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.

Walking across the world—if you happen to be a man, and particularly if your route winds through conservative rural societies—can be a mostly 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 group that has included Ethiopian camel nomads, a retired Saudi general, a Palestinian photographer, a cross-dressing Israeli singer, a Georgian high school student, and a former 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 casually. But a global fact remains: At the beginning of the 21st century, whether walking along 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 Pamir mountain range of Tajikistan, easily the most rugged and wild landscape I’ve traveled so far, to work with tough women who think nothing of walking 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 remote community. It is a community of Shia Muslim mountaineers called Pamiris.

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

Shoxaydarova is quieter and carefully draws water holes and springs on 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 a mountainous wilderness of sheep, sharp peaks, and icy torrents of streams.

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

And she did.

After trekking 250 miles across the “roof the world,” a towering Central Asian mountain range that had stopped Russian armies, Shoxaydarova got married in the Pamiri mountain town of Khorog. Welts from many mosquito bites had faded by then. She wobbled in red spike heels under a new load: embroidered veils that were removed one at a time for her husband’s family. To the beat of sheepskin drums, I danced with her friend Shakarmamadova’s mother. (Shakarmamadova was away in neighboring Pakistan, volunteering to collect trash on K-2, the second-highest mountain in the world.)

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

They are followers of Ismailism, a branch of Islam led by the 49th Agha Khan, a spiritual leader descended from the Prophet Mohammed. (His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, who is the current imam, or leader in a Muslim community, is a Harvard graduate.) Ismailis are scattered across more than 25 countries. They emphasize self-reliance, community service, and political neutrality. They promote gender equality more than most Muslim sects do. A recent imam advised families that if they could educate only one child, let it be a girl. In Tajikistan, the Ismailis are often blue-eyed and speak languages rooted in ancient eastern Iran. When Alexander the Great—an ancient Greek king—marched through the area in 327 BCE, he married his only wife, Roxanne, here.

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

Draped in traditional clothing, she walked with her husband out of her grandfather’s house in Khorog to pounding dance music, followed by relatives carrying a wedding bed wrapped with a bow. 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 emailed 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

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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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