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Eight British Muslims cycle 4,000 miles through 17 countries to perform Hajj

Eight British Muslims cycle 4,000 miles from London to Madinah to attend Hajj [Twitter]

Date of publication: 14 August, 2019

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Eight British Muslims travelled to Hajj, not by air and not by sea, but by land, undertaking a 4,000 mile cycle journey through 17 countries.
The Hajj we know today is, besides its characteristic religious rites, very different from the one practiced a thousand years ago.

Millions, rather than thousands, of pilgrims arrive from every corner of the world aided by the modern inventions of planes, buses and trains.

But eight British Muslims, hailing from English towns such as Slough and Maidenhead, have brought back some of that old Hajj spirit by undertaking a momentous 60 day bike journey.

Spanning 17 countries from London to Medina, the eight-man strong team biked 4,000 miles all the way through Europe and into Turkey where they then flew to Cairo and onwards to Medina. 

"We did ride in all the countries," 45-year-old Chief Rider Tahir Hassan Akhtar told MBC, not allowing his achievement to be undermined.

When asked why he decided to cycle, he said: "It's more awareness for a start. Back in the day, people used to walk and they still do in some places. We wanted to see the world in a different way and show a good example of Islam en-route."

Looking to raise half a million pounds for charities in four different countries, Tour de Hajj collaborated with Penny Appeal to fund five different projects including water wells, solar panels, school projects and mosques.

Although Akhtar had managed to reach this ambitious target before with a different group, he admitted: "We haven't done so great this time."

The main objective however, remained Hajj, and when the riders cycled into Medina they were overcome by emotion. Videos posted on the Tour de Hajj Twitter account shows them breaking down into tears – a testament to the formidable journey they had just undertaken.

Hospitality and connection

The riders departed from East London Mosque after Friday prayers on June 7, just a few days after the end of Ramadan. Their 60 day journey was to wrench them away from their families for two months and bring them to the holy city of Mecca in time for Hajj.

On the first few days of their tour, the eight men cycled to Brighton and then to Newhaven, where they caught a ferry to Dieppe in France.

Before their arrival in Paris, the group tweeted: "Any Mosques or community groups willing to host our 10 man team for the night!!!?"

The entire journey is characterised by this spontaneous approach – seeking hospitality from the local community at every stop.

"If we can raise half a million pounds and change lives and touch people along the way, then why not?" cyclist Junaid Afzal, 30, told BBC.

The group ended up overnighting at Al-Jannah Masjid with the Sri Lankan community.

When the group arrived in Provins, France the next day with nothing to eat and no place to stay, a local French Muslim looked after them, booking a hotel and buying them dinner and breakfast.

When there was no mosque or hospitable hosts around, the group camped outdoors. 

The journey out of France was gruelling, with an elevation of over 5,000 feet to where they "could literally touch the clouds".

On the 9th day of the tour, the group crossed the Swiss border and the German border, spending the night with Turkish Muslims at Alperenler mosque in Rheinfelden.

Breathtaking Alps

Their journey to Zurich and onwards through Switzerland was undoubtedly picturesque. 

The trip's toughest ride came on day 13, when, on their way out of Austria and through Liechtenstein to the Swiss Alps, the cyclists elevated nearly 8,000 feet.

"The uphill struggle!!! May Allah make this journey easy for us!!!" the group tweeted on their way through the Swiss Alps.

Falling slightly behind in Italy, the group had to miss their scheduled day off to catch up. On the 18th day and into their third week, the group cycled for 95 miles in one –starting off just after dawn and arriving just after midnight.

From Italy into Slovenia, the group then landed at "one of the most beautiful mosques in Europe" – the mosque in Rijeka, Croatia where they stayed the night.

After 11 days of non-stop cycling, the team had a rest day and enjoyed exploring Bosnia. On the 25th day the group entered Sarajevo, followed by Montenegro on day 27.

Meeting Erdogan

Having arrived into Serbia on the evening of the 28th day, the group then set off for the capital of Bulgaria. On day 34, the team headed into Turkey via Greece. 

"We're in high spirits as we're finally going to have consistent halal food," Tour de Hajj tweeted when they arrived in Turkey.

On day 36, the team arrived in Istanbul, where, in perhaps the most bizarre turn of their journey, they met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

As they left Istanbul, Turkish police provided the group with a VIP police escort for 70 miles.

The journey through Turkey took Tour de Hajj through incredible Turkish cities, including Yalova, Bursa, Bozuyuk, Kutahya, Burdur and Antalya, where they arrived on the 46th day.

'Nightmare journey'

On day 49, the group landed by plane into Egypt where they screwed their bikes back together and continued cycling.

"It's crazy to think that at one point in this journey, we were in sub-zero temperatures in the Swiss Alps and now we're hitting nearly 50 degrees in the desert," the group tweeted as they cycled through Egyptian deserts on day 50 of their journey.

Citing "security concerns", the group did not post on Twitter while they were in Egypt. The only description of their time in Egypt is a succinct three words: "a nightmare journey".

Although they had planned to take a ferry, the group had to fly into Jeddah instead.

They were then provided a private coach which took them outside Medina for their final ride. 

"We made it!!! SubhanAllah!!! We can't believe we are finally here in Madinah!!!" the group posted as their journey came to an end a week before Hajj was due to start. 

Tour's high point 

The group continued their engaging Twitter updates throughout the five days of Hajj – which began on August 9 and ends on August 14.  The updates showed their arrival into Mina and the rain that fell on the day of Arafah. 

The eight cyclists, and some 2.5 million faithful who travelled to Mecca from across the world to take part in this year's pilgrimage, fulfilled one of the five pillars of Islam. 

Draped in the hallmark white robes donned by every male pilgrim, the team took part in the Hajj rites with the satisfying awareness that they had put in blood, sweat and tears to make it there.

Support Tour de Hajj here.

Ella Linskens is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @ellalinskens

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