In the remote mountains of north-east Azerbaijan I was discussing Noah with an elderly villager.

Wrapped in a headscarf and woolly hat, Malaksima, a formidable 80-something (she wasn’t sure) with a weathered face like a walnut, was collecting spring water in a silver teapot. I’d asked about a tale that the people of Khinaliq were direct descendants of Noah. Had the Bible’s first sailor really dropped anchor on these flat summits?

“Noah?” Malaksima said. She laughed. “Show me: where’s the ocean? Noah’s not even Muslim.”

Although Khinaliq lacks two-by-two wildlife, from aardvarks to zebras, it might pass as somewhere from the Old Testament. At the head of one Azerbaijan’s remotest valleys, the village coils over a mountain spur above the valley floor. In the silence you can hear the river below. Natural gas fires burn like divine portents in surrounding mountains. Before Islam – before the Hebrews wrote about Noah even – Azerbaijanis were Zoroastrians, fire-worshippers who discovered magic according to Pliny the Elder. Old habits die hard. Azerbaijan’s favourite name for itself remains “The Land of Fire”.

“Anyway,” Malaksima continued, “everyone knows an angel founded this village. He was called Nabi. He was sent by Allah to build a mosque in the valley. Maybe he came with Noah, I don’t know. But it’s true. I swear on bread.”

On bread? I asked.

“Of course. It’s older than the Koran.”

In the jigsaw of nations that forms the Caucasus, the least accessible, most interesting country is Azerbaijan. While Georgia is on the cusp of travel superstardom and Ryanair launched direct flights from Italy to Armenia in January, Azerbaijan has a blank-slate appeal.

Capital Baku has tarted itself up with oil money, ringing a historic core with ego-architecture in an aspiration to become a Dubai of the Caspian Sea. But life in rural Azerbaijan carries on much as it has for centuries: venerating bread, ritualising tea-drinking (see below), tending sheep. Figuring the way to experience that was on foot, I wanted to walk.

Sheki is in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains a five-hour drive west of Baku. That sounds a drag after your flight until you see the price of fuel (40p a litre) and the scenery. Beyond the capital the desert ends abruptly and you’re rolling past wooded hills and vineyards and blokes scything rhythmically in fields. It resembles a long-vanished Provence, if Provence had ever included samovars and Soviet trucks for sale at the roadside. They go for a song since Azerbaijan shrugged off Russia’s bear-hug in 1991.

Last July Sheki won World Heritage status for its tangible Silk Road heritage. In the cool water garden of an old caravanserai I sat beneath arcades where merchants once bartered for metalwork, ceramics and silks. In the palace of the khans I toured rooms like Persian carpets, a decorative fusion of the Middle East, India and China, of geometric Islam and the pictorial west.

The culture clash continued in a cafe beside the market. The owner flashed me a mouthful of gold teeth then rattled through the day’s dishes: Central Asian sheep kidneys, Russian borscht, oriental dushbara dumplings, all washed down with watery sheep’s yoghurt served by the pint. The local delicacy is Ottoman, a sweet walnut baklava. Let’s just say Sheki has a lot of dentists.

For a change of scene I walked three miles to Kish village. As Sheki fell behind, woods took over, dotted here and there with former dachas. For the Russian elite Azerbaijan was a Soviet shire, a place to breathe mountain air and enjoy a simple rustic life facilitated by servants.

Kish was the real deal, with cockerels strutting along rough-cobbled lanes. On the main square stood a bust of Thor Heyerdahl. The Norwegian adventurer has a cult following in Azerbaijan having funded the restoration of Kish’s 1st-century church, the country’s oldest. To understand why you need to know about his pet theory concerning Azerbaijan as the wellspring of Scandinavians. They went west when the Romans arrived, he thought, citing an Icelandic saga that describes Odin’s homeland as “Aser” east of the Black Sea and petroglyphs like Viking ships at Gobustan, 40 miles from Baku.

Azerbaijanis seem happy to indulge the idea. At the church an attendant showed me two skeletons. “You see?” he asked pointing into the crypt. “They’re giants.” They were, although Bronze Age skeletons over 6ft 6in seemed on the large side even for proto-Scandinavians.

Throughout my time in Sheki people mentioned Quba Rayon. Near the Russian border in the north-east, the district was said to be a throwback even by Azerbaijani standards; a mountainous place that was almost isolated until a road was built in 2006, where traditional culture still thrived in sheep villages. It was beautiful, remote, fascinating, people said.

I returned to Baku and went north. Beyond Quba town, in the taxi of a rakish cove with a brigand’s haul of gold teeth – my driver refused to risk his new car on the roads ahead – I ascended up a narrowing valley past slow cows and new guesthouses. The road swerved through a ravine, ducking under overhangs, to emerge on a broad plateau riven by canyons as if God had gone mad with a pickaxe.

An hour up the road we came to Khinaliq, the highest village in Europe (7,645ft), heaped above a shallow river like a braid of rope. As we arrived a boy cantered past on a horse, a blanket for a saddle, a toddler clinging to his waist.

The modern age has encroached with the new road but Khinaliq hovers uneasily beside the 21st century. Compacted manure and hay is burned for fuel. Most water comes from a spring – the hammam turned out to be the village shower (singular) in someone’s basement – and loos are long-drops which smell several stages beyond ripe.

Khinaliq has a shop selling tea and wire, a school, two mosques and the air of permanence that can only be acquired through 5,000 years’ existence. The 2,000 residents farm sheep, speak a unique language and live in boxy stone houses hunkered down against the weather. I was staying in that of Rauf and his wife Junata: four rough-walled rooms with space for the sheep downstairs – a cheap way to take the bite off chill mountain air if you don’t mind the smell of ammonia.

In a place that seemed beyond time, outlandish stories swirled like the clouds over surrounding peaks. In 1988 a goat-herder fell asleep in a cave. Babaali Babaaliev said he woke to see a huge hairy humanoid staring at him. Understandably, he has never quite been the same again.

I wanted to believe it. If Azerbaijan could accommodate Noah and angels and Vikings why not a lost yeti? Bilal, my hosts’ 16-year-old son, was unconvinced. “But there are bears in the mountains,” he said. “Wolves too: you can hear them at night.” He’d taken me for a stroll around the village. Anything to avoid his parents – they were furious he’d dropped out of school. “What would I do at college in Baku?” he asked. “I’m a shepherd. I only know sheep and mountains.”

There seemed worse things to know. We stopped on a terrace. A few villagers in crumpled suits grinned shy grins and shuffled awkwardly. They directed my gaze across the valley to Shahdag, “King Mountain”, propped between peaks. Gilded by the setting sun, it shone like a crown.

The next day I went for a walk. Beyond women thwocking fresh wool in a trough, the old dirt-road clung to slopes above the valley floor. I spent the day in this wild place, swishing through buttercups and harebells, watching jackdaws tumble across big skies and waving to shepherds following flocks of sheep which drifted across the slopes like clouds. When I dropped into Kalaykhudat village after a few hours a man invited me for mountain-thyme tea. He told me about a fortress of the Quba khans that had controlled this ancient trade route and of a fire temple recently rebuilt in the Shahdag National Park. Apparently the shepherds used it to make tea.

Yet change may be coming. The Azerbaijani government is keen to promote Khinaliq. It has plans to transform my walking route into a tourist drive. Another project would create the world’s longest cablecar from Khinaliq to Qabala ski resort.

This is the point where you’re expecting me to condemn both. I won’t. Frankly, life is tough enough in these remote villages. If residents want a road and it sustains their futures, good luck to them.

That night, after a dinner of kid goat and shots of Tsar vodka, Rauf envisaged Saudi bus tours and new hotels. He made them sound as fantastical as abominable snowmen or Noah dropping anchor on a nearby summit. Great news isn’t it, he said. No, I said, terrible. There was a brief silence then we both began to laugh.

I’m still not sure who’s right. But I’d go sharpish if I was you.


Time for tea

An enduring legacy of Azerbaijan’s Silk Road heritage is its ritualisation of tea-drinking. A little tea gets the conversation flowing, say Azerbaijanis, and as in its oriental homeland, tea here is no mere beverage but a symbol of hospitality served to every guest and before every meal. As a saying runs, when you drink tea, you don’t count the cups.

Tea is always served black (don’t think of asking for milk), often flavoured with lemon, thyme or mint, sometimes with rosewater, and comes in crystal glasses known as armudu with an hourglass shape – either a stylised representation of the female form (the traditional teahouse was a strictly male domain) or a clever design to cool the top for drinking while preserving heat beneath.

Sugar is another quirk. Azerbaijanis don’t add it to their cups. Instead they dunk then suck a sugarcube before sipping the unsweetened tea. The story goes that medieval rulers conceived the method to test for poison, which was said to react to sugar.

More curious still is sugar’s role during wedding negotiations. Forget to include it on the tea tray to potential parents-in-law and you’ll indicate without words (or loss of face) that the match is a non-starter. Remembered it? Then hang out the bunting.