Chunyun 2008 and how my husband got stranded at Guangzhou railway station

6 years ago today, my husband is near Guangzhou railway station. He’s not the only one. It’s the time of Chunyun (春运 chūnyùn), the yearly mass migration that China experiences before the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. Guangzhou and Beijing are the biggest transport hubs in mainland China and every year in the weeks before the New Year, millions of people have to change at the train stations of these two metropolises in order to get home in time to celebrate Spring Festival with their beloved ones.

This year, my husband is one of those travellers. If he wants to go back home, he can either take a train from Guangzhou to Changchun, or one from Shenzhen to Shenyang. His family has been able to get a train ticket for him from Guangzhou to Changchun for Chinese New Year 2008.

But this year, he’s not the only one who wants to change trains at Guangzhou. The weather gods seem to be playing tricks on the Chunyun travellers and send heavy snow storms to Guangzhou. Guangzhou, being in the very southeast of China, is not usually a place where it snows. So on that day neither trains nor planes move. And neither do the people stranded at the train station or at any other place where the travellers can find shelter from the blizzard. My husband has to wait in a crowd of a few 100,000 people at a square in front of the train station, and with about 170,000 people already being stranded in the train station, there’s no moving forward or backward. The army is trying to keep things under control and not let too many people move forwards or backwards at once. My husband is lucky that he’s taller than most of the other travellers, but that’s about the only good thing in that situation.

People start fainting. Those who do are carried out of the railway station or away from the squares by the crowds above their heads – similar to crowd surfing, but without the fun. Unfortunately, some don’t make it out alive.

For 12 hours, my husband has to stand in the crowd, moving forward only from time to time. After 12 hours without eating and without being able to go to the restrooms, he finally makes it into the railway station. 12 hours for 1.3 km – not bad. Once he’s in the railway station, he has to wait another 15 hours for his train. There’s no drinking water left and empty instant noodle cups are stacked two floors high. Much of the personnel have fled the scene, being afraid of the angry crowds – not without reason.  Finally, my husband makes it on a northeastern bound train. On that day, the ticket you bought is not important. The only important thing to know is if you go north or west. Once a train arrives that goes into your direction, you can get on it.

On the train, the lower beds of the sleeper compartments have been turned into seats and instead of 1 person per bed, there are now around 4 sitting on the lower bunks. The aisles are filled with people standing or sitting on small chairs they have brought with them. But on that day, the crowds on the train don’t matter. The only thing that matters on that day at the end of January 2008 is getting out of the hell that is Guangzhou railway station.

Have you ever had to travel around the time of the Chinese New Year? What was it like?

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12 thoughts on “Chunyun 2008 and how my husband got stranded at Guangzhou railway station

  1. I saw few pictures from trains – not only there’s no space to move, but people throw garbage under their own legs, eww. I’m lucky I never had to experience it but my husband told me it’s quite ‘normal’ for people traveling like that – you cannot even stick a toothpick and his sister didn’t move at all from her seat, not even to the toilet cause she was scared. everytime someone moved other person from the floor sit there until ‘owner’ of the seat came back. oh hell no, it’s not for me. I like crowds but not being a tuna 🙂

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  2. How awful. I remember the news about the snow and the people trapped in stations. I wasn’t in China during CNY 2008 but just a few days earlier I had been travelling, the train station in Xian was also crowded and we had to queue outside for a long time just to get inside the station. I keep thinking China has to do something with their holidays arrangements, 1,000 million people travelling at the same time is just not possible. But I guess even if they allowed people to choose when they want to have holidays, most of the people would still choose CNY to spend with their families…

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    • With many people living in big cities all around China and their extended families living in places far away from them, I don’t think the situation will improve in the near future. If there was a better solution to the holiday arrangements, I think it would have already been implemented.

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  3. The picture and your husband’s story are frightening. Being trapped in a crowd of this size without water must have been more than uncomfortable. The fact that no one was trampled is a testament to the discipline of the people in the crowd.

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    • My husband carried 5L of water with him (originally meant to drink during the journey), so at least he didn’t have to worry about not having enough to drink. He said that people were either crying all the time or that their faces showed expressions of utter despair. The army made sure people would not go forward or backward if there was no more space (they had formed lines holding each other’s arms), I don’t know what would have happened if they weren’t on the scene.

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  4. Wow, that’s quite an intense wait. We travelled just before New Year in 2005 from Shanghai to Beijing but we must have been just too early for the worst of it because I don’t remember it being anything out of the ordinary. I get the impression going even a day or two earlier can make a big difference?

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  5. Pingback: Remembering chunyun past: the 2008 storm that left thousands stranded in Guangzhou | Nanfang Insider

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