This past weekend I went with my friend to visit Gusar. Gusar is up in what PCVs like to call “the first finger”; if you find Baku, it’s straight north. Gusar has a large population of Lezgis and has many other minorities. Lezgis have their own culture—way of dancing, history—and even language. Because it is situated so close to Russia, Azerbaijani is the third language people in this region learn. First is Lezgisi; second is Russian. Gusar also has a wonderful landscape with mountains and a forest.

We arrived on Friday very late because the only way for me to get to Gusar is to first take the 7 hour bus ride to Baku and then the almost 3 hour ride up to Gusar. Saturday was the first activity day. My friend, Jodi, had a great idea to go and see this village called Xinaliq. Xinaliq is pretty secluded in the mountains, so winter isn’t the greatest time to travel up there. Luckily it hadn’t snowed too much yet; the roads were still accessible. Our PCV friend Micah had arranged for a guide to drive us up to this village. The ride up there was beautiful! Everywhere you look you cry “Gorgeous!…Gorgeous!…Gorgeous!” On the way, we stopped by a rock that split from the mountain; I believe it was caused by the river running through it. Someone had a smart idea to build a Tea House rest-stop beside this rock. It would be a nice spot in the summer. After moving on, we were then slowed down by a hay wagon in the middle of the road. I don’t really know what happened, but there were hay bales all over the ground. Guess some fell off?? I could believe it seeing the road signs about how the road turns. We passed them and continued down the narrow winding road. After a short while we came upon rock chippers (this is my name for them). The road is built on the edge of the mountains. These men were chipping away at the rock to make the road wider. Yet as you can see in the picture, some of the rock looks like it will fall. In certain spots, falling rocks crush their unsuspecting victims and block the road. Sounds super safe, right?!? We went on our way again and then had to stop to see some beautiful scenery.

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We eventually made it to the village and were greeted by a flock of sheep and a cow in the road. Like many other villages in Gusar, the Xinaliq people are their own group with their own language and history. There are a few villages that speak their language which is called Jek. What is really cool about this village, is their architecture and way they live. The main home architecture style is a flat roof made out of dirt. Yes, you can actually walk on the roofs, and we did. Being built on a side of a hill, it’s much easier to walk on your neighbors’ roofs because there isn’t so many other places to walk when you get closer to the top. Some of the homes have switched to the newer style of roofs (pointed tin roofs), but many have maintained their tradition. Unfortunately these traditional roofs need to be replaced every few years because they eventually cave in. As for work, the villagers are not farmers like many other villages villagers are. The Xinaliq villagers are mainly cattle farmers. As we walked up to the top of the village, we had a following of cows and sheep with their farmer close behind them. Being cattle farmers mean that the villagers have a never ending supply of fuel. I’ll explain. The village has electricity and a several cellphone towers on the top of the hill (thanks you 21st Century). There is one thing they do not possess: gas. It is an extreme challenge to get gas through the mountains and up to this village. What do the villagers use during the winter if not gas? Dung. You can see bricks and walls of dung throughout the village.
Next we went to “lower Xaniliq” where we drank tea and ate at a family’s house that Micah knew. I call this village “lower Xaniliq” because many people in Xaniliq came down to this village for the winter. Now, I believe, they go somewhere else in the winter. That happens in many villages in the mountains; the houses are only seasonal because eventually you get snowed in until spring.

Making our way back to Gusar, we stopped by a genocide memorial that is being built. When digging up the ground for a construction project, many bones were found. Upon further investigation, the research community in Azerbaijan discovered this was a burial ground for villagers who had been tortured by the Red Army. On its way to Baku, the Red Army only had 2 options to get there. As they strolled through Gusar and Guba, they pillaged and destroyed many villages while brutally killing the villagers because they would not surrender to the Red Army. Many villages were completely destroyed. Not only villages but minorities were wiped out. Most of the villages in this region are their own group of people. Going to this memorial, we actually got to see part of the excavation. Much of the burial grounds had been dug up, but they left a part for the international community. Just by looking at this little part, you got a feel for the carelessness and disrespect the Red Army took in burying the dead but also the torture some of the villagers had to endure.

The biggest aspect that struck me about this region was the number of minority groups. I live in a part of Azerbaijan that does not have minority groups. As far as my conversations have gotten on the subject, everyone in Shamkir subscribes to being Azerbaijani. In Gusar and Guba region, it is different. There are Lezgis, a Jewish community, and the numerous villages that are each a different minority. This means that Azerbaijani is not the main language spoken or learned before children enter the public school system.

Even though Azerbaijan is the size of Maine, it has a vast amount of diversity. I can’t wait for the Spring/Summer when I can go back and do some hiking! Inshallah (God Willing)