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)


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


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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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