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Photo Essay | Explore the Ismayilli Region of Azerbaijan by Horseback

Travelling by horseback to get to know one of the ECF’s many landscapes.



To protect nature and to work with local communities, a connection with the landscape is essential. And what better way to get to know a region, than to move through it in a traditional and practical way - on horseback. 


The horse is of great cultural importance to the people of Azerbaijan, most notably the Karabakh horse which appears in literature and legends. The horses from the Ismayilli mountains in northern Azerbaijan are not the same breed as the famous Karabakh horses, but they are also strong, hardy, sure-footed and yet accustomed to moving through the rugged landscape of steep mountains and arid valleys both historically as well as today. 


In August 2023, the Eco-Corridors Fund for the Caucasus (ECF) Chief Technical Advisor Jernej Stritih and the ECF National Coordinator for Azerbaijan Khayyam Ismayil took an opportunity get in touch with this traditional mode of transportation and travelled by horseback over the Ismayilli mountains, getting better acquainted with one of the regions where the ECF hopes to expand to in Azerbaijan.After an FPA training session for service providers  at the WWF Azerbaijan office in Baku, Jernej and Khayyam travelled to the Ismayilli region for meetings. They chose to explore this specific area because of future plans to have ECF operating there, and asked for assistance from the CBOs in Gonagkend to help find guides and horses to take them into the Ismayilli mountains on a two-night tour. 


“Why horses? Because it is a remote area and we wanted to cover quite a distance, so we preferred to use horses rather than hiking. Shepherd's also use horses. The horses know the trail.” - ECF National Coordinator for Azerbaijan Khayyam Ismayil

THE IDEA

“Throughout the remote mountain are nomadic shepherds, who bring livestock to the high mountain pastures during the three months in the summer. In order to get to know and to explore the larger area our idea was to cross the mountains from Guba to Ismayilli.”


When telling stories about the trip and explaining the region, Khayyam emphasised the importance of Mount Babadag, one of the highest mountains in Azerbaijan. “With 3,629 metres the mountain straddles the Ismayilli and Guba regions, and provides a stunning panorama from its bald peak.” It is a sacred mountain, one that people make pilgrimages to. “Baba indicates respect and Babadag literally means “Grandfather Mountain,” says Khayyam. Some people address it as Hazrati Baba Ziyaretgahi and hiking there is called “Grandfather’s Pilgrimage”, believing that those who visit the peak seven times receive the honourable title of Hazrat, meaning “His Holiness” or “Your Majesty”. Mount Babadag was visible from the ridgeline and mountain tops the team travelled along.





THE TRIP After meeting with two local guides from the village of Yerphi in Guba region, the crew started from the village of Yerphi in the Guba region in the late evening, riding along rocky roads and across (dry) riverbeds. The guides had long lights so that the riders were able to see. But they couldn’t see everything. “We were riding along the riverbed and suddenly I felt the horse startle and the guide started scanning the mountain flanks to see what it was – bear, wolf or wild pig,” says Khayyam. “The guide couldn’t spot it and didn’t know what it was; the horses could feel something was near but people couldn’t.” This kind of experience isn’t something you get by travelling by noisy jeep or even hiking. The connection animals have with their landscape is something to be respected and revered. “Riding the horses over rocky terrain in the dark was challenging, and we arrived at our camp spot at 12:30 made camp,” says Khayyam.


Day two would be a long day and an early start was necessary. “At 5 am we woke up, packed up camp, ate some breakfast and started riding,” says Khayyam. “While we were climbing up the mountain the sun rose, and we got an amazing view.” 





Khayyam rode horses when he was a kid, but it took some time for him to get used to them again. “I grew up in the lesser Caucasus mountains and during that time we rode horses to the pasture and would bring grass down to the village for the cows.” This was not the first horseback trip in Azerbaijan for Jernej either. He previously explored a number of regions of Azerbaijan with the former ECF National Coordinator for the country.


Many times throughout the day the team had to dismount and walk the horses along sections of trail that were loose or too narrow, for example while they traversed particularly thin sections of the ridge trail. 



“While riding the ridge was very challenging, the view was amazing – even when I look at the photos I can’t describe it. It’s not the same as when you see it with your own eyes.” Khayyam had been to the area first in 2017 as a part of a UNDP project for pasture management but had only seen the other side of the Ismayilli. “Babadag was on the opposite side, and it was always my dream to see it.”

When they came across Babadag, it took the team 3-4 hours to descend from the top of the mountain, down to Gurbangah, a sacred sacrificial site where pilgrims sacrifice goats before climbing to the mountain. “This is high mountains and it gets quite cold in the evening - around around 10 degrees celsius – so during that time I felt very cold – I couldn’t sleep the whole night because it was so cold.”


Both Khayyam and Jernej were grateful to have the knowledge and support of two guides. “The guide Aziz, he doesn’t think about going up and down, it’s just a part of his life,” says Khayyam. “He is a park ranger from Shahdag and he needs just 1.5 hours to ride down when he is alone, and we needed 3-4 hours. He is also trained in alpinism.”


All the food and water the group would need for the two nights and three days had to be carried with the. “We bought dried food and the guide also prepared some food,” explains Khayyam. “The guides prepared chicken with potatoes and we also had dried food which we ate for meals. The guides also always made some tea for us when we made a camp.” When the group stopped for tea or food, the horses grazed on grass when it was available, and the guides watered them at springs - which they knew the locations of - along the way. 


On the descent, the group rode partway down the Ismayili side of the mountain on horses then met with Aziz, a ranger from Shahdag National Park. He had one horse with him which carried Khayyam and Jernej’s bags. The two guides from Yerphi then took their horses back home and Khayyam, Jernej and Aziz walked down to the valley were a Soviet era jeep called a Uaz 469 met them to drive Jernej and Khayyam from Grubangah to Lahic (on the opposite side of Babadag). In total, Khayyam and Jernej travelled about 32 km in total with 15 km of that on the ridge at a height of about 2300m. 





“The best part was the whole day's challenge, riding, hiking and being so high up – was the view, the landscape, the mountains. It is difficult to describe these feelings but when you are up so high and you look around,” say Khayyam. “The hardest part was walking down, the steep terrain, loose rocks, and the heat. These rocks are like razors, shale, and exposed. A slip or trip would be very dangerous.”


CONSERVATION IN THE REGION 

However, travelling by car along the dry riverbeds, dirt roads and paved roads was also not an easy task. “In Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic it was so hot – we saw 45 degrees while we were driving,” Khayyam says. While travelling by car Jernej and Khayyam were able to observe more of the pastures, open areas and forests which is of particular relevance to the ECF. “We discovered that even the side of the mountains by the highway has potential for ECF activities," says Khayyam. “We discovered that these are some of the villages we would like to approach in the future, as well as the people involved in husbandry in the region. There are forests, pastures and other landscapes – we would like to work with the village people there.”


The ECF is already working in nearby Guba – Gonagkend, focusing on red deer, eastern tur, chamois. The eastern tur/mouflon have a near-threatened status on the IUCN Red List but are not listed in the Red Book of Azerbaijan. “They come down to the river for water,” explains Khayyam. “We stopped the car and took photos. Many ran off, they are very shy. They are beautiful animals, camouflaged in exactly the sandy red colour of the rocks and hills.”

Ismayilli is a future target area for ECF because of the existing bison reintroduction project and leopard conservation projects that already exist there. It is also important as it would connect multiple protected areas.

“Darydagh is located in Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic and includes territories of Ordubad, Babek and Julfa administrative rayons,” says Khayyam. “These are arid and semi-arid landscapes between the Zangezur mountain range and Araz River valley. It connects Zangezur National Park with the Arazboyu Sanctuary and covers partly the Ordubad Sanctuary. The region  is used by shepherds as winter pasture and the main priority of ECF will be given to the management of winter pastures, working with shepherd communities.”


“Another priority for ECF in the region would be to secure undisturbed lowland winter habitats and migration routes to high mountains for mouflon, which would be important to expansion of the mouflon in the region,” says Khayyam. “A visit to the area and rapid rural assessment of the local communities in the proposed Daridagh corridor will be conducted in 2023 to check the feasibility of the intervention and plan the possible activities during ECF II.” 



This trip through the Eastern Lesser Caucasus area of the ECF was about connecting to the landscape and touching the terrain. It led to a more tangible understanding of the landscape and the people that live and derive a livelihood from animal husbandry and farming there. Time on horseback and chatting around fire also created memories, and instilled an increased respect for the beauty of such an environment, and the importance of protecting it – for humans and for wildlife.



_____________________________________________________________________

Jernej and Khayyam would like to thank their guides and the CBO Gonagken Tebiet Dostlari for their support in logistics related to the preparation of the trip.

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