By Abdul Rahman Ahmad
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- "Around the world in 80 days", a science fiction classic by Jules Vern, tells of an adventure embarked on by Phileas Fogg in his attempt to win a wager that he could travel around the world in 80 days.
To prove this, the Englishmen and his assistant Jean Passepartout set out to travel the world on various modes of transportation such as hot air balloon, ships, trains and other land transportation including on elephant's back before returning to England just a day before the deadline.
Although a fiction, such an adventure is not impossible and fast forward to 2017, a Malaysian group also set out on a seemingly impossible adventure.
Although not as exotic as traversing the world on elephant backs, and also not even close to circumnavigating the earth, this adventurous team, sought to travel to the Holy land of Makkah, to perform their Haj by land on two trusted 4wd vehicles.
Many naysayers were doubtful of the quest to reach Makkah on time for the haj, but just like Fogg and Passepartout, the Malaysian team went on to prove that their goal could be realised against all odds.
CAREFUL PLANNING SINCE END OF 2016
Dubbed as Kembara Inspirasi Haji (KIH), the journey by the eight participants, including two Bernama crew members was organised by Pertubuhan Kembara Amal (PEKA), a non governmental organisation that is actively involved in social and charity work.
The adventurers were 43-year-old Khir Ariffin, the team leader, a mechanic-cum-cook Muhammad Shahuri Zainuddin, 51, Zikri Fuad Abdul Salam, 43, Mohd izam Mahd Nor, 35, Jasmi Jantan, 46 and wife Zuraini Abdul Malek, 36 (the only woman in the team), cameramen Ahmad Shahuri Mat Jaan and journalist Abdul Rahman Ahmad ,
The idea for the overland journey to Makkah had been in the planning since December 2016 following the successful overland trips to southern China and Europe by PEKA members previously.
In all, participants would have to complete a 16,000 kilometer journey to reach Saudi Arabia one day before Wuquf day at Arafah.
Even before the start of the journey, Khir had denied suggestion that the overland trip was simply a way to get around the quota set by the Saudi government on the total of haj pilgrims from Malaysia.
"Please do not misinterpret our intentions. We are not trying to identify alternative way for future pilgrims to perform their haj in the holy land. And one of our quest is to retrace the journey that brought the dawn of Islam in China, especially in four Chinese provinces in the west of the massive country. Besides that, we also plan on doing some charity work for those in need while enjoying the beauty of the world created by Allah SWT," said Khir.
Their journey started from the Federal Territory Mosque, here, and then crossed into Thailand, Laos, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
TWO VEHICLES HAD TO TURN BACK
The group actually started the journey with four 4WD vehicles, but unfortunately, two of them with eight members, had to turn back to Kuala Lumpur after the sponsors withdrew. The other two 4WD vehicles with eight participants, including two Bernama staff, continued with the journey.
Despite the disappointment of having to leave behind several teammates, the group trudged on their arduous journey that saw them making long hours of drive including in the night.
Every stop had its own story and every challenge was a bitter sweet experience. And one frightening experience was when the vehicles were stopped and escorted to a police post in a remote location in China.
In other cities along the way, team members visited Malaysia's diplomatic missions there, such as in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Tehran, Iran and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and Malaysian consulates in Kunming and Dubai.
In all, the journey covered around 30 towns and cities such as Hat Yai, Songkha and Bangkok in Thailand, Mengla, Shadian, Kunming, Dali, Wudu,Lingshan, Guangyuan, Langzhou, Jiuguan, Kumul, Urumqi, Bayingul, Aksudan Kashgar in China, Osh in Kyrgyzstan, Tasktent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, Tehran, Yazd and Abas in Iran and Sarjah and Dubai in UAE.
All preparation and travel documentation such as visas for the countries the expedition passed through were completed prior to the journey and all participants were armed with their visas or their passports.
Every journey began as early as 7.00 am after breakfast with a short briefing by Khir who would wrap-up with words of motivation and prayers for the safety during the journey.
Every journey ended as late as almost midnight. And at one time a journey to Abas town in Iran ended at 4am and the team checked into the hotel for a short nap only.
Group prayers were never skipped at any possible locations though the convoy was racing against time to reach their next stop.
The group covered between 250km and 1,000 km a day, with stops only when needed. The distance clocked at the end of the journey was an impressive 14,600km over 35 days, with Dubai as the last overland stop.
And they had to complete the last leg of their journey, a distance spanning 1,400 km to the Holy Land from Dubai, by air, due to the constraints of time in getting Haj visas to enable them to travel by land to Makkah before Wuquf.
While travelling across Iran, word reached the group that they had failed to get Haj Visa despite their request with Tabung Haji before they left for the journey. By then it was already July, and the last day for visa application had passed.
BITTER BLOW WHEN GROUP FAILED TO GET HAJ VISA
For the adventurers, the news was devastating. Disappointment could be seen all over their faces as they had gone through thousands of kilometres to get to the holy land and now they are in a limbo.
"What am i going to do? If I don't make it to Makkah, I would be beyond embarrassed because everyone knows that I am going to do my Haj," said cameraman Ahmad Shahuri Mat Jaan, who was consoled by this writer.
The group continued praying for the best and brainstormed on strategies to gain the Haj Visas and sought the assistance from various authorities, including the Malaysian Consulate in Dubai. However, the efforts failed to see the light of the day.
As the last resort the group decided to send one member back home to Kuala Lumpur to appeal to Tabung Haji or the Saudi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Thus, Khir, chosen unanimously by the group, went home along with the passports of the team members in the team's last attempt to realise their dream and make good of the goal of their long and eventful journey.
For the ones left behind in Dubai, it was quiet a difficult time, as they had a taste of what it was like to be 'illegal immigrants' without having their travel documents with them which limited their plan for sightseeing and shopping in the UAE.
They stayed in a rented apartment, with the assistance of a Malaysian couple based in Dubai, and waited eagerly for Khir to come back with good news.
UNCERTAIN, BUT STILL PREPARING FOR THEIR HAJ
Their stay in the apartment was filled with preparation for submitting themselves to the Almighty. Still positive, KIH members practised wearing the Ihram and read up on the dos and donts while performing the Haj.
Their perseverance were rewarded when they received the news from Khir in Kuala Lumpur on August 25 that god was on their side when their appeal for the visas were granted with the help of Tabung Haji and the Saudi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
And as if it had been fated by Allah S.W.T the group were last people to get the last eight flight tickets to Makkah from Dubai. And as radiant as they looked, the group left for Jeddah two days before Wukuf.
The challenges of completing the last leg of the journey were only among many experiences that the KIH members went through. More stories on their overland trip to be continued in the next series.