Azerbaijan International

Summer 2001 (9.2)
Pages 14-23

Above: Trekking up Babadagh.

Spectacular scenery, fresh air, blue skies and the adventure of discovery are reasons enough to go hiking out in Azerbaijan's countryside. But perhaps the best reason is its welcome escape from the bustling city and hectic workweeks. Out there are broad, serene landscapes seemingly untouched by civilization. You soon find that there's much more to Azerbaijan than just Baku. It's an entirely different world.

During the past three years while on assignment here in Azerbaijan, my wife Leslie and I have enjoyed many day trips outside of the capital, most of them organized to take us just a few hours' distance from the city. Once you get outside of Baku, there are many interesting and accessible places worth visiting, especially in the Caucasus mountains. There are so many places where the countryside is essentially wide open, and walking is not very strenuous. Unlike Britain, where I grew up and hiked since my Boy Scout days, there are no marked paths, no signposts and few fences to obstruct the path or view. Almost all land is treated essentially as public property.

Left: The slopes up from the Pirgulu Observatory make for excellent cross-country skiing in the winter.

The best time of year for walking, I think, is spring - April, May and June. That's when the weather is best and the countryside, its lushest green. Of course, you can walk at any time of year in Azerbaijan; however, you'll find that higher altitudes are inaccessible in winter because of the ice and snow. But at the lower levels, the winters are usually not severe. The summer months can be unseasonably hot and dry, making for difficult and labored walking at the lower altitudes. But if you go high enough, above 1,500 meters, you'll find it very enjoyable in the summer.

While there are poisonous snakes in Azerbaijan, especially in the hot plains, it's been rare for us to see them in the mountains. We have seen them on the Absheron Peninsula, particularly toward the tip end of the archipelago (Shah Dili), where there used to be a snake farm. [See
"Droplets of Life or Death, The Venom of Caucasian Vipers" in Azerbaijan International 3.2, Summer 1995.]

Sheep Dogs
Often on our hikes, we meet shepherds grazing their flocks of sheep and goats. We've found them to be welcoming and friendly. But one note of caution: their sheep dogs can be quite aggressive, as they are there to protect the flocks and don't seem to comprehend that we aren't a threat to the sheep. Sometimes waving our walking sticks at them doesn't seem to do much good, so we've had to resort to throwing stones to keep them at bay until we pass the flock. Some people carry along dog-deterrent pepper spray that they bring from the States.

Another thing to watch out for, especially in the mountains, is flooding and landslides. In the spring, the rivers become swollen with melting snow. You don't want to be caught up in the mountains in the middle of a storm. Be alert for flooding any time that it's raining and also when the snows melt in spring and early summer. Because the peaks of the mountains are very high and the sea is relatively close, this results in extremely rapid currents in the swollen river washes. The valleys tend to be very wide; consequently, the rivers are known as "braided rivers" because they resemble the appearance of hair braids with their many interwoven streams.

Above: Recommended places for hikes in Azerbaijan, numbered according to their order in this article.

Dangerous Roads

Because of the poor road conditions, you'll definitely want to make sure your driver is quite experienced. In the Caucasus, the narrow roads hug the side of the mountains and are usually hard-packed dirt except when it rains and they become deeply rutted. There are no guardrails on the roads, and sometimes there are steep drop-offs plunging into ravines hundreds of feet below. Watch out for landslides any time of the year and for boulders blocking the passage.

Go as a Convoy
For safety's sake, it's a good idea to go together with friends in a convoy of several vehicles - four-wheel-drives. If you run into trouble, another vehicle can come to the rescue. There's no tow-truck service. Usually, we arrange for a driver to take us to a drop-off point and then pick us up later at a designated location often several hours' hike away. Sometimes it takes the driver nearly as long to reach the destination, if he has to navigate on a different mountain range. We instruct the driver to meet us at a specific place and estimate the general time frame that we plan to arrive if all goes well.

Left: Although caravans no longer pass through Azerbaijan on the Silk Route, camels though quite rare can still be found in the Pirgulu area.

What to Bring

At Azerbaijan's Institute of Geology, you can get very detailed topographic maps showing the elevations, valleys, rivers, vegetation and wooded areas. The maps will also show the dirt roads and tracks between villages. These maps are as detailed as the ones you get in European countries or North America. Ask for the Azerbaijan Republic Map with detailed topography at the Academic Book Store at 51 Istiglaliyyat Street across from the Presideum of the Academy of Sciences.

Elliott's Trailblazer Guide
You don't absolutely need a map, however, because the countryside is so wide open. You can just pick an area that you want to go to and set off. Mark Elliott's "Azerbaijan with Georgia" (Trailblazer Publications, 1999) is also an indispensable guidebook for four-wheel driving and walking routes. Mark is an avid hiker himself and has included more than 140 valuable hand-drawn maps in the guide.

Make sure to bring lots of water, at least a liter per person for hikes of just a few hours' duration; much more, of course, for longer jaunts. That goes for food as well. We usually pack up sandwiches, nuts and raisins.

When you pack clothing, consider that there may be unexpected changes in the weather. When you set out, it may be nice and comfortable, but bring warmer clothing just in case you get stuck somewhere overnight. Be prepared for showers in the mountains, even in the summer and fall.

Left: Layers of geologic time make for spectacular scenery in Pirgulu and many other places throughout the countryside.

First Aid Kit

Of course, the No. 1 necessity is a first-aid kit. Also it's important to bring a warm emergency blanket in case you ever have to spend the night unexpectedly out-of-doors. Fortunately, we've never had to use ours. A compass is necessary, as you can easily get lost in wooded areas. Matches and a knife also come in handy. And, of course, a walking stick.

Although it may be possible to get help in an emergency, you want to be as prepared as possible to handle a crisis on your own. On one of our longer walks, some of the hikers twisted their knees and had trouble coming back down the steep slope. The local shepherds were immensely helpful and quick to assist; they went up the mountains with their horses and brought the injured hikers down on horseback.

Mobile Phone
Finally, a mobile phone is invaluable. Over the past three years, Azerbaijan's cell phone network has become much more extensive. Though it doesn't cover the entire country, it provides surprisingly wide coverage. It pays to be familiar with the locations of mobile phone antennas, in order to anticipate where you might be out of range.

Left: The isolated village of Khinalig, only accessible for a few months out of the year. Its residents speak a little-known, unwritten language.

What You'll See

Spectacular scenery for starters! There are steep inclines, gorges, ravines, wide-open spaces so vast and so serene that you often forget that others have also passed the same way before you.

In the springtime, it's always amazing to see the fields blanketed with wildflowers. You'll find a variety of colors, especially reds and yellows, blues, purples and whites. In the higher altitudes, the flowers continue to bloom throughout the summer.

The waterfalls are also spectacular. Since the mountains are fairly close to the sea, the water cascades down from a considerable height, creating a dramatic effect.

The shepherds that we've encountered have always been very friendly and treated us as guests, often offering us tea. Sometimes they've invited us into their tents. It's always amazing to learn how far they've come on foot with their flocks during the summer months, when they make the ascent to higher climes. Distances of 50 to 100 kilometers are not unusual.

Sometimes you come across the unexpected in the Caucasus. Once when we were approaching the isolated village of Khinalig, which is only accessible, even by four-wheel-drive, for a few months out of the year, we came up to the brow of a hill only to discover 20 to 30 people riding on horseback toward us. It was like a scene right out of the movies. Of course, we greeted them. They seemed to come out of nowhere. We had no idea where they were coming from or where they were going, but it was a remarkable sight.

Good Places to Hike in Azerbaijan
Most are one-day trips out of Baku.

Left: Beshbarmag" means "Five Fingers".

1. Absheron Peninsula
Less than an hour's distance from Baku, on the north coast of the peninsula, there's a pleasant walk of a couple of hours along the low cliffs, starting east of private "baghs" or "dachas" ("summer" homes) beyond the power station at Shuvalan. There are also sandy beaches extending as far as the small port of Dubandi. Beyond that, you'll find a lighthouse overlooking Pirallahi Island and its run-down oilfield installations.

On the other side of the peninsula - that long, thin tongue of Shah Dili (on the Absheron archipelago) - the land extends south into the Caspian Sea, with pathways or beaches on either side of the archipelago. This is a national refuge area, and you're in for a treat if you hike here in the winter when thousands upon thousands of birds migrate southward with a stopover in Azerbaijan.

2. Pirgulu
The asphalt road from Shamakhi to Pirgulu is open most of the year and is a favorite day trip by car from Baku. The cabins near the Observatory are a good place to stay overnight, in summer or winter. There are several walking routes from here, into the valleys to the north and south, passing through low woods. The slopes up from the Observatory are also good for cross-country skiing.

For a longer trip, these slopes eventually lead to the mountain ridges above Lahij, which can be walked in a long day. (It's about 25 km and a rather steep descent.) At the end of the climb, there's the prospect of a hot bath in a 19th century bathhouse/sauna, a meal of shashlik (lamb kabab) and a bed at the adjacent farmer's house near the stream as you enter the village.

3. South of Shamakhi
The roads south of Shamakhi run through open grasslands. Side roads lead to spurs and river valleys heading to Aghsu and the dry central plain of Azerbaijan. In the spring these hills are covered with wildflowers, and if the air is clear, there are excellent views of the valley across to the Lesser Caucasus and Karabakh.

Above: Shepherds traditional move with their families and flocks to the higher elevations during the summer time. Location is Gris.

4. Ismayilli

The valleys northwest of Ismayilli are interesting places to explore. This region is about the limit in distance that one can do comfortably in a day trip from Baku. Areas on the south side of the main chain of the Caucasus are designated as national parks. The sizeable village of Galajig is very welcoming, with many old houses set among the trees. Above the village, the valleys climb up to open meadows, providing excellent opportunities for walking.

5. Khizi
The road to Khizi heads west from Gilazi, an hour north of Baku. It passes the spectacular "Candy Cane" mountains that are composed of different colored shale before reaching the small town of Khizi. Leading west in the valley after Khizi, dirt roads head up a narrowing valley and into very thick woods, much of them beech. There's a path leading up past a small waterfall that reaches open farmland after a few kilometers and a few hundred meters' climb. From there, one can either return by the same route or head west down the steep slopes to the Altiaghaj road. There's also a route south to the woods to Larimja, from which another good dirt road leads to Altiaghaj.

Above: Though Azerbaijan's country landscapes are full of serenity and solitude, there is much evidence that others, too, have enjoyed the same expansive views. At Gris.

6. Dubrar Dagh

This is a peak with an altitude of 2,000 meters to climb from a dirt track off the road to Altiaghaj. This trail starts near the mineral-water collection station and climbs several hundred meters. The hills are not wooded, so there are good views when it's clear. You'll find many shepherds with their flocks there in the summer.

7. Beshbarmag
The name of this dramatically shaped mountain translates as "Five Fingers". It's another favorite place that attracts many tourists in every season. There's a considerable difference in the landscape with the seasons. In the winter and spring, the mountain is blanketed in lush green; in the summer and autumn, everything has baked under the sun and turns yellow-brown. When drivers pass this point on the road to Guba, they know they are finally arriving at the rich farmlands and orchards of northern Azerbaijan. Beshbarmag can be climbed "direct" from the new mosque along the main road, or one can take a different route up along the ridge from the valley leading from the Zarat DYP (Dovlat Yol Polisi - National Highway Patrol).



Left: June is the best time of year to visit the waterfall at Gizildagh.
Right: Compared to other old fortresses in Azerbaijan, Chirag Castle is in fairly good condition.

8. Tikhli to Beshbarmag

This is a 4-5 hour walk from the village before Khizi, heading east across the ridges and valleys, to Beshbarmag. In spring the wildflowers are very colorful, and as you ascend each ridge, you'll enjoy ever-closer views of the "Five Finger" mountain.

9. Chirag Castle
Another popular destination for family outings, by car, or larger groups by bus, is Chirag Castle. This fortress, though in desperate need of repair, is one of the most impressive ancient towers of the region. Built in the 5th century by the Sassanids, the castle was used up through the 18th century as part of the southern defenses of the khanate of Guba. It can be reached by the asphalt road from Davachi, past the sanatorium at Galaalti or from the road from Siyazan through the oilfield. Good walks can be made up the ridge north of the castle through dense woods. There's also a 6-km hike from the village of Dashlig Yanar along the ridge toward the castle, with changing views of it en route.



Left: Ambling through a meadow near Tangialti. Right: Gizildagh.

10. Tangaalti Gorge

South of the Guba road, there are several ways to reach the gorge of Tangaalti. This countryside is very fertile, watered by rivers that originate high in the Caucasus. Beyond the gorge, the valley opens up again with excellent places to hike in the hills on either side. There are some impressive cliffs on the southern side, and a good walk up to about 1,900 meters from the villages above the dirt road that crosses the river about a kilometer south of the gorge. On clear days there are excellent views across the foothills to the Caspian sea.

11. Gusarchai Valley
The valley heading up into the mountains southwest of Gusar is fascinating and full of places to walk. From the village of Anig, there's a hike up a side valley over to the next river, which leads to the Long Forest Resort and the Guba-Gusar road. Further up the Gusarchai valley, the dirt road becomes steeper and is difficult in wet weather, but it leads to the village of Laza with its famous waterfalls.

The hike up the valley from Laza is alpine in beauty, with the peaks of Gizildagh and Shahdagh towering above Gusarchai's cascading waterfalls.

For an overnight walk, this route can be followed through a pass to the isolated village of Khinalig, about 15 kilometers from Laza, which is accessible by road only about two or three months of the year because of the rivers one must ford. Khinalig is known for having its own distinct language.

Above: Open skies, open shore along the Caspian coastline.

12. Talish Mountains

Though too far away for a single day trip, the Talish mountains of southern Azerbaijan are beautiful places to drive through and to hike. The first 20 kilometers or so up the valleys to Yardimli and Lerik are thickly wooded, but with many paths to explore.

Lerik is famous as a region for its number of centenarians. Further up, the woods give way to open farmland and grassland with many villages. Around Yardimli, paths lead to the rolling hills of the border region with Iran. Beyond Lerik, there are higher peaks, begging to be explored.

John Connor is Chevron's General Manager in Baku. During the past three years on assignment in Azerbaijan, he and his wife Leslie have enjoyed hiking in the Caucasus, usually on day trips from Baku.

Azerbaijan International (9.2) Summer 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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