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?