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Tajiks Try Taking The Hajj By Foot

Three of the "Kulob seven" as the men began their trek to Mecca this week.
Three of the "Kulob seven" as the men began their trek to Mecca this week.
With little more than a pair of shoes on their feet and a day's lunch in their backpacks, a group of Tajik men is going retro for this year's hajj pilgrimage.

The seven men set off this week on a 4,600-kilometer trek that will take them through six countries en route to Mecca; they've already reached the first: Afghanistan. The journey will take months, but they expect to have ample time for sightseeing and adventure.

"All our documents are in order," says the head of the group, Abdulaziz Rajabov.

Now the goal is to reach their destination "just in time to participate in the pilgrimage," the former professional runner says of the hajj, which is expected to fall in late October.

The pilgrimage will take them across parts of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia -- that much is clear. Everything else, however, has plainly been left to chance.

No hotels have been booked and the men, six of whom are pensioners, left home with none of the usual amenities of modern travel. They won't have travel insurance or traveler's cheques, and none in the group has so much as heard of a credit card.

The idea is to spend nights in mosques. Rajabov says there are no clear plans for what and where to eat but that he is confident they will meet "kind people" along the way.

Mostly First-Time Travelers

Rajabov, who is in his 60s, has already traveled once to Mecca by foot, a 19-month journey starting from Russia made less arduous by the strangers who took him into their homes and offered him food, clothes, and shoes.

"I didn't have any problem in any country apart from Russia," Rajabov said.

"Russian police detained and interrogated me for 12 days," Rajabov said. "They asked me what side I took during Tajik civil war [in 1990s]. I told them I didn't take any sides. They checked my background and let me go."
The men, along with other locals, posed for a group picture before they set off from Kulob, Tajikistan.
The men, along with other locals, posed for a group picture before they set off from Kulob, Tajikistan.

The rest of the group members will be experiencing their first travel abroad.

Amriddin Ismoilov says the pilgrimage is a "lot more than just performing the religious duty."

He says the trip is also about "health, sightseeing, and an adventure."

"I feel like an athlete," Ismoilov says. "We are using this trip to improve our health, too. I'm 60 years old, and I want to test if I'm capable of performing this trip."

Body And Soul

The men, the youngest of whom is 21, say they have trained for more than two years through long-distance walks and other physical activities.

Their native district of Kulob, which borders Afghanistan, has a relatively hot climate so the men hope they won't have too much trouble coping with the hot summer heat of the Middle East.

Rajabov and other travelers insist the trip is not about publicity. They are not tweeting or blogging or keeping a journal on their long-distance journey. In fact, the men did not even take a mobile phone.

Before leaving, Rajabov discussed the first stop -- Afghanistan -- where they will visit the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a prominent ethnic Tajik commander assassinated by Al-Qaeda in 2001.

If everything goes according to plan, the men will join an estimated 6,000 Tajik pilgrims in Mecca and return -- by foot -- in May 2013.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi in Kulob District, Tajikistan
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