Spring Festival Travel: China’s Annual Migration Begins

Without a doubt the most important date on the Chinese calender – the Lunar New Year and the beginning of the Spring Festival. This year it falls on February 3. Most all workers will get 7 days off work and head home for celebrations and reunion with family.

More about the festival itself later, but the actual lead up to the beginning of the festival has to be, in terms of scale, one of the planets most staggering migrations. There’s over 1.3 billion people live here and they all want go home at the same time!

The travel peak this year is reported to take place between  Jan 19 to Feb 27.  Last Saturday, still early in the peak travel period, newspaper reports state that 5.28 million passengers used the railways on that day.

In Shenzhen, where there’s a large migrant worker population, during the festival travel period, train tickets go on sale via a telephone booking system 10 days before departure, and tickets have been selling out within 30 minutes of going on sale. Many people also try their luck waiting in massive queues only to be disappointed. In Beijing, where the temprature has been getting down to -10 degrees, people have been waiting in queues, overnight, to get maybe a standing room only ticket on a 40 hour train ride to get home. 

There’s just not enough train tickets for everyone to get home, even though the government has gone all out reportedly deploying an additional 500+ trains. Ticket scalpers have been working overtime, but so have the police reportedly arresting many.

Those that are lucky enough to get a ticket could be spending between 12-40 hours on a train to get home, some with standing room only, some on whats called ‘hard seats’, the more fortunate on ‘soft seats’ (still hard by western standards), some in ‘hard sleeper’ and the lucky in ‘soft sleeper’ 4 berth cabins. 

This year the government estimates that 230 million trips will be made on China’s railway system and another 2.62 billion trips will be made on other means of transportation during the period. Staggering right? Also consider that those numbers would probably be even higher if everyone that wanted to get home could.

If sheer numbers of people in transit isn’t enough for officials to worry about, most parts of China are heading into a severe cold snap. In 2008 expressways and railways were paralyzed by ice and snow and this year the government has stocked railway stations with food and supplies in case passengers become stranded. Resources are also poured into de-icing and keeping expressways operating for all those that drive home.

There was a documentary released last year telling a typical familys story, see the trailer Last Train Home