No money, no transport, and an uncharted route -- the plan for this hajj trip, essentially, is not to plan.
When we last visited a group of seven Tajik men as they headed off for Saudi Arabia by foot, the only thing they were packing was a sense of adventure and dedication toward reaching their ultimate goal.
One month into the trek, the goal remains the same.
"Reaching Mecca in time to participate in October's hajj," says group leader Abdulaziz Rajabov. The rest, he adds, is up to chance and fate.
The approach has already led to problems, however. While Rajabov gave assurances when we last contacted him on May 9 that "all our documents are in order" and that the group had reached Afghanistan, it seems not all went so smoothly.
In fact, the first major obstacle in the trip came just hours after we spoke, when the group was stopped by Tajik border guards.
"We had obtained Afghan and Iranian visas, and were planning to apply for a Saudi visa in those countries' embassies in Tehran," Rajabov said this week by telephone. "But border guards advised us not to leave Tajikistan without a Saudi visa."
Kindness Of Strangers
Rajabov says such problems are to be expected, "but we take them as part of our adventure." True to his word, while one member of the group headed back to Dushanbe in a bid to obtain visas from the Saudi Embassy, the rest stayed behind and made the most of it.
They embarked on what Rajabov calls a "sightseeing detour through southern Tajikistan" filled with visits to village teahouses, mosques, and roadside dinners. Some rainy nights, he says, were spent "under trees in the middle of nowhere."
Along the way, kind strangers sometimes invited the men into their homes and offered a meal, a shower, and night under a roof. On one occasion this week, we caught up with the men as they were well into a wedding celebration at a total strangers' home.
"It's all part of the fun," Rajabov said, sounding somewhat worse for wear.
The Adventures Continue
The next morning, when asked whether the group is praying five times a day, as required by their Sunni faith, Rajabov said coyly: "Not always, but we are doing our best."
"Well," he concluded, "call us 'adventurous pilgrims.'"
Alas, the adventure took another turn as bad news arrived on June 5 when the group member returned from the Saudi Embassy empty-handed.
Despite the headache, compounded by the fact that they had depleted most of their modest cash reserves even before leaving Tajikistan, the group took the news well. Unbowed, they made the decision to ignore the border guard's advice and cross into Afghanistan without Saudi visas.
"We have some $150 each," Rajabov says. "If we run out of money, we will work as laborers for a couple of days to earn some cash, and then will continue our journey."
Once they get through Afghanistan, they now intend to try their luck at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
In the meantime, they will stick to the plan of enjoying their time in Afghanistan.
When last heard from on Thursday (June 7), the men were lunching in a teahouse in the Afghan border town of Sher Khan Bandar -- they had no idea where they would have dinner.