Altogether 332 Chinese Muslims from northwest China\'s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region flew to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, via a charter flight Monday for their annual pilgrimage. They were among the first group of Muslims in Ningxia who will go to Mecca on a government-organized trip this year, said Li Yushan, of the Ningxia Regional Administration of Religious Affairs. A total of 2,656 Muslims in Ningxia are scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia via eight Air China charter flights between Oct. 17 and 22, and will return to Ningxia between Nov. 27 and Dec. 2, Li said. The number traveling this year is about 200 more than that of last year, he said. The Mecca pilgrimage, 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. \"The Mecca pilgrimage is my biggest hope in my life. But I could not afford the trip in the past due to financial reasons,\" said 66-year-old Ma Zhuangyu. \"We used to pool our years of savings to afford the Mecca trip for only the eldest member in the family. But nowadays, we are living a better and better life, and women in a family can also go to Mecca,\" he said. Ma is flying to Mecca with his 66-year-old wife and 72-year-old sister, all of whom have never been to the sacred place. Li said that religious authorities in Ningxia dispatched a 76-member team to offer different services for the the Muslims, including translation, accommodation, medical treatment, transportation and security. China has more than 20 million Muslims, about half of which are from the Hui ethnic group. Chinese Muslims mainly live in the western provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Regions and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. More than 2.25 million Hui live in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, accounting for more than one-third of the total population of the region. Nationwide, about 13,800 Chinese Muslim pilgrims are scheduled to take 41 chartered flights to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage this year, which will last from Nov. 5 to 9. The flights will be operated by Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines. The first group of Chinese Muslim pilgrims left Beijing for Mecca on Oct. 6.