China warned on Saturday the worst was not over in its national weather crisis as desperate crowds trying to get home jammed transport hubs and others braved the frigid cold without power or water.
With massive crowds flooding train and bus stations, China has doubled the number of troops and paramilitary forces aiding winter storm relief efforts to more than a million, state media reported.
The increased deployment comes as the worst winter in decades has caused continued massive transport bottlenecks and power outages across wide areas in the lead-up to next week's Lunar New Year, China's biggest annual holiday.
The China Meteorological Administration said some of the worst-affected central, eastern and southern provinces faced several more days of snow and freezing rain from a cold front parked over the region since early January.
"The most difficult period is still not over yet. The situation remains grim," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a Cabinet meeting, the China Daily reported.
Chinese media gave wide coverage of several top political leaders fanning out to affected areas to galvanise recovery efforts in a reflection of mounting national concern over the crisis.
Travellers have begun to flow out of airports, train stations and bus depots throughout the region, following near-complete transport paralysis earlier in the week.
But hundreds of thousands of travellers, if not millions, continued to pack transport hubs as the country entered the peak holiday travel stretch from Saturday to Wednesday.
Television footage on Friday showed large crowds at the main train station in the southern city of Guangzhou surging forward to try to board the few trains leaving, with some people appearing to pass out or get injured in the crush.
Tens of thousands massed again at the station Saturday morning but the situation was relatively calm.
The government said 180 million people were expected to make trips home to be with their families for the holiday in what is thought to be the largest annual human migration in the world.
Weeks of heavy snow and icy conditions have caused $7.5 billion (Dh27.4 billion) in damage, killed at least 60 people and affected at least 105 million of the country's 1.3 billion people, according to official figures.
The frigid conditions have caused widespread power outages, crimped distribution of coal -- the country's main energy source -- and driven up food prices in many areas.
A woman in the city of Chenzhou in hard-hit Hunan province told AFP by phone that its residents had been without electricity or running water for 10 days.
"We light candles for dinner and burn coal for heating, and get water from wells. Then we use the remaining heat after cooking to warm up the water for our baths," said the woman, who gave only her surname, Li.
Prices of food and candles have spiked, and cars can't get petrol since the power outage has disabled filling stations, but people remained in good spirits, Li said, with typical Chinese stoicism.
"If we can hold on, it will be a special Lunar New Year."
A China Daily editorial called the recovery efforts one of the "toughest tests" China's leadership has ever faced.
"They have less than five days left to safely send hundreds of millions home. At the same time, they will have to ensure timely delivery of coal to coal-starved power plants."
"We need exceptional brainwork to overcome the current situation." (AFP)
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