Islam in hiking sandals—and red spike heels


Mountain guide Safina Shoxaydarova dances with friends at her traditional Pamiri wedding in Khorog, Tajikistan PHOTO/ Paul Salopek

Crossing Central Asia’s remote and rugged Pamirs, one dance step at a time.

Walking across the world—if you happen to be a man, and particularly if your route winds through conservative rural societies—can be a chronically masculine experience.

Over the past four and a half years, while covering nearly 6,000 miles on foot through three subcontinents on the Out of Eden Walk, I have struggled to recruit women guides along my trail.

Twenty-four of my local walking partners so far have been male: a colorful band of brothers that has included Ethiopian camel nomads and a retired Saudi special forces general, a Palestinian photographer and a cross-dressing Israeli singer, a Georgian high school student and a blacklisted Kazakh divorce judge. By contrast just seven women have joined my global storytelling trek out of Africa. Almost all were visiting friends or fellow journalists. And most have walked along for relatively short lengths of time. True, my route has spanned societies where the sexes don’t often mingle causally. But a global fact remains: At the launch of the 21st century, whether threading the busy sidewalks of the Arab world, or plodding the frozen paths of remote Christian Orthodox villages in the Caucasus, we still live, by and large, in a deeply gender-divided planet.

So it’s been a welcome surprise in the high cold Pamir range of Tajikistan, easily the most rugged and wild landscape I’ve traversed to date, to work with tough women who think nothing of pounding out 25 miles a day—not in hiking boots but in sandals.

Furough Shakarmamadova and Safina Shoxaydarova, both 23, are lifelong friends and pioneers.

They are among the first generation of trained female hiking guides in their isolated community of Shia Muslim mountaineers called Pamiris.

Shakarmamadova—exuberant, wisecracking, a reader of literature—met me at a remote Tajikistan border post at 15,000 feet. Her tent was partially collapsed. Not from the blowing gale. But because the local soldiers, insisting on helping this stripling woman, had accidentally broken it. Shakarmamadova had made resourceful repairs with a hank of wire. She kept her expenses on an Excel spreadsheet.

Shoxaydarova is quieter and carefully plots water holes and springs on her topographical maps. She is tireless. My lasting image of Safina is of her tilting into the wind under the weight of an enormous pack, often far ahead, amid an alpine wilderness of Marco Polo sheep, serrated peaks and icy torrents.

“Hey, I’ve got a wedding soon,” she shot back, when I teased her about her addiction to heavy doses of sunblock.

And she did.

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