The great escape - from a frikking BEAR!

Xinaliq Travel Blog

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People I met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Bayran (Azerbaijan)

Our trip to the Caucusus Mountains in north eastern Azerbaijan would prove to be a memorable trip for a number of reasons. Firstly there was the warm hospitality of the people, who are unique within the country and have their own dialect called Ketsh. Secondly there were the views, quite simply breathtaking, with snow capped mountains encompassing the tiny stone village of Xinaliq, which is home to a hardy 1000 people. And lastly there was the fact that i think a bear nearly ate me - seriously! Anyway, I'll get to this in due course and you can be the judge.

The town of Quba was to be our staging post for the trip, located 170kms North of Baku and 50kms East of Xinaliq.

A marshrutka from Baku took three and a half hours to reach Quba and the road skirted along the shore of the Caspian Sea. When we got to Quba we had to sit around for a couple of hours and see if any vehicle would be leaving to Xinaliq, which was by no means guaranteed. A taxi driver invited us for tea in a small cafe and we sat with a group of men, watching them play a game that resembled backgammon. A little before 16.00, a Xinaliq resident, who had been in Quba for the day, turned up and drove us back to his home in his Lada Niva. Normally taxis wait for four passengers, but as he was heading that way anyway, he took just the two of us for 8 Manat ($10) each, which was the regular going rate.

Our driver wore a funny black hat, had a long crooked nose, a pot belly and had a constant smile on his face.
He introduced himself as Bayran Qulu, and he turned out to be a jolly nice chap. As he spoke reasonable Russian, Julia chatted away to him for much of the journey. The bonus of sharing a language and having the car to ourselves was that we could ask him to stop to take photos along the way, which he was only too happy to do. The journey began by passing through a beautiful wooded area, where the leaves had turned golden brown, although for some reason my camera showed the leaves colour as green, which I can assure you wasn't the case at all. After 30 minutes or so we began to climb steeply and pass through an amazing valley, where cliffs towered high above and a small river gushed down below. Sadly it was quite misty, but the views were nevertheless spectacular.

Around 2 hours after leaving Quba we arrived into Xinaliq.
This was a memorable experience. Snow capped mountains dominated the skyline, whilst a small village of stone houses clung to the edge of a hill, with a river running nearby. We briefly stopped to watch some rams fighting, but it was approaching 18.00, the light was fading and there was a biting wind making it unpleasant to stand still for more than a few seconds, so we were keen to get inside and in front of a warm fire. Xinaliq is located higher than 3000m above sea level so there was a marked difference from the temperature in Baku.

Bayran had agreed to host us for the night for 7.50 Manat ($9.40) each, which included all of our meals. His house was located in the basin of the valley right next to the river and this is where we headed. His back garden was filled with animals including sheep, cows, chickens, cats and a duck and offered some of the most sensational views that you could wish for.
His profession was as a carpenter and he had built his house a few years earlier and fitted it out with all the furniture, whilst his wife had made the rugs. He assured us that whilst it may be nice for tourists to come and nosy around the area for a day or two, to live here was a different story. A road had only been built a few years ago, but they still find themselves regularly cut off from the outside world during heavy snowfalls in winter. There is no running water or gas, although they hope to get the latter next year. Things had remarkably improved with the new road and added to this the prospect of gas, it had made Bayran a huge fan of President Aliyev for helping to give them a better standard of living.

Sat on some pillows in the kitchen / living room we sipped some tea and Julia warmed herself by the wood burning stove.
One of Bayran's sons joined us for some tea, but his other son felt too shy. His wife cooked us a lovely meal of chicken, potatoes, onions and bread and we had some tasty local apples and sweets for desert. Julia and I were both tired by 22.00, so huddled up under a think duvet and went to sleep.

Our original plan for Xinaliq was to do a 10-12 hour hike to the neighbouring village of Laza, but every local that we had spoken to had mentioned the dangers of doing it alone and the expense of taking a guide. At this time of year it would be perilous to be caught in fog and get lost, as temperatures plummeted in the night time and there were plenty of hungry wolves that would account for you if the weather didn't. Therefore we decided to spend the following day wandering around the village and maybe taking a short hike up one of the valleys.

Having eaten a light breakfast of bread and tea, we left the house to find it was a glorious day with not a cloud in the sky. The small kittens sat against the wall basking in the early morning sun, whilst the duck had its head stuck into a jar of water, guzzling from it to Bayran's wifes annoyance. Following a dirt trail up from their house we came to the village in a few minutes and walked up the steep little paths amongst the houses. The locals were very friendly and all stopped to say hello. Women wore colourful garb and one child pushed his snotty nosed younger brother around in a wheelbarrow, which was presumably the villages answer to a pram!

Having spent an hour or two in the village my adventurous side got the better of me, as it so often does.
Eying a mountain in the distance, I managed to somehow persuade Julia that it wasn't too far and it would make a nice morning stroll, and of course we would be back for lunch! What I hadn't really taken into account was the amount of ups and downs we would have to traverse, coupled with the high altitude and the fact that it didn't look that far because the mountain where we were heading was so bloody big. An hour and a half into the walk Julia had seen enough and was keen to head back down, but I was still fooling myself that it wasn't that much further, so decided that I was going to carry on alone. Once I've settled my mind on something I just can't rest until I've accomplished it and I was damned if I didn't make it to the top of that mountain to look into the next valley! Why I wasn't content with the breathtaking views that were right there in front of me, God only knows.
So off I went.

The higher I climbed the colder it became and after some time I reached an altitude where the snow didn't melt. I'd barely eaten all day, I only had half a litre of water left and my feet were becoming wet in the snow, but this was an adventure, so I just couldn't turn back. As I approached the base of what I would later discover was Qizil Qaya (3726m), one of the regions most imposing mountains, I came across something that got my heart beating with excitement and fear - a footprint - or more accurately a paw print. Now I'm no expert in paw prints, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to work out what it was. The print was larger than my hand and it was clearly made by a paw. I was in the mountains, which really only left one contender to make such a mark - a bear.
Now was surely the time to turn back, I'd had my fun and wasn't ready for a one on one with Gentle Ben, was I? I weighed it up in my mind. What was the probability of seeing a bear? And if I did see one, think of the photos! And surely if I kept my distance it would ignore me and after taking some pictures I could just go on my merry way, right? Sure, sure, no problem, why be so soft, nothing could possibly go wrong, I half heartedly told myself as I continued onwards and upwards.

By now the terrain was a mixture of boulders and snow, which seemed to go up and down continuously, meaning that it was taking forever to cover what appeared like only a small distance. Maybe 150 metres from the start of the ascent up Qizil Qaya I heard what I presumed was a rockfall, but I'd seen and heard these before, just a few displaced rocks tumbling down the mountain.
I continued down a slope and began to climb the section in front of me when I heard rocks been moved like someone or something was coming towards me. My mind was ablaze with thoughts, a shepherd, goat, sheep dog, cow? Whatever was coming my way was large enough to move rocks and I could hear the snow crunching under its feet. Fuck this, I'm out of here.

Turning 180 degrees I ran back up the slope which I had just come down, tripping, falling, banging my legs, but the adrenalin carried me up and over that section of rocks. I had no idea what to do, so just hid behind the biggest rock I could find. Here I sat questioning my sanity, it's not a bear you clown, just get up and take a look. I couldn't, I was paralyzed with fear. A minute or so passed, when I heard crunching in the snow and heavy breathing, but now whatever it was had maneuvered around in front of me.
If it was a person then how had they come from behind me to now be in front of me so fast and why didn't they say anything? If it was a dog then why didn't it bark? It was too cold for sheep or cows and there was no grass to graze on. Whatever it was sure wasn't scared of me as it had approached me and was now sniffing around. I hadn't seen any sign of life in the area, other than a paw print. But what if the  paw print was from a different animal? Thankfully the wind was blowing uphill, so whatever was now in front of me could not pick up my scent, so I just sat and waited.

More than half an hour passed before I plucked up the courage to finally stand up and try to look around and assess my situation. I knew the direction that the 'animal' had come from and where it had been.
The one sensible option would be to stay clear of these areas and work my way around horizontally across the ground. I won't deny that I was terrified and I kept repeating to myself that I was through with mountains and climbing, especially after my episode with the bull in Kyrgyzstan, it just wasn't worth it!

It took close to three hours to get down off the mountain, as I tried to stay in hollows and out of sight, even though this added quite a lot to the distance I had to cover. When I finally made it back to Xinaliq a young guy approached me to ask if i needed accommodation, so I took the opportunity to use my limited Russian skills. I pointed to the mountain and said 'Medved est?' which roughly means 'Bears, have?'. His reply was 'est, est' - 'have, have'.
I got my camera out and showed him the paw print and he immediately became excited and took out his phone to take a picture. There was a lot of gesticulating that then took place as we communicated about how scared I was!

When I found Julia in the village, she was having none of it, “Bears, pfff, there aren't any bears” was her reply. I recounted the story to her but she still wasn't convinced. I tried to reason with her, if there was no bear, then why did I come back down and not get to the top of the mountain? She knows my personality that I wouldn't just give up and come back. We headed home to collect our things and see if we could find anyone heading back to Quba, but it seemed unlikely as it was 16.30. Luckily a man that was on his way to collect two cows in a nearby village, and was then taking them to Quba, stopped to pick us up.
Although we had to cram into one seat, he had kindly offered to take us for free, so we didn't mind being uncomfortable for some time.

I still wasn't happy that Julia didn't believe me, so I took my camera out and showed the driver my picture. He wasn't sure what the print was, but said there were bears in the region. This partly backed up my story, but it still wasn't hard evidence. When we stopped to pick the cows up, the driver said he had a friend that would know what the print was, so we took the photo to show him. “Medved” was the reply, “Chorny Medved” - Black Bear. I confess I didn't see it, but piecing together what I heard and saw, I honestly believe that I came within a whisker of being eaten. I think I'll be giving up on trekking for the foreseeable future after this escapade and my underwear will require a very hot wash.

Deats says:
cheeky bugger! this was one of my many near death experiences haha
Posted on: Aug 15, 2009
Eric says:
I think it was just your imagination, Phil. How long did it take to make that fake paw print in the snow? Looks pretty detailed!
Posted on: Aug 14, 2009
mybu84 says:
i love that blog
Posted on: Dec 07, 2008
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photo by: Deats