The Chunyun absurdity

By Alexandre Lesto
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 26, 2011
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People line up to buy train tickets at Ningbo International Convention and Exhibition Center in Ningbo City, east China's Zhejiang Province on Jan. 9, 2011. A temporary train ticket office was launched here Sunday to divert buying crowds from heavily-jammed railway stations. Every year, millions of Chinese people travel back home for family reunion during the Spring Festival travel season, which brings about inter-provincial passenger traffic pressure in the vast country. [Xinhua]

A nightmare. An expectant mass, crammed against logic in this confined prison, waiting to get out. Or rather, get in. Those sitting with barely enough place for their legs, let alone their bags. The rest standing in columns, their vulturous eyes gazing past hundreds of heads at the bulletin board, occasionally straying from seat to seat, then falling back to the board.

Suddenly, the text changes. An announcement is made on the speakers, barely rising over the babel of discordant voices. The maelstrom swirls you in like a drain. You are pushed, shoved and rammed into by the tired, impatient swarm. You hurry to the train, you find your bed, or seat for the less fortunate, you put your bag down somewhere and you wait once more.

Hopefully you were slightly luckier than me. I waited 45 hours. The train had to stop midway due to mechanical difficulties, or so I was told, before it lurched in the Shenzhen railway station. The journey itself wasn't particularly pleasant, as after 20 hours my neighbor accidentally spilled her instant noodles over my bag, shoes and the front portion of my bed, thereby gracing the cabin, and my personal affairs, with a perfume that was guaranteed to accompany us for the remainder of the trip.

And yet, I'd been warned. I'd been warned of the senselessness of traveling during the Chunyun period; a 40 day window around the Chinese New Year in which over two billion passenger journeys are made – the largest annual human migration in the world.

Numbers being numbers and words being words, I had chosen to ignore these indefinite figures and facts, and had embarked on a trip to Xi'an in the spring of 2010. Obtaining tickets had been the first hurdle; coincidentally the most sizable one for most people. Through luck and guanxi, I had managed to avoid hours of queue and the agonizing prospect of having to sleep outside the ticket booth, successfully booking a bed for the round trip. And yet despite all this, I had by the end of my journey vowed never to take the train again.

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