Two billion journeys in China's own great migration

Clifford Coonan
Saturday 28 January 2006 01:00

It's the biggest movement of human beings on the planet - the mass exodus of Chinese travellers to celebrate Lunar New Year with their loved ones in the heartlands and provinces.

Up to two billion journeys will be undertaken in planes, trains and automobiles in a wave of humanity on the move that dwarfs even the annual Haj pilgrimage. Upwards of 120 million migrant workers, students and new capitalists are travelling home to their families to welcome in the Year of the Dog, and China's transport infrastructure is bursting at the seams.

Migrant workers hit the road early for the Chinese New Year, also known as the spring festival, to avoid the rush. The migration lasts 40 days and people will make over two billion journeys before late February.

One traveller, a 20-year-old university student from Guiyang in Guizhou, said: "It takes 30 hours to get back home, which is a really unpleasant experience. In February there will also be a tide of students returning to Beijing. Going home and coming back again is a tiring experience."

The booming economy means China is getting richer and more people - about 15 million this year- have the money to travel by air. At Beijing airport, nearly 1,000 flights land at or take off each day, with 110,000 passengers, during the holiday. But air ticket prices are still beyond most Chinese and rail remains the most popular form of transport. A record 3.8 million people were reported to have travelled by train on Monday.

Millions of people have migrated to Beijing and other big cities from dustbowls such as Anhui, Henan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou to cash in on the construction boom, or to work as security guards or in new restaurants, often earning less than £100 a month. On such low wages, the workers cannot afford sleeping berths, even though their journeys can last two days and conditions are terrible on the trains.

Lao Lu, 41, from Yunnan province, working as a handyman, earns 1,200 yuan a month but spent 800 yuan of that on a return ticket home. "If I took a hard sleeper, a return trip would cost me a month's wage," he said. "It's not even worth thinking about!"

People squeeze in to every available inch - one train conductor told of 1,800 passengers on a train which normally would be full with 1,000 passengers. Passengers are lucky if they find somewhere to sit.

Some trains are so crowded that using the lavatory is impossible and there are reports of migrant workers travelling home wearing adult nappies because there is no toilet access.

Supermarkets have reported a 50 per cent increase in sales of adult nappies for the train trips, according to the state-run China Daily, describing their plight as the "shame of the nation".

"During the peak travel period last year, some passengers even became deranged on their journeys because of the conditions and jumped out of the carriages," the newspaper said.

There are more than 140 million migrant workers in China, and their number is increasing by around three million every year.

Security was due to remain tight at Beijing's train stations after snowfall last week caused chaos as people began to travel home. Armed police patrolled the capital's stations where more than 100,000 people were stranded. Some 1,100 police, including military police, controlled crowds at Beijing West. Even after the weather cleared, Beijing West remained desperately overcrowded with huge numbers massing on the platforms and cramming onto the trains.

"I'm returning to Hubei for spring festival, but train tickets are so hard to get hold of and with the added 20 per cent charge it's too expensive even to mention," said a 35-year-old teacher named Yu.

Capitalism with Chinese characteristics can be seen at work in the train station. With demand massively outstripping supply, ticket touts patrol the platforms and they do great business.

The proliferation of sharks prompted the railways ministry to crackdown on the practice. Jiang Zhanlin, railway security chief said police had made more than 2,000 arrests.

Some travellers should be oblivious to the discomforts. Many are going home to get married early in the Year of the Dog as it is considered to be a very auspicious year, much luckier than the outgoing Year of the Rooster.

The new year in numbers

8,400extra flights are operating within China

208m pot noodles will be consumed on train journeys this week

50% more adult nappies and incontinence pads have been sold in recent weeks, say some supermarkets

20%of families will opt to eat at a restaurant on new year's eve rather than have the traditional meal at home

325m boxes of sticky rice cakes will be opened on new year's eve

3m Beijing households plan to set off fireworks after midnight

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