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27 February 2024

China's nightmare train journeys have dream New Year destination

Travellers, holding their belongings, look for directions outside Zhengzhou railway station, central China's biggest transport hub in Henan province. Tens of millions of Chinese passengers are travelling by train for the annual Lunar New Year celebration, also known as Spring Festival, or Chunjie, the nation's most important holiday and a time for family get-togethers that this year falls on January 26 (AFP)

Si Yuefeng was exhausted as he stumbled off a decrepit train after 28 hours of standing up, yet he was happy as the nightmare journey had finally brought him home for the Chinese New Year.

"No food, no hot water. I'm starving to death," the 24-year-old construction engineer said at the bustling railway station in Zhengzhou, a transport hub in central China.

Si paid just under 100 yuan (14 dollars) to make the 1,700-kilometre (1,050-mile) trip from his workplace in southwest China and arguably did not get his money's worth as there was no air-conditioning and no seat.

"It was overcrowded, the conductor even had to push some people off at the start. Otherwise the train would not be allowed to set off," he said.

Si had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other people in one carriage and could not even get to the toilet for a long spell as someone had fallen asleep drunk in the lavatory.

Nevertheless, Si was all smiles as he left the Zhengzhou railway station to be picked up by his brother and return home for a once-a-year family reunion.

Si's travails are typical among the tens of millions of Chinese passengers travelling by train for the Chinese New Year, the nation's most important holiday and a time for family get-togethers that this year falls on January 26.

The government is expecting a record 188 million people to travel by train and another 24 million to fly over the 40 days before and after the New Year, in what is regarded as the biggest annual movement of people in the world.

Although China's rail network is already one of the world's biggest, it simply cannot cope with the massive demand and each year the phenomenal migration draws global headlines for the horrendous travelling conditions.

Rampant scalping is also a problem.

Zhang Ziwei, a pharmaceuticals salesman, said he had to pay a scalper a 20-percent commission for his ticket home from Zhengzhou to Guizhou province in the southwest, after days of fruitless ticket-hunting.

"It was expensive but I didn't have any other way to get a ticket," said the 22-year-old.

"Going home during the Lunar New Year is always so troublesome. But after spending a whole year away from home, I really want to go back and get together with my family.

"Speaking to them on the telephone or chatting on the Internet is not the same as being at home."

A regular train traveller for business, Zhang had a number of tactics to overcome the on-board inconveniences, including the most pressing problem of little access to toilets.

"Usually there will be long queues outside the toilets. So I'll try not to eat or drink too much on the train," he said.

"Also with the crowds squatting in the corridor, they get impatient if you pass through too often to go to the toilet."

Zhang did not resort to one of the more bizarre and humiliating tactics others adopt -- wearing nappies. Chinese companies have previously reported huge spikes in sales of large nappies during the Lunar New Year travel peak.

The government has said it expects to ease the train strains by 2012, when the country's railway lines will have been extended to 110,000 kilometres from 79,000 kilometres in 2007.

But before that, passengers will continue to have to put up with temporary fixes such as more frequent but poorly scheduled train services and the conversion of sleeper carriages into ones only with seats.

"We got on board at 2:00 am and just got off the train," said Su Xiaoqin, 27, who with her husband spent 16 hours sitting on hard seats in one of the converted carriages.

The couple had returned from their jobs in a shipyard in the eastern metropolis of Shanghai.

"My back is breaking and I just want to sleep," Su said, her arms resting on the handles of her suitcase. "But I should be grateful, at least we were able to get tickets."