Why Azerbaijan is one of the world's newest, and most challenging, hiking destinations
(CNN) — In the heart of northeastern Azerbaijan, a cluster of centuries-old stone dwellings cling to a hilltop surrounded by some of the South Caucasus country's highest mountains.
Steeped in history and legend, Khinalig is populated by a tiny ethnic group speaking their own language and tracing their ancestry back to the prophet Noah. The village is scattered with monuments and spectacular viewpoints.
It also happens to be one of Azerbaijan's hiking hot spots, with numerous routes snaking off into the Greater Caucasus Mountains. That's why CNN Travel ventured here last fall to try out a classic 25-kilometer trail linking three of the country's highest villages, all sitting more than 2,000 meters (about 6,560 feet) above sea level.
Until relatively recently, such isolated villages were inaccessible to anything but the sturdiest of Soviet SUVs, which has helped them preserve a unique semi-nomadic lifestyle. For much of the year the majority of villagers are away guiding flocks of sheep between summer and winter pastures.
With new roads, technology and a possible influx of tourists, change is on the horizon, but for the present, venturing to such remote mountainous parts of Azerbaijan still feels like time travel.
From Khinalig to Griz
Our journey begins on a disused jeep track along a broad valley cut by the Gudiyalchay River, accompanied by stunning scenes of pyramidal mountains crisscrossed with long-abandoned agricultural terraces and the plateau-peak of Mount Gizilgaya, rising to more than 3,720 meters (about 12,200 feet).
Soon after passing through the rural settlement of Galakhudat, the trail comes to the edge of a vast canyon, where we pause to admire an imperious vulture gliding close enough not to require 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.
Having crossed the canyon, a few more hours of easy walking follow through simply breathtaking scenery -- deep valleys, forested foothills and mile upon mile of mountains -- until we arrive in Griz, another rustic mountain village populated by a distinct ethno-linguistic community.
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.
Beloved by ecotourists, Griz harbors the traces of a medieval fortress and an 8th-century mosque, countless ancient gravestones and cozy, hobbit-like homes, in addition to its stunning setting atop a plateau backed by tall cliffs and exhilarating valley views ahead.
A hiker's guide
Being over 50% mountainous, many of Azerbaijan's quaintest villages and most monumental landscapes are best accessed by hiking, which is a relatively new activity in Azerbaijan.
But it's catching on fast as the country begins to really tap into its nature tourism potential. There are three major ranges covering vast swathes of the country: the Greater and Lesser Caucasus across the north and south-west and the Talysh Mountains in the south.
All of them provide ample opportunities for hiking, which differ from region to region thanks to the abundance of climate zones found in the country located at a geographical crossroads. 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.
Two further unique experiences are hiking through the otherworldly pink-and-white landscapes of the aptly nicknamed Candy Cane Mountains near the capital Baku. And Nakhchivan, the enigmatic autonomous region separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a slither of Armenia, is home to arid, rocky ranges of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains largely untrodden by tourists and inhabited by a completely different set of wildlife, including the almost mythical Caucasian leopard.
As demand has risen in recent years, the number of local mountain tourism companies and their offerings have expanded. Both day trips from Baku and multi-day jaunts can be enjoyed, with food and accommodation increasingly available at village homestays and guesthouses along established tourist trails.
Trail development has also improved, with many of the best villages, viewpoints, waterfalls and various other points of interest now connected by signposted trails. 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. Seated cross-legged on locally woven carpets, a magical silence reigns beyond the small window, which beams through an uplifting ray of sunshine. The contrast between this mountain tranquility and bustling Baku, only three hours' drive away, could hardly be starker.
The final leg of the route follows a footpath long used by the Griz people to visit their ethnic kin in Grizdehne, a village at the foot 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.
One last obstacle remains -- a slippery section of scree slope -- before the trail finally flattens out upon reaching the forest line. And from there it's a soothing 45-minute wander through peaceful deciduous woodland formed of hornbeam and oak -- a fitting way to end this brief encounter with the fascinating cultural and natural diversity of the Caucasus Mountains.