since such remote communities were inaccessible to anything but the toughest of Soviet SUVs until relatively recently. The bulk of the villagers are absent for most of the year, shepherding flocks of sheep between summer and winter pastures.
Change is coming with new highways, technology, and perhaps an inflow of tourists, but for now, traveling to such isolated mountainous regions of Azerbaijan still feels like going back in time.
From Khinalig to Griz
Our journey starts on a deserted jeep track along a wide valley carved by the Gudiyalchay River, with breathtaking views of pyramidal mountains dotted with abandoned agricultural terraces and the plateau-peak of Mount Gizilgaya, rising to more than 3,720 meters (about 12,200 feet).
The trail soon reaches the edge of a huge canyon after passing through the rural community of Galakhudat, where we stop to observe an imperious vulture gliding close enough to not need binoculars. Four different vulture species inhabit this high-mountain part of Azerbaijan’s Guba region, alongside a host of other birds of prey and regional rarities like the Güldenstädt’s redstart.
For hiking, Azerbaijan’s a place that’s little known but full of potential, especially on routes between the timeless mountain villages of the Caucasian foothills. However, you’ll need to be fairly self-assured as hikers remain rare and while homestays are eminently possible in remote hamlets, you can’t rely on local villagers speaking English.Mark Elliott
After navigating the canyon, a few more hours of easy walking take us over miles and miles of mountains, deep valleys, and forested slopes. Finally, we reach Griz, another remote mountain settlement home to a distinct ethno-linguistic population.
In fact, so dramatic is the terrain in the vicinity of 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 kilometers of each other, separated by deep valleys and towering mountains.
Favored by ecotourists, Griz boasts a spectacular location atop a plateau backed by high cliffs, breathtaking valley views, as well as the remains of a medieval fortress, an 8th-century mosque, numerous ancient gravestones, and snug, hobbit-like houses.
A hiker’s guide
Since Azerbaijan is over 50% mountainous, hiking, which is a relatively new hobby in Azerbaijan, is the greatest way to explore many of the country’s most charming communities and majestic landscapes.
But it’s gaining popularity quickly as the nation starts to fully realize the promise of nature tourism. The Talysh Mountains in the south and the Greater and Lesser Caucasus across the north and south-west are the three main ranges that make up the majority of the country.
They all offer plenty of trekking options, which vary from region to region due to the wide variety of temperature zones present in this geographically diverse nation. Highlights range from the high peaks and culturally diverse villages of the Greater Caucasus, to the numerous crumbling castles and churches of the Lesser Caucasus, and the Tolkienesque forests of the Talysh Mountains.
Hiking through the surreal pink-and-white vistas of the Candy Cane Mountains, which are close to Baku’s city, is one of two additional unique experiences. The mysterious autonomous region of Nakhchivan, which is divided from the rest of Azerbaijan by a sliver of Armenia, is home to arid, rocky Lesser Caucasus Mountain ranges that are largely unexplored by tourists and home to a completely different range of wildlife, including the almost mythical Caucasian Leopard.
The number of regional mountain tourist businesses and their offers have increased in recent years as demand has increased. With food and lodging becoming increasingly accessible at local homestays and guesthouses along established tourist trails, day trips from Baku and multi-day excursions can both be enjoyed.
A lot of the nicest villages, views, waterfalls, and other areas of interest are now connected by designated trails, demonstrating how the development of trails has progressed. However, there are still countless unmarked paths and unforeseen obstacles from river crossings to linguistic barriers to challenge even the most experienced hikers.
“For hiking, Azerbaijan’s a place that’s little known but full of potential, especially on routes between the timeless mountain villages of the Caucasian foothills. However, you’ll need to be fairly self-assured as hikers remain rare and while homestays are eminently possible in remote hamlets, you can’t rely on local villagers speaking English,” Mark Elliott, author of numerous guides to Azerbaijan, tells CNN Travel.
The Transcaucasian Trail
Another recent boost to the local hiking scene has been Azerbaijan’s inclusion on the Transcaucasian Trail, a project started in 2015 to build two long-distance hiking routes through the South Caucasus, with the aim of opening up its diverse communities and landscapes to active, culturally curious travelers.
The one through Azerbaijan will eventually span the entire Greater Caucasus Mountains, from the Black Sea to the Caspian. And much of the Azerbaijan section is already walkable thanks to the 2022 launch of two new roughly 100-kilometer stages in the northwest (Sheki-Zagatala) and northeast (Guba-Gusar) regions of the country.
“Hiking these two sections in Azerbaijan, and the Transcaucasian Trail in general, creates a unique opportunity for hikers to traverse between mountains and villages while experiencing local hospitality, stumbling upon old fortresses and religious sites, and witnessing a vast variety of landscapes, which change dramatically and rapidly,” TCT Azerbaijan coordinator Nazrin Garibova, who mapped out many new trails, tells CNN Travel.
To Grizdehne from Griz
At a homestay in Griz, we fortify ourselves with buttery pilaf followed by copious amounts of refreshing black tea and sweet white cherry preserve. Cross-legged on hand-woven carpets from the area, I gaze out the little window as a cheering ray of sunlight filters through the lovely calm. There is no better way to describe the contrast between this serene alpine setting and three hours’ drive from frenetic Baku.
The last section of the trip follows a footpath that the Griz people have traditionally used to travel to see their ancestors in Grizdehne, a settlement at the base of the mountain. In front, a network of shepherd trails fans out across the slope like a ginormous spider’s web, while to the right the silvery crack of the Gudiyalchay River wends through a vast valley overhung with fast-moving wisps of cloud.
And then all of a sudden the landscape changes dramatically. At the tip of a grassy ridge, we drop into a narrow, steep-sided canyon where the path descends precipitously for hundreds of meters to a thick forest below. On top of this, it’s covered with loose stones and along them is a steady trail of bear excrement.
“They’re attracted by the dustbins down below,” our guide Togrul said. In truth, bears are an incredibly rare sighting and more care should be taken around overly aggressive shepherd dogs.
Before the trail flattens out at the forest boundary, there is one more challenge left: a slick portion of scree slope. Then, to cap off this quick introduction to the unique cultural and environmental diversity of the Caucasus Mountains, it’s a tranquil 45-minute stroll through serene deciduous woodland made of hornbeam and oak.