The year of the Ox - a good time to be conservative, responsible and domestic - is about to be ushered in with celebrations throughout the Chinese world, writes Carrie Gracie. Most of China will be on holiday for up to 10 days but if you were thinking of travelling inside China over the coming month, the best advice is, Don't. Unless that is you want to be part of the biggest peacetime migration in human history.

Chinese New Year, which this year falls on 7 February, is the big holiday in the Chinese calendar. In the days leading up to the festival, work grinds to a halt and hundreds of millions of people pour on to trains, buses and boats in an effort to get home to see in the new year with their families.

When I say "Don't travel", I know what I am talking about. I once made a memorable journey over Chinese New Year. A friend and I were trying to get from Chengdu in south-west Sichuan province to the town of Panzhihua on the border with neighbouring Yunnan. We had bought train tickets from a Chengdu travel agent who charged us double their face value because of the surge in holiday demand, but assured us that the overnight journey would be "quite comfortable".

On a Chinese train, the comfort scale goes from "soft sleeper" - a berth in a four-bed compartment - down through "hard sleeper", a dormitory carriage with bunks stacked three high, to "soft seat" which is an approximation of British Rail first class. "Hard seat" is the bottom of the scale and is exactly as it sounds: a hard bench with a hard back on to which squeeze as many bottoms as possible. Our tickets were "hard seat".

When we got to the station it looked like a refugee camp, the entire concourse thronged with people lying or sitting on piles of belongings. Judging from their appearance, some had been camping out for some time. They were clearly migrant workers, the most numerous and long-suffering of China's New Year passengers. Even by official estimates, there are now more than 100 million migrant farmers from China's inland provinces working in factories and building sites in the big east coast cities. They don't regard the cities as home, though, and once a year they struggle back to their villages and see the new year in with their families.

These workers do not expect to travel in comfort. Most of them don't even get an assigned seat with their train ticket. Instead they stand, in "hard seat", often for journeys of two or three days.

At Chengdu station, railway officials were handling these workers with ferocious discipline. Public order warnings and railway regulations were blaring through loudspeakers and as passengers approached the portals of the station building, they were corralled between iron railings and pushed into line by snarling guards. Those without tickets were thrown out. Even some who did have tickets were turned back, apparently on the grounds that the guards didn't particularly like the look of them.

Once into the station building, the passengers were divided according to destination and everyone travelling on our south-bound train was held in one waiting hall, a restive crowd perhaps a thousand strong, straining forward towards the iron gates which led on to the platform. When the gates finally opened, they stampeded, surging on to the platform in a jumble of flailing limbs and flying luggage. We held back and watched from a distance as people scrambled through carriage windows and jostled for space on seats, tables and luggage racks.

By the time we boarded the train, there was no hope of getting to our seats, let alone of occupying them. We joined the hard core of standers, and ended up in the last remaining place, between the toilet and the boiler. All night we suffered the dual danger of asphyxiation and scalding, dodging from side to side as an unending queue of passengers came to relieve themselves or to fill their mugs with hot water.

At about three in the morning, we pulled into a town, some "sitters" got out and the "standers" in line for their positions invited us to take turns on the hard seat. They passed us a bottle of fierce rice liquor and a bag of sunflower seeds and encouraged us to join in their card game. Clearly the trick was to wisecrack, gamble and drink one's way to oblivion.

It worked for a couple of hours whereupon I suddenly started to feel very sick. I pushed my way through the hot water queue, stumbled into the toilet and threw up. My head was throbbing and my eyes smarting, so I took my contact lenses out. This was a mistake. When I emerged, wobbly, from the toilet and sat down on something I took for a sack of corn, it started squawking. I jumped and my neighbour gave me a filthy look, clearly thinking I was trying to make off with his new year dinner. I resolved never to travel at Chinese New Year again.

FACT FILE

The year of the Ox is ushered in on 7 February, with celebrations throughout the Chinese world.

Events

Mainland China will be on holiday for up to 10 days. Hong Kong will celebrate with a glitzy parade of dancers, performers, floats and marching bands along the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tui, while 8 February will be marked by a fireworks extravaganza from barges in the harbour. In London, a traditional Cantonese "lion dance" takes place on 9 February in the afternoon in Leicester Square. San Francisco's big parade is not until 22 February.

Year of the Ox

Symbolising hard work and stability, this is a good year to be responsible, conservative, and all things domestic. Excessively laid-back people, or trouble-makers, are in for a bad year.

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