“Hello! I’d like to check, how are the road conditions? Is it safe to drive there?”
This is the first thing drivers should do before making the drive to Khinalig — a village located 2300 m above sea level,the highest inhabited point in the country.
Home to roughly 2,000 people, Khinalig is remote—it is located 200 km north of Azerbaijan's capital Baku and the road leading to the village is so dangerous that it was impassable for many years, cutting residents off from the rest of the country.
The long years of isolation helped locals preserve their traditional, nomadic way of life.
Nearly every family depends on sheep to live, and care of the flock dictates many aspects of their lives. Today an estimated 80 percent of the population migrate with the flock, leaving children and the elderly at home while they travel with the animals to winter pastures.
While that lifestyle provides a degree of income, maintaining traditions come at a steep price.
Nomadic life is hard, especially for children, according to the director of the local middle school, Yunis Mamedov.
Not only is poverty rampant in the village, but many of the children start school late due to the constant travel, he says.
More than half of the population migrates every winter with the sheep, spending months far from the village. While some seek to maintain strong family bonds by taking their children with them, that ultimately causes more challenges, the school director says.
Mamedov notes that sometimes parents are so busy traveling with the flock that they forget that their children are getting older and need an education.
“There are lots of children who start to attend school late and, because of this, they are not very interested in getting an education. Some, especially the boys, cannot even manage to finish middle school," he says.
Walking through the village, Mamedov invites me to a villager’s home to introduce me to a typical Khinalig family: There is the husband and wife, their son and his wife and five children. Three of the grandchildren are actually the children of the couple's second son, who had to leave them in September.
The winter migration starts at the end of September and lasts till May. Parents, who leave their children to be raised by their grandmothers, and may not have the opportunity to call for months.
The villagers say the most prevalent sound in September is the crying of children.
Elnur, 14, Aysen, 11, and Aynur, 10, last saw their parents four months ago.
“I can barely remember the last time I saw my mom," Aynur says, her eyes tearing up. "We periodically speak to our parents on the phone, but that is not enough for me.”
Aynur loves the holidays, and her dream is for her whole family to be together for at least one holiday.
“On New Year's Eve we set the table with my grandma, we played games and at midnight we set off fireworks. I wish my mom was with us at that moment,” she says.
Aysen, like her brother and sister, also feels the absence of her parents, especially her mom.
“There are times when I feel it more than usual. Once, when it was cold and snowing, I had to go to school alone and I fell and hurt my leg. I was feeling very alone at that moment and wanted my mom there. I came back home crying and told my grandma about it,” she says.
Aynur says she dreams of becoming an artist when she grows up, but her family laughs, noting that she also says she would like to be a police officer.
“I’d paint the mountains, and a very beautiful and cozy house. In my dreams, my whole family would be together in this house and no one would ever be separated,” she says.
For Aysen, life in Khinalig is very difficult, especially in the winter. She dreams of getting a good education, leaving the village and becoming a beautician.
“I want to earn money and buy a house in the city of Guba,” she says, referring to the closest city to the village.
Today Aysen and other children in the village have a better chance to pursue their dreams.
Life changed for the people of Khinalig when the road reopened. People can now travel to nearby cities more easily and tourists can visit the village.
Tourism has had a direct impact on people's lives in the village: some have even rebuilt their homes as hostels to earn an additional income.
“Everything changed, actually, in 2006, when our president came here for the road opening ceremony. I was an ordinary teacher here, back then. We had a very small, wooden school. It was an old, wet and uncomfortable school,” director says.
Mamedov notes that parents never wanted to send their children to the old school. That changed after President Ilham Aliyev made an unexpected visit to see it.
“He came to our school. After we told him our problems, he promised to rebuild the school and build an orphanage for the children of nomads. That was actually a crucial moment for the future of these children," Mamedov said.
A year later, the school and orphanage opened.
School director Yunis Mamedov hopes now, since the children have a chance to get an education, life will change for the better in Khinalig.
The children, who experience the difficulties of the nomadic lifestyle firsthand, are becoming more interested in education, Mamedov says, noting that for the last several years more children have been graduating from school, entering the university and receiving a diploma.
“I’m really satisfied with last year’s results. Nine pupils from our orphanage managed to enter the university in 2017. One of them was girl," he says proudly.
Aflatun, 15, Gular, 9, and Kamaladdin, 13, are lucky, compared to other children in the village: while their parents spend most of their time with the family's flock, they support the family and are committed to making sure their children receive an education. They visit the village when they can and call the children once a day. They also try to spend time with the children during the holidays.
“Actually, we were happier when we traveled with our parents. At that time we did not do anything all day but play games. Now, we have to care for our grandmother. She’s old and we help her with the housework," Aflatun says.
Aflatun and his brother Kamaladdin do not plan on becoming nomadic herders like their parents, however.
“Is that really a life?! Now we’re in our warm house, but they have to be out in the cold all day. It is better to be comfortable. We’d prefer to get an education, have our own business and move to the city," he says.
Aflatun believes that they are already old enough to care for themselves, but they do not want to leave their grandmother on her own.
“Our grandma is hard of hearing and she is often ill. I don't think a child should have so much weight on their shoulders," he says.
Journeys, December/January 2018/2019