Muslim woman overcomes stigma to pursue passion for mountaineering

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 20:11:35

Maizi (left) and her teammates hold a national flag during a mountain climb. Photo: Courtesy of Maizi

Maizi is virtually a household name in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region after becoming the only woman from the region to have successfully scaled Mount Qomolangma, more commonly known in the West as Mount Everest.

Officially named Ma Liyamu, a Muslim from Jichang Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, Maizi started doing outdoor sports in 1996.

"I had concealed my career from my other family members except my father until the media widely reported me in 2015," Maizi told the Global Times via WeChat on Wednesday. Women from the Muslim community are usually under pressure not to engage in what are perceived as activities suitable only for men.

In 2015, she was severely injured in an avalanche at her base camp in Nepal as she was preparing to climb Everest. But after recovering, she geared up again and successfully reached the top of Everest last May.

"After failing to persuade me to quit, they started to accept and chant scriptures to pray for my safety whenever I returned home," she said.

From being an amateur climber, and later a coordinator for a mountaineering firm, to running a high mountain trekking agency, the 47-year-old woman has been persistent in her efforts despite suffering obstruction and insult in this male-dominated industry.

Tough start



Maizi became an assistant of Yang Chunfeng, known as the pioneer of Chinese folk mountaineering in 2009. Mainly in charge of logistic support services, she assisted Yang, also from Xinjiang, in scaling 11 of the 14 mountains in the world that are taller than 8,000 meters, including Everest.

In June 2013, Yang was killed in a terrorist attack that claimed 10 lives at the base camp for the 8,125-meter Nanga Parbat peak in Pakistan, the ninth highest in the world.

After helping with the funeral and recovering from her grief, she chose to take the initiative. She organized the building of a memorial hall that housed Yang's remains. Later that year, she set up a trekking company and founded the first China Women's Everest Team the next year. "That was also Yang's wish," Maizi said.

As the world's third registered women's Everest expedition team, the five members - Maizi and four other climbers from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sichuan and Yunnan - have received nationwide attention.

"Most climbers are men. Many of them, especially Chinese, think that women should just dress up nicely and stay at home," said Maizi.

Unfortunately, however, the team's attempts to reach the top of Everest failed in both 2014 and 2015 due to natural disasters. On April 25, 2015, a strong earthquake struck Nepal and the ensuing avalanche destroyed the Everest base camp. Two Sherpas, a photographer and a male climber in Maizi's team died. Maizi suffered four broken ribs and a bleeding spleen.

Starting over



The loss of her team members was a devastating blow to Maizi. "But since I took up this profession, I have been prepared for it. This did not frighten me into giving up, but instead made me stronger," she said. "It's usual to see helicopters carrying the wounded or dead bodies passing over the base camp while the climbers below gear up for their ascent."

Eventually, the women's team disbanded for various reasons. Some left because of financial difficulties. Some persisted and conquered the peak in other ways.

Rumors surrounding her grew, including one that she was an "unlucky" woman who would bring bad luck or death to the people around her. Earlier, there were accusations that she was Yang's lover and tried to make a fortune from his remains.

"The rumors have frightened away many clients and made the company's difficulties worse," Maizi said. In 2014, she registered an agency in Nepal to serve the growing number of climbers from China. The team suffered great losses in 2014 and 2015.

Maizi didn't give up. On May 19, 2016, she reached the peak of Lhotse, the world's 4th highest mountain, and the peak of Everest the next day.

This week, a team of four Chinese clients led by sherpas from her agency based in Katmandu descended to the base camp after their successful Everest summit. The team included Tsang Yin-hung, a teacher from Hong Kong, who was a member of the China Women's Everest Team.

"The difficulties Maizi has met with are beyond my imagination. But she always tackled them so easily. Her attitude towards mountaineering and life is worth learning," Tsang told Xinjiang TV last summer.

New direction

Despite setbacks, Maizi said she would organize an all-Chinese female Everest team again next year or later. "I will try to arrange some sponsors. Mountaineering needs logistic and financial support," she said.

But she also has another wish to fulfill. Inspired by Elizabeth Hawley, the 93-year-old American former journalist who has chronicled the Himalayan expeditions for more than 50 years, and mountaineering museums set up by individuals in other countries, she decided to set up one for China. The Tibet Mountaineering School built an Everest climbing museum in Lhasa in 2008, which mainly stores collections of the objects used by government-led expeditions.

"Chinese folk mountaineers also need to be recorded and remembered. Besides, the pioneers have accumulated many skills and a great deal of experience. It's necessary to collect it and pass it on to others," Maizi said.

In March, she initiated a project to build China's first Folk Mountaineering History Museum. Many climbers donated money and objects. The museum, located in Urumqi county in Xinjiang, is near completion.

Maizi has realized most of her dreams, but still feels guilty about her passion. Each year she has only a short time to be with her father and visually impaired mother. "They shoulder great pressure. I feel great guilt about them," she lamented. "I know the risks [of mountaineering]. That's why I now choose to be single and not have children."


Newspaper headline: Struggling to the top


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