Northern tourist route
Candy Cane Mountains
About 14 surfaced kilometres from Gilazi, the dry mountains start to develop beautiful rose and white 'candy' stripes and swirls. For a stretch the other-worldly scenery is reminiscent of Death Valley, USA, except rather more vividly coloured, and littered with little conical fossils. Candy Cane mountains have no established local name, the place is known among locals as 'Mushfiq Pamyatnik' related to an isolated bust of poet Mushfiq surveying the scene from across a small footbridge.
Alty Agach (Six Trees)
From its now isolated position you would never guess that venerable Alti Agach once controlled a major trade route linking the entrepot towns of Shabran and Derbend with then all-important Shamakha.
Today this straggling village retains several older, Russian-style wooden cottages but these are rather too few and far between to call the overall effect attractive. Azeri tourists come to Alti Agach simply to relax in the cool of its bird-filled forests.
Besh Barmaq (Five-finger mountain)
Visible for miles, Besh Barmaq is a natural fortress For centuries it guarded the narrowest strip of coastal plain and a wall between the crag and the sea funnelled all commerce through a controllable gateway near which was a great caravanserai. Its antiquity and cosmopolitan clientele are clear from 18th-century travellers' reports which noted that the caravanserai walls were covered in the graffiti of a dozen languages including French, Polish and Arabic. A painting in Baku's Historical Museum shows it as being close to the water's edge but this is either artistic licence or represents the Caspian in an unusually high mood.
The caravanserai has now vanished entirely. In its place is a small roadside Namazkah (prayer room) and new mosque paid for by nazir donations of passing motorists who almost unanimously stop to sip from the water source.
Climbing Besh Barmaq The curious Azeri blend of Islam and Animism is nowhere more vividly portrayed than amid the spooky pinnacles of Besh Barmaq. All prayer and genuflexions, pilgrims struggle up the mountain in their Sunday best. In places the rock has been kissed smooth by a procession of devout lips. At the very top, old women hold out knarled begging hands and several mendicant sages lead prayers on precarious ledges with spectacular views.
You may be lucky enough to hear the superhumanly-rapid babble of prayers -supposedly Islamic and led by a Mollah but to all intents and purposes an ancient animist rite evoking the dark powers of the rock beneath very Tibetan-looking prayer knots. It's an odd and eerie atmosphere, though often over-busy at weekends.
One can walk to the base of the rocky knob in about 1,5 hours from the Namazkah where Baku-Quba buses stop. If you have your own vehicle, however, it's perfectly feasible to drive most of the way up by the access track which turns inland some 1.9 km beyond the railway bridge, ie about 3km north of Namazkah. The track is quite steep and not recommended if wet, but despite a stones is perfectly possible without a 4WD. The parking area has a 'sacrifice' point and a fresh-water well of holy water which is in considerable demand.
A 10-minute walk up the steep grassy bank brings you to the base of the rock pinnacles. These are laced with metal stairways, steps and footholds which seem dauntingly steep at times. Nonetheless, even the most rotund pilgrims seem able to climb them in high heels.
Chirax Castle and Qala Alti
Gali Alti is a small town about two hours north of Baku in Azerbaijan. It is on the edge of the mountains coming down from Russia. It overlooks a narrow band of land between the sea and the impassable mountains that used to be a main raiding and trading route. In order to protect the trading and minimize the raiding, there were a series of fortifications along the mountains that were used from the 5th to the 18th centuries. According to one guide book, at its height the fortifications were second only the Great Wall in China in size. Above Gali Alti, at the peak one of the most Eastern-most ranges in this part Azerbaijan, is a castle called Chirax Castle that used to serve as a lookout and battlement and that is in still remarkably good shape.
The remnants of Chirax Castle sit very impressively at 1200m on a cliff top above the forested sanatorium of Qala Alti and associated Mashrif village. It's one of the few castle ruins in Azerbaijan to retain a real castle-shaped silhouette and makes a worthwhile and reasonably easy diversion if you're driving between Baku and Quba.
Part of a defensive chain for 1600 years, the name Chirax means 'lamp' for beacon fires lit here to warn of approaching enemy armies. During the 18th century it was the southernmost outpost of Quba's Fatali Khan. Never stormed, it simply fell into disuse. Today the main knob of stone and brickwork that remains is teetering ever more perilously on a rock which is being eroded from beneath. The authorities have yet to undertake minimal repairs to bolster the site, as they did at Old Qabala. The need is now very urgent if the most impressive remaining fortress tower of the region is not to collapse. Hidden in the forest beneath are many more wall sections.
The excavations at Shabran are not visually exciting. The few half-collapsed domes and the subterranean remnants of a small 16th-to 17th-century castle give little impression of the town's great historical significance. Still, the site is easy to visit while 'driving by' and worth a five-minute detour if you are heading for Nabran or Quba.
The ancient city of Shabran developed to exploit the then 'ideal climate of the narrow, fertile Caspian shore plain. Officially founded during the reign of Sassanid Shah Khosrov Anushirvan (531-579) it rapidh became one of the five main towns of Caucasian Albania and an important Caspian spur to the great Silk Routes.
Excavations indicate that it had advanced sewerage systems in the 9th century and piped fresh water from springs some 14km away. It later developed its own silk industry and, from the 9th to 12th centuries, was famous for 'Amilin Shabran glassware. It was here that the great 12th-century poet Xagani was incarcerated and produced his famous 'prison poems Hebsiye. Though the site was sandwiched for safety between a system of protective walls, its relative vulnerability meant administratne power was moved to Shamakha whose hilltop position was easier to defend.
Shabran was rebuilt after the Mongol destruction and it retained a trading role but when British wool merchants arrived in the 16th century they found Shabran's markets too small to bother with Raids by Khazar/Ossete gangs, Dagestani Lezghians and even (according to one source) Crimean Tatars, continued to undermine the city s reputation and eventually it withered away to nothing.
Incredibly the site was forgotten altogether during the 18 th century and only rediscovered by archaeologists in 1980. Heydar Aliyev and Thor Heyerdhal visited the site in 1983. Nobody has yet found the mythical Mekhak gold-divining stone.
Bakuvians sigh and look puppy-eyed at the mere mention of Nabran, a 30km strip of forest-backed beaches. Nabran means 'fighting place' in Lezghi and tiny Nabran village in the middle of the strip was historically renowned for its fearsome mercenaries. These days the fight is for a mid-summer hotel room. By Azerbaijan standards the choice of accommodation is astonishingly wide, but with half of Baku holidaying here, a reservation will be virtually essential in July-August. In spring or late September, however there are often bargains to be had and you'll have the whole beach to yourself (well, yourself, a few cows and the odd dead seal that is)
More on Nabran here as well.
Though built around the ancient village of Kudial, Quba really only came of age when the regional khan moved his entourage here from Xudat in the early 18th century. The town rose rapidly to prominence under Fatali Khan who used a combination of diplomacy and coercion to form a temporary alliance between the usually squabbling local lords and khans. However, to play off Persian power, Fatali Khan was forced to sign, a defence agreement with Russia in 1784. The Russians muscled in and by 1806 had abolished the khanate altogether. The relatively strong power base that Fatali Khan had developed here forced the Russians to keep a close eye on the area and the town was developed as an imperial administrative centre. The neat, quaint houses that survive still give the town a 19th cerury provincial Russian character. The cetre is a grassy square bracketed between the dumpy concrete house of culture and he distinctive Juma Mosque with its oversized spiky dome and latterday minaret
Other interesting building includes the square, colourfully painted Ardebil and Haci Cafar mosques, originally churches, and the Saxina Xanum Mosque built for Fatali Khan's wife. The huge graveyard is worth exploring with some ireresting royal brick tombs and some newer, kitschier memorials.
The Historical Museum in the home of the famous 19th-century historian Bakiihdov is relatively interesting and there is good views across the river from its garden to Krassnaya Sloboda.
more on Quba is here.
Krasnaya Stoboda (Qasaba, Gyrmyzy Gasaba)
Quba's twin-across-the river is the prosperous capital of Azerbaijan's 'mountain Jews'. Perhaps the only all-Jewish town outside Israel, the 6000 or so inhabitants are considered by some to be direct descendants of one of the 'lost tribes' scattered after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 722bc. Other theories suggest that they're descended from Jews fleeing Iran in the 17th century or that they were simply Khazars who converted as a way to stay neutral in feuds between Christian and Muslim communities. Today the most visible difference between Quba and Krasnaya Sloboda is the latter's relative wealth roads repaved and houses ornately renovated with funds sent back by relatives who've emigrated to Israel.
While Quba folk call it Qasaba, locals still use the village's distinctly Soviet-sounding Russian name 'big red village'. Perhaps it's coincidence, but sitting quietly in a woodpile in the garden of the town office is a dethroned Lenin statue.
The communist era was predictably unkind to Krasnaya Sloboda. Stalin banned the use of Hebrew, forced the farming population to rear pigs and destroyed all but one of the 11 synagogues. Today there are three. The older ones look like wooden barns with tiny octagonal spire towers. As in Quba, the prime attractions are the facades and carved doorways of the houses. An occasional shuttle bus runs to Quba bazaar but access from Quba old town is easier on foot across the old bridge.
Cek (Jek), where some people speak a variety of the strange Qriz dialect, is a picturesque hamlet perched on a rocky knoll halfway up a steep grassy hillside. It's possible to offroad up the grass to a radio beacon on the top of that hill for brilliant, 360? views. Return to Cek for the track to Xinaliq: cross a pass and descend to the river, fording across before Bostangesh, back across to the wrong side when the next side valley opens up, then back once more shortly before coming into Xinahq itself.
Xinaliq (Khinalik, Ginalig)
On a typical overcast day, viewed from the Qala Xudat road, Xinaliq rises like a prehistoric stone boat floating on a heavy sea of clouds. When the clouds clear the vista of surrounding peaks is breathtaking.
The village itself is a steeply-stacked pile of 300 higgledy piggledy, rocky-grey homes. The flat roof of one house often forms the front yard of another on which men stand for hours starig, apparently transfixed by the dancing skyscapes. Colourfully-dressed women collect water and beat clean fresh raw wool at communal water sources. Local girls weave beautiful carpets which adorn the massively thick walls of the houses.
While strolling through the alleyways you can amuse your hosts by trying to recognize the difference between the round !kd, squarer flat gomra and brick-shaped kukwa - three variants on the dung+straw =winter fuel formula. Sheep, the village's raison d'etre, appear to know their way as they trot home at dusk to their respective pens. The grassy terraces on steep slopes across the river were cultivated up until the 1970s but these days even the hardy locals realize it's not worth the bother. An unusual attraction is Ateshgah (3hrs hike there and back), a mystical eternal flame burning naturally in the middle of the mountains.
More on Xinaliq can be found here