Chinese muslims begin pilgrimage to Mecca

16:43, October 18, 2010      

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A Muslim heading to Mecca waves goodbye to his relatives in Lanzhou, northwest China's Gansu Province, on Oct. 17, 2010. This year's first group of Chinese Muslim pilgrims to Mecca set off from Gansu by a chartered flight early Oct. 18. A total of 2,460 pilgrims in Gansu, the largest number ever, will fly to pay pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia this year.(Xinhua/Nie Jianjiang)

About 13,000 Chinese Muslim pilgrims will leave China starting Monday on chartered flights for the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The first plane, with 332 pilgrims aboard, took off from Zhongchuan Airport in Lanzhou, the capital of northwest China's Gansu Province, at 12:15 a.m.

Pilgrims will also board flights at airports in Beijing, Urumqi, Yinchuan, and Kunming from Monday, according to Yang Shuli, assistant president of China Islamic Institute.

To better prepare the worshippers for the month-long pilgrimage, the Chinese government organized health check and training courses for them.

"Many of them are from remote rural areas and lack travel experience. Also, for many of them, their skill in the Arabic language is limited to chanting the Koran. They mostly cannot communicate," said Ma Youcheng, deputy head of the Gansu Islamic Association.

"I'm glad they told me what to pack and what the dos and don'ts are in foreign countries," said 61-year-old He Jingxiang, an ethnic Hui who is leaving his home province for the first time.

Imams, doctors, and government officials are accompanying each group.

Ma Fenglin saw his 69-year-old mother off at Zhongchuan Airport. He said the direct flight from Lanzhou to the Holy City will save him at least 5,000 yuan (753 U.S. dollars).

"In the past, pilgrims had to travel to Beijing to take the flight, which was costly and tiresome for older Muslims like my mom," said Ma.

"Now the average cost for the pilgrim is down to 40,000 yuan (6,000 dollars)," he added.

Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, is a shrine for Muslims across the globe. The city receives over 2 million pilgrims each year.

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