The Najafov couple has been promoting the idea of active recreation for years. They have been engaged in several sports, including mountaineering, rock climbing, orienteering, mountain skiing and snowshoeing. They do it not only for their own pleasure, but they also teach the youth, often ‘on bare enthusiasm’. Every summer they organize scout camps for kids, and they spend the rest of the year teaching a children's group in Baku using scouting methods: if the weather doesn’t permit organizing a hiking tour or a competition, then children are taught to navigate the terrain in the city or to tie climbing knots, as well as a great deal of things they may find useful in nature.
The Azerbaijani tourist trail is a global project which, as Alexander Najafov put it, should become the backbone of Azerbaijan’s ‘outdoor culture’. Outdoor culture is interacting with nature, a culture of having a caring attitude towards it which can be learned in the forest, in the mountains or in the fields. This is healthcare and recreation, and also a chance to learn something new about yourself.
“The outdoor culture is the way we treat nature beyond our habitual urban environment. The essence of the outdoor culture lies in the intermingling of energies, in feeling a part of those mountains and forests, so as to rekindle a person’s interest in things that are over there, beyond the horizon. People should learn not to destroy anything in the environment and try to leave as few traces as possible after themselves.”
Most importantly, the purpose of all the aforesaid was to ensure that being aware of oneself as a part of the living universe isn’t just a ‘luxury for the elite’, but rather a kind of recreation. Like in the case of the present-day ski resort of Qabala. Absolutely everyone goes there, and those who don’t want to ski just take selfies and breathe in the fresh air. The Ilisu trail also offers easy routes like a family walk before dinner, as well as more difficult ones such as a two-day hiking tour for physically fit people.
A trail running competition for professionals was also organized here. A British athlete was the first to reach the village of Kashkakchay (where the trail currently ends), having covered 25 kilometres in a few hours. Another guy came from Qakh, which is the nearest town from here, and he placed fourth, said Yevgeniya Najafova.
“He didn’t have either normal footwear or relevant equipment. At the end of the route his toes were beaten up and bleeding, but he nearly got a medal place.”
As far as the locals are concerned, in the best-case scenario the trail can bring great benefits to the surrounding villages. If cluttered with necessary infrastructure, as is the case with ‘solid’ trails worldwide, it will provide for hundreds of jobs. Furthermore, it will open up excellent business prospects for the locals including the selling of souvenirs, providing guest accommodation or working on the trail itself, for example, as a trail guide.
The trail also has an ‘educational’ function. Signs with indicating the types of trees have been put up. You can also find some useful information on the snow where there are traces of animals inhabiting the local mountains. It will be the guide’s task to teach guests how to properly behave in the forest so as not to ‘offend’ its ‘toothy hosts’.
The Najafovs have an ambitious plan to build a trail through the entire Caucasus mountain range, then to Dagestan, eventually turning it into an international project. However, there is a lack of financial and information support. It’s necessary to recruit and train staff and to ensure safety and security. At present, the Najafovs suggest that those who want to take a walk along the trail should bring their own equipment, but that the Najafovs will personally accompany them as instructors. In other words, everything is done as if they were a close family.
In addition, there is a more global problem.
Outdoor recreation, especially as a family, is not traditional in Azerbaijan so far. Given the beautiful nature and huge tourist potential of Azerbaijan’s forests and mountains, people seem in no hurry to closely ‘interact’ with them. A new ski resort called Shahdag brought the Azerbaijanis slightly closer to skiing, but the forested mountain slopes still remain just a part of the landscape. Spa hotels and restaurants are built in the regions for the visitors from Baku, while nature just remains ‘in the background.’
To get to Ilisu, you should buy a train ticket to Qakh in Baku. The train travels all night and arrives in Qakh in the morning, but you shouldn’t get off there. Further on there will be a stop which for some unknown reason is referred to as the ‘pavilion’. The train stops there for exactly five minutes, so you should unload your luggage quickly. There is no railway station there, but there are taxi drivers on duty who will take you to Ilisu for a fee.
The forests on the mountain slopes are beautiful all-year round: you can see all the shades of yellow and red in autumn, while everything is in full bloom in spring. In summer it’s all bright green. But the most beautiful view is from above, from the mountain ridge.