A total of 8,288 Muslims in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the largest Muslim region in the country, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site in Saudi Arabia, a religious official said.
A pilgrimage to Mecca, also call 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.
Before 1978, only seven Muslims from Ningxia traveled to Mecca for the hajj. At that time, the cost of the trip was just 8,000 yuan, said Ma Zhanquan, an imam.
Since China resumed organizing the hajj trip in 1985, the number of pilgrims from Ningxia grew from 15 in 1988 to 1,655 in 2007, which reflects a loosened religious policy and a sharp increase in per capita income of local farmers, said Hei Fuli, vice chairman of the Islamic Association of Ningxia.
Ningxia is home to 2.17 million Muslims, accounting for over one third of the region's total population and more than one tenth of China's 20 million Muslim population. Currently, Ningxia has 3,760 mosques.
China's growing material prosperity has had a knock-on effect in the spiritual lives of its Muslim citizens. As mud houses have given way to brick homes, as brackish water has been transformed into tap water, and as motorcycles and computers have replaced the sewing machine as the latest machines that every home seems to possess, Guo Tingjiang, 70, a farmer in Dongtasi Town, Wuzhong City, has realized his dream of going to Mecca.
"I was a cowherd. I didn't go to school and never knew the Arabic language. But I went to Beijing and Mecca. It was a miracle for me," he said.
Guo spent 30,000 yuan (4,323 U.S. dollars), a huge sum for people living in the poverty-stricken area, and made his trip to Mecca in 2000. The 40 days in the regional capital Yinchuan, Beijing and Mecca means his life now has no regrets. Guo's wife also became a hajj pilgrim in 2005.