Monday, January 24, 2011

On the greatest annual human migration in the world, and my failed attempts to join it.

Do you know what the greatest annual migration of people in the world is? Anyone who lives in China might guess: it is the hundreds of millions of Chinese who go back to their homes to celebrate the Spring Festival. Every year around this time, countless numbers of Chinese travel across the country to go back to their beloved 家乡 (hometown) to spend the Chinese new year with their loved ones. This leads to the dreaded 春运, loosely translatable as "Spring festival rush". In 2008, the total number of rail journeys undertaken during the Spring festival was 2.26 billion. All the country's transport systems, and especially the trains, are overloaded like mad, and getting hold of train tickets is incredibly difficult and frustrating. I have just found out how difficult it can be myself.

This year, I am (or was) planning to go to Shaanxi province to pass the New year's eve (which will be on the 2nd of February this year) in the home of a Chinese friend. The closest towns to my friend's home are Yuncheng and Sanmenxia. There are two trains a day from Beijing to Sanmenxia, and one to Yuncheng. According to the current system, train tickets only start to be sold five days before the train leaves, so as to avoid the tickets running out months in advance. Since I was planning to leave on the 29th, and today was the first day that the tickets for the 29th are on sale, I got up early and went to the ticket booth near my home to attempt to find a ticket. I was not surprised to see a long queue of people waiting outside the booth. At around 8.30, I got into line and started waiting. I waited for about two hours in the open in sub-zero temperatures, while the queue painfully moved forward at the pace of about 1 meter every half an hour. My feet were freezing despite the thick socks I was wearing.

At around 10.30 I finally reached the front of the queue, and guess what, I found out that the tickets for soft sleepers, hard sleepers, and seats had all already sold out for both the destinations. They had only started selling the tickets on the same day at 9 in the morning, and by 10.30 they were sold out! The only tickets left were for standing. Although I am pretty enduring, standing for over 10 hours in a ridicolously crowded Chinese train during the Spring Festival is more than I can bear. The incredible amount of people makes even going to the bathroom a huge struggle.

I left empty-handed, remembering how I used to live in a country where all you need to do to take a train is go to the station on the same day you want to travel and buy a ticket. This is the kind of thing that millions of Chinese need to put up with around this time in order to buy a ticket to go back home, unless they can afford a flight. In the last few days, the Chinese internet has been full of articles on how a man in Shanghai streaked almost naked through the train station in protest, after he could not buy a ticket to go back to his hometown even though he had started waiting in the station the evening before the day when the tickets were first put on sale.

As for me, I have not made up my mind on my plans yet. Flying is far more expensive, and buying a ticket is an uphill struggle. I will now consider how to get out of Beijing for the holidays (something I am determind to do).