The year of the Ox may be fast approaching, but it would be safe to say that most Chinese are feeling more like sardines at the moment, as the annual Chinese New Year battle to return home begins for millions of people. There are 180,000 vacating Beijing alone each day.
China’s lunar New Year, when the Rat becomes the Ox, starts on January 26, and for many Chinese it is their only holiday for the year. However, this holiday is turning out to be different from previous ones, with many people only buying one-way tickets.
Factories across China are closing because of the global financial crisis and the massive worldwide drop in demand for Chinese made goods. The people losing their jobs are, for the most part, migrant workers, and the majority will be spending the rest of the winter at home, with their families, to weather this economic storm.
“We are facing a lot more pressure this year because migrant workers, college students and other passengers all need to get home in less than a month,” an official at Beijing’s railways bureau told us. It’s estimated that a record 188 million passengers will use the railways this Chinese New Year, an 8% increase on 2008.
In Shanghai, nearly 30,000 people lined up at railway stations to buy tickets last Thursday – the first day to get tickets for the start of the peak travel season on January 11. Many camped out overnight to make sure they were near the front of the queue. “I would never have believed it could be this difficult,” Chen Baoshan, a labourer looking to get back to his native Hubei province told us.
Scenes, like the ones in Beijing and Shanghai, are being repeated across the country, and authorities are now asking people to try and stagger their departures. The crowds are so large that regular station security guards are now being backed up by police and armed officers to try and maintain order.
The situation at the country’s airports is not much better. With the majority of flights already fully booked, many people have not been able to get a ticket and will have to use the country’s bus network to get home. A long trip for some with one 54-year-old man we spoke to preparing for a 3 day journey to see his family in the South of China.