The Chinese government has been of great service to the 13,800 Chinese Muslims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, via chartered flights that have departed the country since Tuesday.
“There’s nothing to worry about. The government arranges everything: food, travel and hotel,” said Ma Chunshan, a Chinese Muslim taking his first journey to Mecca with his wife.
The couple from Guazhou County in northwest China’s Gansu Province are both in their sixties, and now is the time for the life-long farmers to travel to Mecca and realize their dream.
A total of 332 Chinese Muslims from Gansu departed for Mecca on a chartered flight Tuesday evening, and a second flight is scheduled to take off from Gansu at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday. A brief departure ceremony was held for the first group of pilgrims at Zhongchuan Airport in Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu.
Forty chartered flights will carry the remaining pilgrims to Mecca from Yinchuan, Urumqi, Kunming and Beijing.
“For this journey, all the clothes, the travel bags, and even bowls and cups have been provided by the government,” Ma said.
A total of 2,721 Muslims from Gansu will head to Islam’s holiest city this year in eight groups, the most in the past five years, said Ma Youcheng, deputy head of the provincial pilgrimage group and general secretary of the Gansu Provincial Islamic Association.
From Sept. 25 to Oct. 2, one flight will depart from Lanzhou for Mecca each day.
Pilgrims were offered four levels of training covering travel tips, Hajj procedures and health knowledge ahead of their trips, said Ma Youcheng, who has travelled to Mecca many times and is an experienced pilgrim.
Each provincial pilgrimage group has been organized by experienced pilgrims, like Ma Youcheng, and each group has its own Muslim organizers, doctors and chefs.
“The entire group has been divided into smaller groups of 40 people. And each smaller group has an organizer on standby for any problems that travelers may encounter,” said Li Zheng, deputy director of the pilgrimage office of the Gansu provincial bureau of religious affairs.
Each pilgrim was given about 40 yuan (about 6.3 U.S. dollars) worth of medicine to treat illnesses they may develop during the long journey, said Zhou Ming, head of the medical care team of the pilgrimage group.
Pilgrims with illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes alerted doctors on their conditions prior to their trips, Zhou said.
Medical care stations will be set up in Mecca to provide 24-hour services, Zhou said.
Preparation work was carried out by three groups of people who flew to Mecca before the first flight of pilgrims departed, and all the pilgrims’ visas were secured with the help of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Beijing, said Jin Rubin, deputy general secretary of Islamic Association of China.
The pilgrimage will finish on Nov. 21, when the last chartered flight will return to China, Jin said.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, also known as the Hajj, is a Muslim religious tradition that specifies that all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to travel to Saudi Arabia must visit Mecca at least once in their lives.
China has more than 20 million Muslims, about half of whom are from the Hui ethnic group. Chinese Muslims mainly live in the western provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, and Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.