Islam in Hiking Sandals

Islam in Hiking Sandals

Two female hiking guides from the Pamiri mountain region guide Paul Salopek through Tajikistan. They are Ismaili Muslims.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


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

When you walk across the world—if you are a man, and especially if your route passes through traditional rural communities—you spend more time with men than with women.

Over the past four and a half years, I have walked nearly 6,000 miles through three subcontinents on the Out of Eden Walk. It is hard to find women guides along my trail.

Twenty-four of my local walking partners so far have been male. They have been an interesting group. That varied group has included Ethiopian nomads who travel with their camels, a retired Saudi military general, a Palestinian photographer, an Israeli singer, a Georgian high school student, and a former judge from Kazakhstan. But only seven women have joined my global storytelling journey out of Africa. Almost all of them were my friends or fellow journalists. And most of them only walked with me for a short amount of time. It’s true that my route has spanned societies where the sexes don’t often mix causally. Whether you’re walking along the busy sidewalks of the Arab world or across the frozen paths of remote villages in southwestern Asia, it is clear we live in a world that often divides males and females.

So, in the Pamir mountain range of Tajikistan, it was a welcome surprise to work with tough women who can easily walk 25 miles a day—not in hiking boots but in sandals. The mountain range is the most rugged and wild landscape I’ve traveled across so far.

Furough Shakarmamadova and Safina Shoxaydarova are both 23 years old. They are lifelong friends and pioneers.

They are among the first generation of trained female hiking guides in their remote community. It is a community of Muslim mountaineers called Pamiris.

Shakarmamadova is lively and clever, and she enjoys reading. She met me at a remote Tajikistan border post at 15,000 feet above sea level. Her tent had partly collapsed. This wasn’t because of the strong winds but because local soldiers wanted to help her and had accidentally broken it. Shakarmamadova made repairs with some wire. She logged each expense on a computer spreadsheet.

Shoxaydarova is quieter. She carefully makes drawings of local water holes and springs on maps. She is tough. I always remember Safina tilting into the wind, as she carried her enormous pack, surrounded by mountain sheep, sharp peaks, and icy streams.

“Hey, I’ve got a wedding soon,” she said, when I teased her about how much sunblock she used.

And she did.

After walking 250 miles across the towering Central Asian mountain range, Shoxaydarova got married in the Pamiri mountain town of Khorog. Marks from her many mosquito bites had faded by then. She wobbled in red spike heels under the weight of embroidered veils for her wedding ceremony. The veils were removed one at a time for her husband’s family, as is traditional. I danced with her friend Shakarmamadova’s mother to the beat of sheepskin drums. (Shakarmamadova was in the nearby country of Pakistan. She was volunteering to collect trash on K-2, the second-highest mountain in the world.)

If these women are amazing, it’s partly because Pamiri culture is special.

They are followers of Ismailism. Ismailism is a branch of Islam led by the 49th Agha Khan, a spiritual leader related to the Prophet Mohammed. Ismailis are scattered across more than 25 countries. They believe self-reliance and community service are important. They promote equality between men and women more than most branches of Islam do. A recent imam told families that if they could educate only one child, it should be a girl. In Tajikistan, the Ismailis are often blue-eyed and speak languages rooted in ancient eastern Iran.

The last time I saw Shoxaydarova, she was, as usual, walking.

Wearing traditional clothing, she walked out of her grandfather’s house in Khorog beside her husband as dance music played. Relatives carrying a wedding bed wrapped with a bow followed behind them. She and Shakarmamadova plan to open the first woman-owned trekking company in Tajikistan.

“I am really feeling pleased to join you for the trip we made,” she wrote in an email to me weeks later, after I had set out for Afghanistan with a new male guide. “It was really making me feel more strong and confident.”

This was polite nonsense.

View the original dispatch to see short video clips from Safina Shoxaydarova’s wedding.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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