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food / travel

Holiday Travel Nightmare, Chinese Style

Trains and highways can't handle the huge flow of travelers for the Chinese New Year

Beijing train station (Olekvi)

EYES INSIDE - CHINA


Wildlife researchers will tell you that the largest migration on Earth is the herds of African wildebeest and zebras crossing the Serengeti plain. But they've never counted the 2.8 billion journeys generated during the Chinese New Year, which by the Lunar calendar begins on February 3 in this Year of the Rabbit.

It is the filial duty of every Chinese to return home for New Year's, and each year rising wages are increasing the numbers who can actually afford to do so. More than 200 million people, for example, work on the rich coastal strip, yet hail from China's vast interior.

The most searched-for term last month on Baidu, China's equivalent of Google, was "Chun Yun" (Chinese New Year Transport). But the vast majority of travel planning still consists of rural migrants rushing directly to the train stations in China's major cities to line up in anguish for a ticket home.

China now boasts the largest high-speed rail network in the world (8358km) and second longest highway network. So confident are they of their engineering expertise that during Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent visit to the White House his delegation offered to help the U.S. build high-speed rail links.

But back in China, the holiday reality is that the transport infrastructure is utterly ill-equipped to handle the number of people who want to get home for the New Year. According to the Economic Observer News, (chinese)expansion of the Chinese railway has not kept pace with the exploding demand, and now represents only about 6% of travel, down from 32% in 1978.

It is interesting to note the difference in the development of China's road and rail systems. The road network is in vigorous expansion because the demand is high and toll revenue pays for the growth. In contrast the government monopoly railways have increased their capacity by a mere 60% since 1978, while the total demand for transport has multiplied nine-fold, the Economic Observer News reports. The railway is consequently submerged with passengers waiting hours, even days, for tickets, often having to climb through carriage windows to secure a seat.

Occasionally someone cracks. The Ren Min Daily(chinese)recently reported that one gentleman stripped to his underwear in the freezing cold to protest his inability to secure a ticket for his destination.

In Beijing, another man broke down wailing after he'd come to the station five mornings in a row at 4 a.m. and was still unable to get his ticket. "We can organize the Olympics, we can organize the Asian Games, but we can't organize the Chinese New Year transport!" This phrase was taken up and spread across the Internet. (chinese)

High-speed luxury trains with reclining seats, individual televisions, and elevated prices run largely empty, while ordinary travelers are left on the platform. A laborer who gave his name as Mister Xiong,(chinese) and who earns 3000 RMB ($455) a month, used to take a "hard seat" ticket for 242 RMB ($36) to go from Shanghai to distant Chengdu. But with the price of a high-speed ticket around half a month's salary, it is the ticket for slower and cheaper trains that get gobbled up. "I'd gladly stand all the way home, if I could just find an ordinary ticket". (.)

Meanwhile, on the roads, the price of gasoline has risen by a third in a year, so taking a bus is 10% to 20% more expensive. People who drive home advertise on the web to get countrymen to share the ride and the cost. Meanwhile, in the city of Canton (Guangzhou) over 100,000 workers have set out on their journey home on small motorcycles. One man, Lu Chao Jun, making his first visit home in a decade, (chinese)was planning to ride the 1300 kilometers to Guizhou, a journey of three days. On the way he was bound to hit exceptionally cold conditions and frozen roads, but it's worth it: he's saving of 1000 RMB ($151). That's holiday economics in 21st century China.

Laura Lin

Worldcrunch

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