Meet the Hajj Riders. They are eight guys from the UK who have set off for the Islamic pilgrimage – on bikes.
They are hoping to be the first pilgrims from the UK to make the journey to the annual Hajj pilgrimage on bike, riding 3,500km through eight countries, including France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Greece and Egypt. This year's Hajj begins at the end of August.
Over the next six weeks, the cyclists, who are aiming to raise £1 million in charity for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, will pedal 3,500km from London to Medina, Saudi Arabia – across the Alps, across multiple borders, and across seas.
They were met by a crowd of supporters as they began their journey from East London Mosque in Whitechapel, with a band of well-wishers going as far as Brighton alongside them.
But with the mountainous terrain in Europe fast approaching and with temperatures soaring above 45°C in Saudi, the Hajj Riders know there will be challenges ahead.
Abdul Wahid, 31, the spokesperson for the cycling group, told BuzzFeed News when the group got to their first milestone in Paris: "Obviously we know the hills are coming, we know that travelling in a group of people is difficult, but it's going to be one of those unexpected things we haven't thought about."
The group is raising money for the London-based charity Human Aid; the cash will go on medical projects, emergency relief, medical equipment, and upkeep of existing projects in Syria.
The men, who are visibly Muslim, have had testing experiences with locals en route. "We've already had people throwing water bottles at us, yesterday on the way to Paris in France, and swearing at us, but this is the way things are," Wahid said.
"It's another reason why we're doing it, because the amount of positive experiences we've had from the locals has been phenomenal." He added: "At the end of the day we say everyone is an individual and we do not label a group of people because one or two [can be] a bit of a numpty."
The full-time humanitarian aid worker said that if anything, the abuse they had received inspired them. "I was pushing even harder after that," he said.
Wahid said he had been thinking of routes to cycle to Islam's holy city ever since he became a Muslim 11 years ago: "At that stage in my life I thought this would be an idea, I drew up some ... plans and left it there for a while."
But it was when he cycled from London to Paris in 2015 that he decided he should pick up the idea again, and found some willing participants among his friends.
In the end, seven more cyclists from east London, High Wycombe, Maidenhead and Northampton joined him on the pilgrimage – an imam, a delivery driver, and finance admin among them.
Accompanying the cyclists on the road is a van containing their tents, food, and other camping supplies and two support drivers who will be with them until Greece. The cyclists are aiming to make much of their journey during the cooler parts of the day and night, Wahid said, and were eating dried fruits to give them energy.
When asked why he was making the journey now, Wahid said: "I want to go to Hajj – as I said, as a new Muslim of 11 years I still haven't performed my Hajj yet. It's one of the main pillars of Islam, and I can afford it and I am physically able, so let me do it.
"I want to make the best of every journey and in everything we do."
Wahid said it was a significant endeavour for the group, and added: "We are trying to revive the spirituality of the journey of going to Hajj. It's nice to jump in a plane ... a lot of people need that and I don't think there's anything wrong with it … but for us, and to also encourage the Muslim ummah to do things they never thought they could do, to challenge themselves, and to achieve great things, to travel distances in ways you couldn't imagine, [we wanted] to make an effort."
In a Facebook Live broadcast on Tuesday morning, the Hajj Riders showed their followers their temporary camp site as they cooked eggs and beans for breakfast. They said the hope was to save money and "feel the essence of how travellers of old" would have made their way to Hajj.
The arduous journeys people have made in recent years to Hajj, shunning flights, have been well-documented, with one pilgrim last year cycling from China to Saudi Arabia.
Due to regional security concerns, however, the Hajj Riders' route had to be modified. Wahid said they will be unable to cross through Turkey or cross the Mediterranean by ferry due to the migrant crisis, and will instead take a flight from Athens in Greece to Alexandria in Egypt.
He said the group have been overwhelmed by their support, and that the previous night in Paris some young men had come up to them and said they had seen the cyclists' Facebook, had been watching their updates, and were hoping to meet the cycling pilgrims.
"It's absolutely amazing – I can't even describe it, it made us feel part of the community even more than we already did," Wahid said. "Got our hearts and minds back there as well."
Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Aisha Gani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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