(BEIJING-AFP) – The world’s largest annual migration of people officially began in China on Sunday with millions of travellers boarding public transport to journey across the vast country for Lunar New Year celebrations.
The government estimates the number of passenger trips on trains, planes, boats and buses will reach 3.2 billion during the holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, up 9.1 percent from last year.
At a train station in Beijing, hundreds of travellers wheeling suitcases and carrying bags stuffed with clothes and instant noodles queued at temporary ticket booths or filed through security barriers to wait for their trains.
University students surnamed Liu and Bao were changing trains in the capital as they travelled from the southwestern province of Guizhou to Inner Mongolia in the north — a journey of more than 40 hours.
Despite the long distance, the pair said they were “very happy” to be going home to celebrate with their families.
The public security ministry urged travellers to be wary of “harsh weather” conditions, with fog, rain and snow forecast in parts of the country during the festival travel season, which ends on February 16, Xinhua news agency said.
Millions were left stranded during the 2008 Spring Festival after the m
ost ferocious winter weather in at least five decades froze key sections of the transport network just as vast numbers of people were heading home.
Although the week-long holiday officially begins on January 23, demand for tickets is high many weeks in advance, with migrant workers desperate to return to their home villages and towns queuing for hours, even days, to buy tickets.
Gui Yurong, who sells clothes in Beijing, said it took her 10 days to buy a ticket to her hometown of Jixi in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang — a 22-hour journey.
“I travel home once a year,” the 43-year-old told AFP.
“I’m going to give my classmates, friends and family clothes, trousers and silk scarves,” she said, pointing to several suitcases stuffed with presents.
A new online system designed to make it easier for people to buy train tickets for the holiday this year has been overwhelmed by huge demand from millions of travellers across the country.
Many flooded social networking sites to vent their anger at spending hours trying to access the new system, only to find that tickets allocated for that day had already sold out.
Officials have pledged to improve the website’s design and increase the network bandwidth to handle demand, as well as refund money to out-of-pocket travellers within 15 days, earlier state media reports have said.
The government has also introduced a real-name ticketing system to stop scalpers selling tickets, but the new measure has left some travellers stranded after they bought tickets through friends.
“We have bought tickets but we have a problem because the tickets are registered in someone else’s name,” said a man surnamed Xu standing outside the train station with his wife and child.