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Walking To Mecca (Part 3): A Lavish Feast And A Run-In With The Taliban

The men hope to arrive in Saudi Arabia in time for the hajj in October
The men hope to arrive in Saudi Arabia in time for the hajj in October
It was another week of stumbling into the unknown for a group of seven men attempting to make the long trek from Tajikistan to Mecca entirely by foot.

"A rather uneasy encounter with the Taliban, running into a NATO forces' checkpoint, and a lavish dinner at the Balkh governor's residence," group head Abdulaziz Rajabov says as he lists the highlights of the week.

Walking To Mecca (Part 1): Leaving Tajikistan

At the beginning of their quest to make it to this October's hajj, the group told us they would be depending on chance and the kindness of strangers. This week, it seems, things were going their way.

Following a sightseeing tour in the historic city of Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province, the group received an unexpected invitation to dine with the provincial governor, Atta Muhammad Noor, according to Rajabov.

He suspects news of the pilgrims' appearance in Mazar-e Sharif, where the men were spending their nights in mosques and had met many locals, must have reached the governor by word of mouth.

NATO Troops

After an introductory meeting at Muhammad Noor's residence, says Rajabov, the group was treated to an elaborate feast that was much appreciated after a month of modest meals.

The governor also offered the men some much-needed money at a time when their cash reserves were running out, leading them to consider working as laborers for a few days so they could continue on their journey.

Walking To Mecca (Part 2): Roadblocks And The Kindness Of Strangers

Their next taste of generosity would come from NATO soldiers in the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan, where Rajabov says they were stopped and searched at a military checkpoint.

"[NATO soldiers] were speaking in English. We told them we can only understand Farsi and Russian. They brought a translator. We told them we were tourists sightseeing cultural, historic, and Islamic sites on a hiking trip along Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia," Rajabov said.

"They told us, 'So, you're tourists.' They let us go, saying 'good-bye,' and gave us water and some other things.'"

Their next encounter was one they would rather avoid in future.

"We were stopped by Taliban men," Rajabov says. "We thought they would kill us." But after a thorough search of the pilgrims' belongings, the Taliban, too, decided to let them go.

Now the group, which left their hometown in southern Tajikistan in May, is approaching the next leg of their journey -- Iran.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi