Millions of Chinese crowded into airports, train terminals and bus stations as the annual Lunar New Year holiday travel season kicked into high gear Wednesday ahead of colourful weekend festivities.

The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is China's most important holiday, when people typically take a two-week break from often tough jobs far from home - an exodus believed to be the world's largest annual human migration.

The new year - the Year of the Tiger - begins on Sunday.

The government has said more than 650 million "passenger trips" had been taken as of Tuesday - a figure roughly equal to the number of tickets sold for various means of transport.

"This is China's most important holiday and most people wish to go home," said 40-year-old migrant construction worker Tan Xuesong, as a river of humanity poured into a Beijing rail station.

"Train tickets are really scarce, but it can't be helped. Everyone wants to go home," said Tan as he prepared to board for an exhausting 12-hour journey.

Tan has packed food and water for the trip to his home near Changchun in frigid northeastern China's Jilin province, a yearly ordeal welcomed by countless millions for whom it is the only chance to see their families.

More than 210 million people were expected to crowd China's railways during the New Year period, which officially began in late January, as officials scramble to accommodate what are projected to be record passenger numbers.

"I'll give my parents some Beijing specialities, things they can eat like Peking duck," said Liu Xiaomei, a 28-year-old office worker, waiting to depart at a bus station in the capital for her home city of Tangshan a few hours away.

"I'll also give them some cigarettes and alcohol," she said.

The holiday is an annual headache for authorities as the crush of people typically causes scenes of chaos on an overburdened transport network and travellers desperately try to secure tickets amid price-gouging by scalpers.

In early 2008, an unprecedented cold wave across southern and central China marked by freezing rains crippled transport systems just as the travel rush got under way, stranding millions.

But authorities have taken a number of steps to maintain order including throwing thousands of additional transport police into duty, particularly in provinces such as southern Guangdong, an export factory hub that employs tens of millions of migrants.

So far, few major disruptions have been reported.

China has an estimated 150 million or more migrants mainly from interior rural areas working in big cities or other industrial areas on the coast.

Their remittances, as well as cash and goods they bring home at the holidays, are a vital lifeline to their families.

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