POKHARA: When Nepal's Chhetri sisters started their all-female trekking agency in the mid-1990s, the idea was so alien to local people that many thought it must be a cover story for a brothel.
For Nepalese women to set up in business was unusual enough. For them to venture out onto remote Himalayan trails, often for weeks at a time and in the company of strangers, was completely unheard of.
But if their compatriots in this conservative, majority-Hindu nation were initially shocked by the three women's venture, the rest of the world's reaction to their 3 Sisters trekking agency has been overwhelmingly positive.
Lucky, Dicky and Nicky have won international awards for sustainable tourism from the likes of National Geographic, and rave reviews on travellers' websites such as TripAdvisor.
“We never expected 3 Sisters to be such a success,” Lucky Chhetri, 46, told AFP at the offices of the agency in the western resort town of Pokhara.
“None of us had any idea how to set up a business and society was very closed to the idea.
“We were educated women, we were supposed to be teachers or nurses -- safe jobs, nothing too adventurous, and certainly nothing that involved sleeping away from home.”
The sisters, who are originally from eastern Nepal but grew up in India, started out with a guesthouse in Pokhara, a picturesque lakeside resort with stunning views of the Annapurna mountain range.
They saw an opportunity for a sideline when female guests began telling them how being harassed by often drunk male trekking guides had ruined their holiday.
Initially the women thought they would serve as companions, smoothing the linguistic and cultural differences between tourists and their male guides.
But it soon became clear that clients wanted them to do the guiding as well -- a job they now admit they were entirely unprepared for.
As the most outgoing of the sisters, Dicky, 44, was tasked with doing most of the treks in the early days. She enrolled on a course held regularly by the government to train mountain guides, becoming the first woman ever to attend.
“I was totally unfit, I barely even knew what trekking was when I started,” she said.
“And at that time there were no other female guides. The guesthouses would refuse to give me a room and I'd have to sleep in the dining room, where all the men would be drinking and saying bad things to me.
“But the demand for our services was so great, and there were three of us in it. That gave me courage to carry on.” Word of the agency spread among travellers, and soon the sisters had far more business than they could handle between them.
They began hiring local women to help, devising their own training course that included basic English and safety advice on walking at high altitudes, as well as lessons on local flora and fauna.
The mountain women were used to walking -- the only way to get around in much of rural Nepal -- but social prejudices initially made it difficult to hire, with many women's families resistant to them joining the company.
Now, the Chhetris say parents actively encourage their daughters to sign up for guide training, recognising it as a reliable source of income, and they count college graduates among the more than 100 guides and porters they employ.
“Lots of the men in my family work as guides or porters, but I am the first woman,” 3 Sisters guide Nirma Rai told AFP proudly.
“I've been working for them since 2002 and it's great. My family supports me, but sometimes I think the men are jealous of how much I am earning. They say, 'you are so small, how can you possibly do that kind of work?'” Rai, 30, is one of a small group of 3 Sisters guides learning skills to tackle the high mountains. She says she hopes one day to work with major expeditions, which can be far more lucrative than guiding trekkers.
The Chhetri sisters say that helping women from poor backgrounds forge successful careers in tourism has been one of the most satisfying aspects of their business.
Although attitudes in more developed areas such as Pokhara are changing, women in Nepal still face huge challenges.
Just one in four Nepalese women can read and write, compared to 62 percent of men, and high rates of maternal mortality mean life expectancy is also lower than for men.
For British sisters Jenny Murphy and Judy Mallam, who are about to start their third trek with 3 Sisters, the opportunity to help women in a developing country was one of the selling points.
“Their guides are incredibly well-trained, and it's not just a business, they have a real mission to help local people,” maths teacher Mallam told AFP.
“They are really empowering these women and it's great to see.” – AFP