22 January 2012

In a Land Far, Far Away...

Some places are hard to get to and, once there, even harder to really get at. Winter makes both attempts more difficult with snow obscuring roads as well as most signs of life. The world is full of places that remain set apart, that remain relatively unreachable even in this era of global connectivity. There are all sorts of words for these places: off-the-beaten-track, remote, exotic, fabled. Xinaliq has earned that final adjective - existing for at least 5,000 years on its unlikely mountain perch. Isolated, it's the stuff of legend.
Xinaliq an ancient village, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Pressed into the mountains like a silk button in an overstuffed cushion, it has been able to retain its unique identity - even its own language. Who knows how many times in its long history the residents of Xinaliq have been aware of which empire or country they technically "belonged" to. It's the mountain equivalent of a distant island that has, for almost all of its existence, until very, very recently, been disconnected from the rest of the world.
This has changed, somewhat, with the new Quba-Xinaliq road. A difficult two hour ride in the summer, it was almost impassible on the wintry morning of our departure from Quba. Snow fell steadily and we were surprised, really, when our ride to Xinaliq showed up right on time in his Lada Niva. On the way out of town, he stopped to pick up another passenger. "I'm the man that plows the road," the man communicated proudly. "With my tractor." Well, great. The snow never let up and driving up into the village felt like entering a snow cloud. In the morning, at sunrise, the white curtain had been drawn and we could see where we'd wound up.
Winter makes it difficult to really get a good look or feel for things, physically and culturally. Xinaliq's landscape, which is lauded for its hiking options, though not without a guide, was covered in snow. The people were mostly hidden, smiling and waving to us when they emerged to use the outhouse or fetch more water. The sheep, the reason for the town's existence, weren't gallivanting around the fields being guarded by vicious dogs. They were led out once or twice a day to eat warm grains from troughs, ingeniously made from split tires.
Even with the bleats of sheep and occasional sledding child, there was a deep sense of hibernation. Fruit and vegetables were tucked away in jars, pickled and preserved. Wool socks and hot tea were applied in layers. Chickens were cooped up, along with families. Rubber clogs on doorsteps gave a sense of how many people lived in each house. This young girl stamped excess water out of her laundry. Her female relatives waited to hang the clothing up, adding to the banners of bright cloth with icicle fringe strung up all around town.
The town has retained a way of life that has become more and more rare and rarified. The smell of burning cow dung clings to everything. These pungent heating bricks are piled up outside of homes, an alternative fuel in a place that has no wood. Water is piped into wells spread throughout town from a single spring in the mountains. The stone houses are built one on top of another. Covers are placed over the chimney of one house so that the "upstairs" neighbor's child won't fall in stepping out their front door.
We managed a hike out into the surrounding mountains, a four hour loop guided by the oldest son of our homestay. He brought us first to this shepherd's refuge, a shallow cave filled with ice sculpture stalagmites and stalactites. Handkerchiefs and scarves were hung up and four or five tea saucers were placed upright against the wall. It was difficult to tell if there was a religious purpose for this or if it was simply a way to flag the spot and provide dishware for lunch. As we continued on, the rock faces kept changing, buzzards appeared and disappeared overhead, a gunshot rang out and the fox it was aimed at darted across a hill. Now and then, our guide would sit on his gloves and smoke a cigarette while we took pictures , cleaned our slip-prone boots and gathered our fraying nerves.
Many people mourn the Xinaliq-Quba road for the modernity it is bringing to such an ancient place. Cement walls, corrugated roofs, wood paneling are seen as defacement. Until recently, Xinaliq was frozen in time. Covered in snow, frozen in practically every other way, it still felt ancient to me. Winter gives everything a tinge of being colorless, lifeless, timeless. A sense of mystery.


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