On the Move

Chinese New Year Brings a Mass Migration of Humanity

Chinese New Year is just around the corner and this week marks the start of the most hectic, drawn-out travel period for the nation—what is regularly referred to as the largest “migration” of humans on the planet.

This exodus of humanity accompanies the holiday each and every year in China, as everyone heads home or welcomes out-of-town relatives to enjoy the festivities together. Literally hundreds of millions of people will be on the move over the course of the next few weeks.

This year is said to see an increase in traveler numbers overall, estimated at 3.6% higher passenger volume compared to last year, reports China Daily.

Nowhere is it felt more than at the train stations in any major city, where on certain peak days leading up to the holiday, there is a veritable sea of travelers waiting in line or waiting to wait in line. Even by offering additional train services and opening more ticket booths, the demand is still far too high so this overwhelming travel bottleneck is inevitable for most.

On top of the usual congestion, each year also seems to bring about additional challenges that need to be managed.

On December 31, 2014, there was a massive stampede  in Shanghai which resulted in the death of at least 36 people. While unrelated to the Chinese new year, it led to heightened security at all large train stations and at numerous airports throughout China in the months that followed. This meant more barriers, bag checks and slightly longer wait times for many travelers.

This year, the unusually cold, nasty weather has already caused some major disruptions for travelers in China’s Yunnan Province, seeing over 10,000 people stranded at Kunming International Airport over the past weekend.

Managing the chaos appears to be nearly impossible at times. People at bus and train stations often ruthlessly shove and crowd forward—either oblivious or simply uncaring of others—in an attempt to get tickets. There are incidents every year where people are nearly trampled or crushed to death due to the overcapacity crowds at railway and long-distance bus stations.

To avoid being stuck or knocked over, some resort to jumping over fence barricades while others, in fear of becoming separated from their children, have even handcuffed themselves to each other. This is not widely seen but last year a man actually did handcuff himself to his six-year-old daughter while waiting at Beijing’s South Railway Station. After someone snapped a photo of him and shared it on Weibo, people commented saying how strange they found it while at the same time commending the father for his concern.

For some unlucky travelers who, amazingly enough, end up waiting days to get tickets, they often miss out on being with family by being forced to either cancel their trip or limit the visit to just a few days during their holiday. Increased ticket sales online and by phone have hopefully reduced the likelihood of this happening to people this year… but who knows?

Crowds aside, the busy holiday travel experience often brings out some pretty bad behavior, usually where someone causes a scene and pretty much ruins it for everybody. The latest was a woman who was caught trying to bring a duck on a train in Chengdu, despite a well-known rule forbidding bringing live animals aboard. So, in a sort of “villager-in-the-city” act of protest, she cut the ducks throat while standing in line in front of other passengers. Staff apparently stood by and watched as duck blood was spilling out on the floor on a bit of newspaper.

Getting back to the overall state of travel this time of year, Anhui News has attempted to present a new and improved experience for all during the 2016 holiday period. This has been attributed to the ongoing modernization of China’s travel infrastructure…Basically painting a glossy picture of widely available seats on high-speed rail routes and flights. While there certainly has been an increase in high-speed rail lines and flights overall, there are more travelers than ever competing to get these tickets. Is there really much of a difference?

What’s more is that millions of migrant workers—the marginalized backbone of industry in China—often cannot afford the luxury of high-speed rail seats, let alone flights. Chinese New Year is the only time of the year that migrant workers get to head back home to visit family so they undoubtedly make up a huge portion of these travelers.

How about travel by bus or car? Of course, many make use of these modes of transport as well—just look at the video clip below which shows the on-the-ground reality of holiday traffic.

When considering vehicular congestion overall in China, other trends have been pointed out which highlight the increase in use of ride-share apps, possibly resulting in less cars on the road. This is no doubt a good thing within cities but realistically, how many people can depend on and regularly make use of Uber or Didi Kauidi ride share services for longer trips needed to get to their hometowns?

As more of China’s population places demand on transportation services throughout the country, it is simply impossible to keep up. Are there any actual solutions that could be tested out?

Why hasn’t the government resorted to widespread and better planned staggered holiday periods to help alleviate this perfect storm of traveler congestion each and every year? It’s certainly not a new idea and has been called for before when considering other big holidays. China’s labor day holiday (May 1-3) and National Day (October 1-7) both see insane amounts of travel nearly on the level as the Chinese New Year.

Staggered holiday times are far from ideal for consumers and business alike but many would probably agree to testing the idea out for a year or two. There could also be a proposal for more companies to give employees the option (and further incentive) to take their holiday days at a different time of year.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

It certainly is an interesting study in humanity. Less “interesting” I can attest when you are one among the masses spending precious vacation time just waiting in the crowd.

  • What a nightmare! Imagine working in the travel industry there–I’d rather have each of my toenails pulled off by a pair of pliers.