China welcomed in the Year of the Rat on Thursday with a bonanza of fireworks and festivals, but the celebrations for many were subdued due to ferocious cold weather that kept them from their families.
Explosions of colour could be seen in the skies of Beijing and across China in a centuries-old fireworks tradition that is meant to scare off evil spirits but this year also sought to raise national morale after the horror cold snap.
While the fireworks brought much delight, they also led to at least one fatality, dozens of injuries and a spate of fires in Beijing alone, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The start of the new lunar year, the most important national holiday for China's more than 1.3 billion people, followed three weeks of ice and snow storms that crippled transport and power supplies in many cities.
With millions of migrant workers in China's southern and eastern economic hubs stranded by the weather crisis and unable to reunite with their families for the holiday, their plight was in the thoughts of those more fortunate.
"We are all a big family. Come on, let's fight this," a group of celebrities said in a rallying cry as part of the annual New Year's Eve extravaganza televised on national broadcaster CCTV.
State-controlled media highlighted the continued travels this week of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to areas that had suffered the most from the cold weather.
Xinhua also ran a long article focusing on the more than 14 million migrant workers in southern Guangdong province and Shanghai on the east coast who could not get home to welcome the New Year with their families.
"I miss my little daughter very much. She is only one-and-a-half years old," said Wang Xiaoli, a toy factory worker in Guangdong who had been desperate to return to her family over 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the north.
"When I arrived at the railway station a few days ago, I was astounded to see so many people waiting for trains and I couldn't get through the crowd."
With the worst of the weather over, Xinhua reported on Wednesday that power had been restored to 162 of the 170 worst-hit counties, but that many people were still suffering.
"The world's most populous nation began its week-long Lunar New Year holiday on Wednesday, but hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people will probably spend the biggest festival of the year in the cold and dark," it said.
In Chenzhou, a city of about four million in central China's Hunan province that had suffered blackouts for 12 days, many residents remained without power.
Despite the problems, the Chinese New Year has once again seen one of the biggest mass movements of people anywhere in the world.
There are more than 200 million workers in China who have moved around the country for their jobs, and many had negotiated their way through the transport chaos to get home for the festivities.
Elsewhere in Asia, more than 40 million South Koreans were expected to be on the move for reunions with relatives during the three-day Lunar New Year holiday.
The vast majority used their own cars, creating massive jams up and down the country. Highway authorities said 350,000-400,000 vehicles left Seoul on the busiest travel day on Wednesday. (AFP)
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