When China takes a long break

  • Colours of China
  • Monday, 12 Feb 2018

THE Chinese are on the move again, creating a spectacular travel season known as the world’s largest annual human migration.

During this time, called Chunyun or the Spring Festival travel rush, those who are studying or working away from home make their way to their hometowns to celebrate Chinese New Year.

It has been estimated that an average of 70 million travellers are on the move daily during this 40-day period.

Chunyun begins 15 days before the eve of Chinese New Year. This year, it started on Feb 1 and will end on March 12.

In Beijing alone, some 25.8 million people are expected to head out of the metropolis via its airports and train stations, according to CCTV news.

Last year, the public transport system recorded a total ridership of 29.8 billion and the figure is expected to reach a new high of more than 30 billion this year.

Each person travels an average of 700km, which is almost the total length of the North-South Expressway from Bukit Kayu Hitam to Johor Baru

Two weeks ago, I began seeing more subway train commuters with loads of baggage, and the number is increasing day by day.

I overheard the conversation of a few middle-aged men and women, who were telling each other about their children and the presents they were bringing home for their families.

They spoke Mandarin with a very strong regional accent. I could not fully understand them but from their tones and smiles, I knew they were happy and excited to start the journeys they had long waited for. I guessed they had not been home for a year or more.

In China, many people from the grim rural villages work in the cities, hoping to earn bigger incomes so that they can change their lives.

Although the situation has greatly improved over the last decade, there are still an estimated 250 million migrant workers nationwide.

Most of these people are not well-educated and have low-wage jobs like factory workers, labourers, cleaners, guards and restaurant helpers.

They cannot afford to go home regularly. After saving their hard-earned money, this is perhaps the only time they can be back with their families.

After a short reunion, they return to the cities. Many are forced to live apart from their children, who are cared for in the villages by grandparents or other relatives. China has about 60 million of these so-called left-behind children.

With the expansion of the country’s high-speed rail (HSR) network, intercity travel has become much more convenient and affordable for the Chinese.

My first assignment when I arrived in China last year was to write about the HSR services as Malaysia is planning for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore link project. I interviewed a couple in Beijing, who used to argue every year over whose hometown they should return to for the Spring Festival.

One of them is from Chongqing and the other from Fuzhou. The two cities are more than 1,700km apart. Thanks to the HSR connections, the couple can now split their time in both places during Chunyun.

Malaysians in Beijing are also heading home to celebrate Chinese New Year, some having left as early as last Monday.

The Spring Festival break is one of the two long public holidays in China, known as the Golden Week. The other is to mark the Oct 1 National Day.

Some Chinese prefer to go abroad for vacations during the Golden Week. The number of these holiday-makers is expected to reach 6.5 million.

Since January, many provinces, including those in the south, have been experiencing heavy snowfall, but this had not stopped the balik kampung exodus.

With more and more people heading out of the city, the traffic situation in Beijing has eased a lot and the long queues outside restaurants during peak dining hours are also gone. Otherwise, lunch at a popular outlet can be a nightmare because it is common to have to wait up to an hour for a seat.

Winter arrived in Beijing a bit early, with the city being freezing cold since late October. But for more than two months, there had been no sign of snow. It finally came late last month but many Beijingers were more disappointed than excited.

It arrived in the wee hours and was too light to be called snow. I waited the whole night, enduring the cold outside my apartment, only to see some dandruff-like stuff on the cars.

Some netizens joked that the snow had not obtained a permit to enter the capital of China, and some said it had failed to penetrate the city’s tight security net.

The Meteorological Department explained that Beijing was too dry to snow. The city has not seen rain for over 110 days.

We have missed having a white Christmas. We now pray for a white Chinese New Year.

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