Nestled in the Karakorum Range in northern Pakistan, the remote Shimshal Valley adapts each year to the rhythm of the mountains, with the transhumance – the seasonal movement of people with their livestock – led by women.
The Wakhi ethnic community who reside here are proud of this unique women-led tradition.
In springtime, a handful of women and a few men settle an ephemeral hamlet at an altitude of over 4,600 metres. They spend five months in harsh, isolated conditions, with only basic comforts and a three-day walk to the nearest village.
The Shimshal Valley – home to 1,750 residents – was only connected by road to the Karakorum Highway in 2003, after 18 years of construction. The road has facilitated better access to major cities, resulting in higher education and employment for the people of this remote valley.
The desire of the Wakhis for better education led young people – both girls and boys – to leave for cities, initially to study, which gave them better employment opportunities.
Faced with these conditions, the end of this singular feminine pastoralism seems inevitable. The shepherdesses of Pamir are conscious of living the last years of a beautifully harsh tradition; of being the custodians of a fading ancestral knowledge.
2. Two ascending villagers come across a shepherd and his donkeys returning from supplying the summer village with food and other necessities. A strenuous path that cuts into cliff faces connects Shimshal to the Pamir plateau.
5. Yak riders returning quickly to the summer village for Woolio; this annual faith-based festival celebrates yaks, the emblematic animals of the Pamir. It is one of the very few entertainment opportunities for the local people each year.
6. During Woolio, a local meal called ‘chamurk’ is prepared out of shreds of thin wheat bread mixed with yak butter. Rock salt is traditionally added to milk tea to warm oneself up. More recently, refined sugar tends to replace the rock salt.
9. In the summer of 2016, only 17 out of 40 shepherd’s huts were occupied. This gradual desertion is the result of the desire for further education, the aging of the shepherdesses and few replacements. The end of this singular feminine pastoralism seems inevitable.
10. Pok Doman, left, and Nar Begum, right, are among the oldest shepherdesses in the region. ‘Some of my friends don’t have good enough health to come, others are just gone forever. As for me, God knows,’ sighs Nar Begum, 65.
11. Despite the weather conditions, sheep and goats are milked in the same pen every day. Shepherdesses have to work quickly before the night falls and the severe cold arrives. Only a tiny colored string run through the animal’s ear enables one to differentiate them.
13. This sundried cheese, ‘qurut’, represents the local way to put the abundant milk to good use. It offers an additional source of income, along with the sale of livestock. Fresh qurut, left, and dry qurut, right.
14. Young men playing cricket on an improvised ground at 4,500 meters above sea level during Woolio. The younger generation tends to prefer the comforts of the classroom and social recognition of a future ‘office life’. But most of all, through education, they yearn to bring positive changes to their communities.
(All photos by: Camille Delbos/Hans Lucas/Al Jazeera)