I have just got back from three weeks of travelling for the holidays for the Chinese new year. The new year is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, a bit like christmas in the west. This year new year's eve fell on the 25th of january. My university gives its students around a month's holiday for the new year.
During this period, every single Chinese person who can goes back home to celebrate with their family. It is the one moment in the year when every Chinese family expects to be together. All the migrant workers in the big cities like Beijing also go back to their homes in the countryside, often travelling for days. The transport system, and especially the train system, is put under huge strain during this period, as dozens of millions of people return home.
I had the brilliant idea to start my travels by taking the train from Beijing to Chengdu on the 13th of january, just as the holiday season was getting started. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, the province which was hit by the earthquake last year, and it's almost on the other side of China from Beijing. Me and the Chinese girl I was travelling with only started looking for a ticket seriously a few days ahead, even though it is advisable to buy your ticket weeks ahead if you want to travel during this season. It turned out to be impossible to find a ticket for a bed. All we could get was two tickets for hard seats on a train which would stop at every station and take 31 hours to get to Chengdu.
Most of the Chinese people who I told about this were horrified. Everyone warned me that travelling with just hard seats over the new year period is horrible, that the trains are unbelievably crowded, that people sleep on the floor and that sometimes you can't even go to the bathroom because there are people there too. A girl who comes from that part of China tried to push me to take a plane instead, even though it would have cost ten times more (my train ticket only cost about 100 yuan). I was so put off I almost decided not to go, but in the end I thought it might be an interesting experience and I went all the same.
The train ride was indeed quite uncomfortable, although not as bad as some people had predicted. The train left at 10 in the evening and arrived at 5 in the morning two days later, so I effectively had to sleep on the seat for two nights. The train was indeed compeltely packed, with people who just had "standing tickets" sleeping on the floor. Climbing over people to get to the bathroom really was quite an effort. In the morning I had to wait in a queue for a full hour to go the bathroom. However, the train became less packed towards the end. Me and my travel companion brought our own food and drink, just like everyone else, although they did sell food on the train. Washing my hands was also next to impossible, and my legs got quite bad cramps from spending such a long time sitting down. The girl I was travelling with comes from a little village next to Beijing, and so she had never needed to travel by train over this period, and she also found it quite uncomfortable. However, in the end we survived and we reached Chengdu, where we went to our hostel by taxi and collapsed into bed.