We travel to Xinaliq on a ribbon of asphalt, frayed at the edges, and flying; because that is what it feels like as we float high above the valley bottom, with its small hidden villages, green forests, the loops of road we earlier traveled, everything. We are in temporary kinship with the pair of eagles that floats magically up from beneath us as we peer over the high crest of the pass that leads to this ancient settlement. In rays of blinding sun against a smooth blue curtain of sky, the eagles’ feathers tousled by columns of wind, one of them looks at us, and seems to recognize us.
The road crumbles at the edges, and it sometimes seems ready to dissolve of its own accord, turning into simply more falling mountain rubble, the unavoidable advance of chaos in the face of human-imposed order. Its temporary time on the earth is about to come due. Perhaps the road itself will quickly crumble away, and no longer be here for us when we try to return.
The surrounding escarpments make dazzling, balletic leaps they hover over us at dizzying heights. The rock forms dance and whirl around us as we ply our undulating path, following the score of the engineers who cut this road into the mountain’s flank nine years ago. It makes our heads swim, and the effect is compounded with the sweet taste of the air, also laced with the earthier residues of transhumance; the tang of manure, human sweat, and dusty dry grass. Water clatters down the cliff face, and pours out from roadside pipes, utterly clear, shining, and tasting of snow.
Perhaps it is the effects of the thin air, or the untrammeled sunshine, or the serpentine movement of the automobile, but we are lifted to a state of excitement beyond the visual satisfactions of simply regarding beauty, perhaps like the ecstasies of the great painters of the Romantic movement. But we are here, this is real. The stones are hard, the wind is forceful, the sunshine browns and reddens the skin. Gravity forever leads us toward the abyss.
Road to Xinaliq. Habil Aliyev, kamanche
Up here live people who have eked out their livings for, incredibly, some 3000 years, in comparative isolation to everyone else. No one but they (and a few academics) can understand the language they speak. The phonology of Khinalug appears to be quite rich. According to Wikipedia, the Cyrillic alphabet for Khinalug contains 74 characters to represent its inventory of sounds, including digraphs, trigraphs, and tetragraphs. Recently, a Roman alphabet based on Turkish has been introduced which reduces the number of letters to 50. In any event, our local host, a native, regales us with examples of its gender formulations, demonstrating that the form of the verb changes depending on whether a male or a female is addressed.
“Xinaliq is believed to be an ancient Caucasian village going back to the Caucasian Albanian period. According to Schulze (1994), both the local history and the linguistics of Xinaliq clearly indicate that the early speakers of Xinaliq had once migrated into their present location, during the period from 1000 BC to 300 AD. It is believed by the Xinaliq residents that the ancestors of the Xinaliq people were followers of Zoroastrianism. In the 3rd century they converted to Christianity and then to Islam in the 7th century. All residents are Muslim. Because of the high altitude and its remoteness, the Xinaliq village and its residents have managed to survive and withstand many invasions the region has witnessed. The area has many historical sites including ancient holy caves.”
Xinaliq: Language, People and Geography, Tamrika Khvtisiashvili, University of Utah in Journal of Endangered Languages, Winter 2012.
We pull off the road to admire the scene. Far below us, shepherds are moving their flocks of sheep, the wealth, treasure and industry of these communities, from one grazing pasture to another. They flow slowly over the rough surfaces of the valley floor, and the less-steep parts of the valley walls. From our vantage point, we see it as a quivering pool of yellowish-white dots that moves in concert, pushed forward by tiny men on horseback and dogs. As they come up off the rocky places and finally reach the fresher grazing grounds, a sea of chlorophyll, the sheep are excited, and they begin to run, drifting across the green tableau like a wind-driven cloud.