The kindness of Khinalig

I love places with a story. And I love places with a soul. 

Perched high on the side of a mountain in Azerbaijan, Khinalig has both in abundance.

Ten years ago, before the twisting track from Quba was improved, this was an isolated village with its own language and ancient customs.

I spot a mobile mast and satellite dishes. Life here is changing. But slowly.

Villagers still have time to pause; to smile and offer tea and friendship to passing strangers like me. In this rugged, spectacular landscape such genuine kindness is a window on the soul of Khinalig. 

At home in Khinalig

I find her outside her home, in rubber gloves and wellington boots, shovelling a pile of straw and dung into an oblong wooden frame the size of a briefcase.

When full, she stamps on the mixture, compressing it so it stays solid when she removes the frame and stacks the soggy brick along with hundreds more, for the wind to dry. Then the process begins again.

Come winter, these will keep the fires burning.

She pauses, chatting to my Azerbaijani companion. Tea? The rubber gloves are taken off. A small, paraffin-soaked rag and handful of chopped wood are dropped down the samovar funnel, and soon we're inside her home, sitting on deep cushions at a low table, glasses of steaming tea and home-made jam before us.

She goes out. And enters again with a bowl of soft, white cheese, her hands still wet from squeezing out the whey. She says the cheese is matured in leather pouches and gestures for us to try it. I spoon some onto a chunk of rustic bread and taste. Strong, creamy, with a definite farmyard tang. And absolutely delicious.

Tea with Toghrul

Toghrul is standing, hands on hips, eyes tracing the route of the river snaking along the valley below. He turns when he hears the noise of the loose stones under our feet as we crunch along the hillside path.

His response is immediate. A broad grin. Like a flashbulb going off. Salam! The conversation starts and before I know it, we're being ushered up the wooden steps to his home and invited to sit on rich red woven cushions, drink tea and talk.

Well, my companion talks. I take photos of the plank-panelled room, the fruitbowl in the window and the gold-decorated cups Toghrul and his wife were given as a wedding gift.

Toghrul tells stories about his family, about life as a farmer in these mountains both inhospitable and majestic. The tarmac road to Quba has opened up a faster way to the market and shops, he says. It has opened up the imagination, too. Toghrul wants his children to experience life far beyond Khinalig.

But Toghrul's heart lies here. Khinalig is home, where he's content to look out over snow-capped mountains and only occasionally wonder what lies beyond.

The smell of bread heaven

The tin roof is chest high, sloping slightly to let the rain run off. Smoke curls skyward from a chimney of piled stones. On one side, the mud walls lean against a higher building built of concrete blocks; on the other a small open window at ground level; at the side a single door, maybe four feet tall.

I crouch to see inside, peering into the gloom. I see a young woman, next to a fire, sitting with large wooden disk before her. The earth floor inside is below ground level. She looks up. A gold-toothed smile and a wave of the long stick in her hand beckons us.

She's making bread. She grabs a handful of dough from the bowl beside her and lays it on the wooden board sprinkled with flour. Rhythmically she rolls the dough into a perfect circle before expertly wrapping it around the stick and unfolding it onto another disk, this one metal and slightly domed, perched above the open fire.

As one piece of bread begins to blister and brown, the next is ready to go. The smell is bread heaven. The smoke is stinging my eyes and making it hard to breath. How does she stay so long in here?

In a single sweep, the next piece of break is lifted from the fire with a long flat blade and offered to us. Tesekkur. Thank you.

Outside, I'm gulping fresh air and wondering if the smoke fumes will cling to my clothes all day. I tear a piece of the warm, soft bread and take a bite. Gusts of wind rush up from the valley below and race around the higgledy-piggledy homes of Khinalig. A goat pokes his head around the corner, looking hopeful.

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