For Umeda Kurbonbekova, the majestic mountain ranges of Tajikistan – among the highest in the world – have always had a special magic. She believes, she says, that they attract people whose hearts are as big as the mountains themselves.
Kurbonbekova is a mountain guide, spending most of her time leading tours of foreign tourists in extreme conditions through this sometimes perilous but spectacular territory,
It’s hard work for anyone, but in the conservative Central Asian country of Tajikistan, it’s almost unheard of for a woman.
In traditional Tajik society, it is believed that the main task of a woman is to bear children and take care of her husband. Women face discrimination and inequality in social, economic and political life; most, especially in rural areas, do not work outside the home.
Kurbonbekova said she had the huge advantage of having a more progressive background.
“I grew up in a family where boys and girls were raised equally,” she says. A mother of four daughters, she continued: “My husband is my strongest support and my backbone after my parents. My husband and I were classmates and he was the first person to support me in choosing my profession.
Life in the mountains can be tough, she said, describing a typical day guiding tourists, usually from Europe, the United States, Russia and Malaysia. Among them were women, children and even the elderly, with days in the mountains scheduled minute by minute.
“I get up before everyone else, cook breakfast for guests or order food,” she continued. “After a brief briefing, let’s go. Observing the safety of movement in the mountainous area, wearing special shoes and clothes and, therefore, with the special food you need in the mountains. Water stocks must be sufficient until the next shutdown. Along the way, we tell them about the history of the area, historical events that happened here, legends and myths, and gradually familiarize them with the culture of the area,” she said. declared.
Kurbonbekova, an English translator by training, has worked in tourism for nearly 20 years and now runs her own travel agency Javohir.
“I always wanted to see the world and also show the world the great potential and history of the Persians,” she said.
The love of history also inspired Farangis Sharipova, another mountain guide, to pursue her career.
“My choice was influenced by my father, a historian. When we would go for a walk or go somewhere, he would always talk about the history of the place,” she recalls.
But Sharipova faced a much tougher struggle to achieve her dream.
After guiding tourists in museums and then in cities, she has been taking groups to the mountains for ten years and now works with the travel agency Shahin Tour.
Her parents, she says, didn’t like the idea of her being alone with groups of men in the mountains; her husband was initially unhappy with her choice of work, although he has since accepted it.
“So far our mentality has not accepted this profession,” Sharipova said. She was training a young woman to become a mountain guide herself, but suspected she would not continue in that role after her marriage.
Sharipova said tourists are also sometimes skeptical about trusting a woman to guide them through difficult terrain.
“It impacts your psyche,” she continued. “I was asked several times, suspiciously, if I could really accompany them to the mountains.”.
Physical strength can sometimes be a problem, she acknowledged.
“A year ago, a German hiker fell off a bridge into water,” she said. “When I rushed to her rescue, my strength alone was not enough to pull her out. Then the male guides pulled the woman out of the water.
Ahead of the tourist season in the mountains of Tajikistan, which begins in late spring and lasts until late autumn. Sharipova said she was preparing to take around 100 tourists from Poland and Uzbekistan to the Fann Mountains. Considered one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in Tajikistan, they are located 130 km from the capital Dushanbe, in the mountains of southwestern Pamir-Alay.
“When I take strangers to the mountain kishlaks [wintering places], they welcome us like parents. Despite their difficult lives, they really give us everything they have,” she said. “Their hospitality and openness fascinate me and foreigners and give us the strength to continue our journey.”
She said visitors from Central Asia and Russia were surprised to see a woman as a guide in the mountains, but Europeans were less prejudiced.
Kurbonbekova is currently developing four new tourist routes that meet international standards in the less developed regions of Tajikistan.
She said Tajikistan’s tourism industry was being held back by weak infrastructure and poor service, especially in more remote areas.
More tourists would see the beauty of their country’s mountains and nature if the authorities prepared the right conditions for them, she said.
“They don’t understand that when tourists traveling alone see the poor conditions, the rudeness of communication with customers, they come away with a negative impression of our history and culture.”
Sharipova said female guides could present a different view of Tajikistan to foreigners, adding, “We need to explain to men that… whoever it is and wherever you go, the guide is the face of their country.