HIGH UP IN THE CAUCASUS

Baku, Azerbaijan – Uncomfortable, dirty, exciting off-the-map adventures into the far corners of the world nearly always turn out to be most rewarding when you’re back in the warm pleasures of civilization. Like a hot shower in a suite atop the Radisson SAS Plaza here in the capital and the sun glimmering off the Caspian Sea in the distance.

A lot different than a few days earlier, when we’d left the pavement behind, turned into the cold winter canyons of the Caucasus Mountains headed for a speck on the map called Xinaliq.

The isolated village is a glimpse into another world, a place whose pristine beauty is only remotely connected to today’s world. It’s an experience well worth the bone-shaking cold, the wet hole in the ground called a toilet, the trip in by Russian-made truck with no shocks and no heat (am I sounding like a Montecito softy here?). Even if, arriving after dark, I hadn’t appreciated it until the next morning.

I awakened early, crawled creakily out from under a mound of colorful quilts, stuffed myself into as much heavy clothing as I could dig out of my duffle bag, stepped over eight others sprawled in sleep along the wall and stumbled down the steep wooden stairs of Yusif’s house to find my shoes. During the night a layer of snow had covered the flat roofs of the low rock huts and houses scattered along the ridge, and the sun was just beginning to hit the tops of the naked white and gold mountains surrounding the valley.

The drive up through the mountains and gorges yesterday had been an amazing one, not just a little scary. The eight-foot wide dirt road clung to the edge of shear 1,500-foot rock precipices, and it seemed as though our olive-drab vehicle with the cracked windshield and its driver, Yagum, might not make it over another crest. But after an hour with Yagum, him in his mink fur cap, icicles dripping from his noise, you knew you’d go anyplace with the guy – even if you had to sit on the drop-off side looking straight down to the river surging 500 feet below. We’d forded icy-cold, boulder-strewn streams, wound our way up steep hills past cattle and sheep, crept slowly across sagging, precarious bridges and stopped to watch the sun go down behind the mountains – all this in just 36 miles and three hours.

Xinaliq is the Middle Ages – except for electricity and satellite dishes. Generation after generation, these people rarely leave the mountains for long, surviving under the Ottomans, the Soviets, and now under a newly independent but conventionally corrupt national government.

When we’d driven in, it was cold and very dark. Guide-translator Aysa got out and knocked on several doors, finally finding us a place to stay in one of the larger houses in the village where the family lives upstairs in one large, windowless room warmed by a hot, handmade stove burning cow dung. Old hand-knotted Oriental rugs covered the walls, floor and ceiling and two grey cats were dozing under the stove when we came in. While we waited for dinner two kids bounced around, enjoying the distraction of visitors and doing their homework while they watched television, and the men and I relaxed on cushions, sucking pomegranates and drinking hot tea laced with Jack Daniels from the flask I’d brought.

Our host, Yusif’s wife, with no running water, put together dinner with food we’d brought in ourselves. The village, Yusif tells me, lives on its cattle and sheep, but I found that he is not only the local maker of iron stoves; he’s a published poet, too.

His brother, who arrived on horseback in time for his own second dinner, tied up downstairs at the front door. He runs the animals for the family and had brought the homemade cheese, which, together with bread fresh from the oven and plove, a local spiced lamb stew, made a warming evening meal. Yagum read us poetry afterwards and Aysa translated.

We were a pretty mellow group by the time we’d finished, and nine of us spread out for sleep on cushions along the walls, comfortably wrapped in quilts, the children in their knitted caps, the cats purring, the stove burning low as we dozed off.

All I can say about when nature calls is that it involves stepping over the others, working your way down the steep stairs with a flashlight, finding your own shoes, walking across the yard to a low stone building and groping toward a small, slippery hole in the ground.

Back in Baku, in the comfort of the oil-rich capital city with its shops selling Prada and Gucci, and Mercedes in the streets, I realized again that, as Somerset Maugham put it, I did not “bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took.”