By Abdul Rahman Ahmad
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- When the Malaysian group was just about to leave after performing the asar-zohor prayers, five well built men in black outfit rushed into the mosque grounds in Turpan, Urumqi in Xinjiang province, China.
The men went straight to the imam of the mosque who was sitting outside before going to the old man who had earlier allowed the eight travelling team members into the wooden mosque to pray. One of the men in black raised his voice, it looked like he was infuriated over something.
The team from Malaysia paid close attention to what was going on and was quite sure the whole commotion was about the group\'s presence there.
It was then Andy, the local guide employed by the group for the journey across China, explained to the team members; "They are policemen and they want to know who gave permission to all of you to pray in this mosque. The old man said he let you all in because you all wanted to pray in the mosque".
The men were still not satisfied with the old man's explanation and approached the Malaysian group before taking them to the nearest police post.
A FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE
It was certainly a frightening experience, worried and restless the group members pondered on their fate while in police custody. Their biggest fear was that they might be forced to leave China, ending their dream of reaching the Makkah over land.
Fearing for the safety of the group, this writer contacted a colleague in Kuala Lumpur to brief him of their situation. The police post was walled up and nobody could see what was happening inside.
After the group entered the police post, the iron gate behind them closed immediately and soon some policemen appeared. Both the police and the group depended on Andy to help clarify what was going on.
The officer accepted Andy's explanation before a policeman took down their personal details.
Andy then explained to the Malaysians that they were taken to the police station for their own safety.
"It is rare for the local community to see foreigners praying in the mosque especially after prayer time and this could be an issue here," Andy said.
Luckily, the group was allowed to leave without any condition imposed on them and they immediately got into their vehicles and left.
"We better leave quickly before they change their mind and call us back in," said Mohd Izam, the owner of the dark coloured Hilux.
NOT EASY TO TRAVEL THROUGH CHINA\'S BACKWATERS
It was among a number of frightening experience the team underwent when they came face to face with the Chinese authorities on their way to the Holy Land by road. The group had planned to reach Makkah in Arab Saudi a day before wukuf, the gathering at mount Arafah.
A day before the incident in Tupan, while checking into a hotel in Kumul, Urumqi, the Malaysians were cornered by a group of five security personnel armed with rifles.
The group was stunned upon seeing the officers marching towards the check in counter of the hotel. Luckily they left after the women at the counter explained to them about their journey over land to Makkah.
In another incident, the group was escorted by security personnel to a hotel in Shadian in the Yunan province at 4.30 am. After a summer camp event for school children at Xida mosque in Jijie, near Shadian, a security personnel forced cameraman Ahmad Shahuri Mat Jaan to delete all the recordings of the group's participation in the event.
Even before starting their journey in China from Laos on July 22, the Malaysians have been warned of the tough security measures they have to endure in the countries they would be crossing especially China.
The world knows that it is tough for foreigners especially for the media to move freely especially in China where their movement would be closely monitored.
Yet along the way the team travelling in two four wheel drives distributed sweets and ice-creams to local children.
THE MORE YOU TRAVEL, THE MORE YOU SEE OF CHINA
Despite of the tough time dealing with the authorities, the 17-day journey across four provinces - Yunan, Sichuan, Gansu and Xinjing - was a real eye opener.
The Malaysian group passed through impressive highways complete with rest areas with breathtaking mountains and hills in the backdrop. Green deltas with crops and old traditional houses add to the allure along the highways.
Travelling time was reduced thanks to the tunnels cutting across the mountains. The journey to Wudu in the Gansu province took the team through 50 tunnels within a 200km distance, a testament of the country's impressive infrastructure development.
Construction of new highways and tunnels can be seen in numerous locations, a clear sign that the Chinese government is ensuring fantastic terrestrial connectivity across China.
Travelers will not miss the sight of windmills across the flat planes in the four provinces that help generate electricity for the masses. The locals also depend on solar energy.
MANY MOSQUES, BUT NOT MANY PEOPLE
Along the way, the sight of many mosques greets travelers. Though there is a huge number of mosques, the number of people attending prayers appear miniscule with the elders dominating the small congregations.
While performing their Friday prayers, in the town of Wudu, the group observed that the congregation was made up of about 40 people only. The Muslims when approached on the matter just shied away from talking with the group.
However, the team members had no problems performing their prayers in public areas such as at rest areas and buildings full of non-Muslims.
IT IS DIFFERENT IN UZBEKISTAN AND TURKMENISTAN
After leaving the Chinese border, the group observed a lot of difference in Muslim nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
It is shocking that, unlike in China, the group faced obstacles when trying to perform group prayers in open areas in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The guide told the Malaysians that praying in groups in the open is something out of the ordinary here and those who perform such prayers could face arrest. Later, even the guide in Bukhara refused to join the group prayers conducted by the Malaysian travelers.
The guide's words were shocking; "Yes, young people are not allowed to pray at the mosques. I had once been arrested for praying. And I could not stand it when they ask a lot of questions. Its okay, you go perform your prayers".
It was the same in Iran, where the Syiah regarded the Suni as their nemesis. Being Sunnis, there was some initial apprehension with the only woman in the team Zuraini Abdul Malek drawing the unnecessary attention as she donned her white praying attire amidst the black cloaked women in Iran.
After arriving in Dubai and settling the haj visa issue, the members left for Makkah. There they feted a number of pilgrims from all around the world with rice and curry.
"We succeeded in our journey and most impressively we made Andy, who previously did not believe in God and religion, to accept us and start rethinking his stand on Islam," said Khir, reminiscing their journey.
The group's journey can be followed in a 13-series documentary which will be aired by Astro 502 Bernama News Channel during the first quarter of 2018.