Wednesday, 12 January 2011

China begins to head home for New Year

If you're fed up of not being able to get a seat on Network Southeast, or sick of queueing for an overpriced ticket at machines that always seem to be out of order, spare a thought for China.

The Beijing Daily is reporting the start of the annual rush for train tickets to travel home for Chinese New Year, which falls on February 3rd. The Chinese call this the Chunyun (春运), or "Spring transport", and it's arguably the largest single movement of humanity to be seen anywhere. It begins a fortnight before the New Year itself and continues for three weeks afterwards, and it serves to move what seems like the entire population of China (and then some!) to somewhere other than where they were to start with.

On January 10th, tickets went on sale for travel on the 19th, the first day of the Chunyun, and people were reported to be queueing from first thing in the morning in the hope of getting a ticket. Still, these are early days, as most of the people wanting to travel so far in advance of New Year's Day are either students or migrant workers who can take advantage of the earlier start of their official leave. Things only begin to get really busy when hundreds of millions of would-be travellers try to buy tickets for the days just before New Year: the date to watch is January 20th, when tickets for Saturday 29th go on sale.

And the weather isn't likely to help matters, with extremely low temperatures forecast. Remember how our transport systems ground to a halt recently with the heavy snow? Now imagine everybody in Britain trying to get on a train at that same time. Some inland regions are already teetering on the edge of disaster after a period of positively Arctic weather. The potential for disappointed travellers trapped in snow-bound waiting rooms resorting to venting their anger on the authorities has become a recurring fear, and we've even seen politicians as high-ranking as Premier Wen Jiabao taking up the megaphone in recent years to calm people down and reassure them that things are being done to get them home.

This, then, is my modest prediction for late January and early February: expect plummeting temperatures across China, Party officials sent out to calm frayed tempers, and BBC news reports showing heaving masses of unhappy Chinese. You heard it here first.

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