Chinese New Year Mass Migration:
An event of epic proportions!
Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is otherwise known, is a time of many traditions in China; from eating dumplings with family to setting off fireworks to scare the legendary monster Nian. It is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar and the tradition of returning home to one’s family is of the upmost importance to most Chinese, but this has in itself created a new modern tradition every year – the struggle to get home during the Chinese New Year mass migration.
With over 230 million migrant workers, students and those that have moved away from their ancestral hometowns, China’s transport system is destined to be under huge pressure during such a holiday but the rush for tickets is nonetheless astonishing, with planes, trains and automobiles all feeling the strain due to what is often called “the world’s largest annual human migration”. During the days leading up to the busy 40-day period known as Chunyun (春运) it is common to see train stations filled with a sea of people, each trying to get that ticket that will return them to their loved ones for the holidays and going to great lengths to ensure they do so, with groups of friends taking turns to queue whilst others sleep in any space available.
This is obviously a huge concern for the Chinese government and every year sees new policies introduced and new train lines opened in order to ease the stress for the masses that feel they must make it to their home, however despite such actions the effects are barely felt by those that need it most.
Trains are the transport of choice for most people, due to airplane tickets and personal cars being out of reach for all but a few of the millions of migrant workers and students, causing the network to suffer the most issues each year due to such massive demand. This year it is expected that 224.5 million trips will be made by rail during the 40-day period between 26th January and 6th March, a 4.6% increase on last year’s total, and it is hoped that the changes to ticket purchasing will make it easier for millions of people.
Perhaps the most significant measures are changes to the pre-booking period for tickets, which normally restrict people to booking their ticket 12 days prior to travelling, but this has now been extended to 20 days when ordering by phone or online, and 18 days when buying at the train station. These measures have been put in place in order to ease the pressure on train stations during the booking period, allowing many travellers to beat the rush and secure their tickets early. However it has received some criticism as many believe that those without access to internet, or are unaware of the possibility of ordering their tickets on-line, are likely to be disappointed after an agonisingly long wait. The railway authorities will also be hoping that their online ticket purchasing system is better suited to dealing with the huge web traffic, as it’s constant crashes around this time last year led to strong criticism from the public, and they have since increased the amount of times tickets are available online from 4 times a day to 10, with the aim of achieving a more steady flow of customers rather than the spikes in web traffic that occurred this time last year.
It isn’t just trains that are likely to feel the squeeze this year though, as more and more wealthy people decide to drive home in the comfort of their personal cars. The number of cars on the road is likely to increase during the main festival week as all of the countries highways will become toll free, although this may lead to scenes similar to those of the latest “golden week”, during which huge traffic jams inspired a number of citizens to document their creative and humorous ways of killing time on the congested highway, such as roadside badminton.
Perhaps the easiest, and certainly the fastest, ticket home is via airplane, however this comes at an unattainable cost to most people. It is not uncommon to see the cost of flights multiply during the Chinese New Year mass migration period, and even then they will still sell out, however the ability to book well in advance makes this the transport of choice for many of China’s white collar work force, as it gives peace of mind and relatively little hassle.
The Chinese New Year mass migration is certainly a new tradition for the millions upon millions of travelling Chinese, but it is a necessary one as rich coastal cities have attracted those from the poor central and western provinces in their search for prosperity and a higher standard of living for their families at home. It may be stressful, it may be troublesome and it is certainly hectic, but “the world’s largest annual human migration” is truly a wonder of modern China.
For an interesting look at a personal story behind the Chinese New Year mass migration, it may be worth watching the documentary "Last Train Home".