The first group of 282 Chinese Muslims from northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region began their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Monday by direct charter flights.
At 6:30 p.m., the first charter flight took off from the Yinchuan Hedong Airport for nine-hour flight to Medina, Saudi Arabia.
"A total of 1,910 pilgrims from the autonomous region, 44 percent of whom are women of the Hui ethnic group, will fly to Mecca this year," said Yang Shengrui, of the Religious Affairs Administration of Ningxia.
He said the flights, operated by the China Eastern Airlines, would run till Nov. 16.
The Mecca pilgrimage, also called the hajj, is the fifth pillar of Islam, an obligation that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so.
"I have long dreamed of making a pilgrimage to Mecca," said Ma Xiuying, a 70-year-old Muslim woman who will join the pilgrimage this year.
Along with the pilgrims are imams, Arabic interpreters and doctors, whose duty is to provide services pilgrims may need there.
"We will provide all kinds of services for the pilgrims, especially for aged Muslims, who may feel uncomfortable in different climates," Yang said.
The Chinese government resumed organizing the hajj pilgrimage in 1985. Since then, the number of pilgrims from Ningxia has grown from 15 in 1988 to 1,655 in 2007, with a total 8,288 pilgrims in 20 years.
"The Chinese government ensures the pilgrim's freedom of religious belief," said Hei Fuli, vice executive chairman of the Islamic Association of Ningxia.
"On the other hand, the increasing number of pilgrims shows the people of Hui ethnic group are wealthier than before, so they can afford to fly to Mecca," he said.
The cost of pilgrimage this year is about 35,000 yuan (5,147 U.S. dollars) per person. Last year, the per capita disposable income of an urban resident in Ningxia was 10,859 yuan, and 3,181 yuan for a farmer.
Yang said the pilgrims were scheduled to return to China from Dec. 18.
Ningxia is one of the country's five minority autonomous regions. It has about 2.1 million Hui people, more than a third of the total population in the region.