Chinese saddle up for Year of the Horse

Some 600 million Chinese will return to their hometowns for the new year, which starts tomorrow.

Going home is a deeply human urge. But for some 600 million Chinese, going home on this, the Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve, the main hurdle is getting a ticket.

As the Year of the Snake yields to the Year of the Horse tonight, China is mobilized for the Spring Festival holiday, the week-long kickoff to the new year. With millions of Chinese coming or going over a 40-day period, it is perhaps the largest annual migration on the planet.

The lunar new year is the only time many Chinese families can gather. Like Christmas for an American, it won't do to arrive even a day late. That's why on Beijing streets this time of year, people greet each other not with "Nie hao" (hello) or the traditional "Have you eaten?" - but with a question, "Have you got your ticket?"

Therein lies the annual rub. Travel in this country of 1.3 billion is mainly by bus or rail. There are always more travelers than seats, even with hundreds of extra holiday trains circumnavigating China this season. Ticket-buying is a serious challenge, a yearly ritual, requiring all one's persistence and wit.

"There's no meaning if you come home after the day," says Ling Yu, an office manager who spent last week on the phone procuring two seats for Shandong. "You have to use your mind to get a ticket."

Rail and bus tickets sell four days before departure. But many Chinese cultivate relations with railway staff for months - taking them to dinner and offering favors. Office managers and college deans meet rail officials for group allotments. Ordinary people stand in line overnight, and sometimes over two nights, at 24-hour ticket counters. Friends rotate with friends in line, while others employ local hires to stand in.

Scalpers networks, public bulletin-board notices, and semi-legitimate travel brokers that buy up tickets and provide cellphone numbers are hot in January.

Stations are a stampeding swirl of homemade knapsacks, holiday-red gift boxes, cartons of wrapped fruits, meats, and bread - and everywhere is the sound of the madly popular rolling suitcases.

Ju Yi Pin, overcoat neatly buttoned waits in a jammed Beijing train station. She came on a 10-hour ride from Shanxi and is headed north to Harbin, a 14 hour ride. But it took three days to scour Beijing before she found a ticket. Ms. Ju's plan is to surprise the family. When her mother called to say, "the daughters of the other families have all come back," it wasn't easy for her to stay quiet, she says. But a surprise is a surprise.

"The trip is very long, and each year I have to decide whether to do it," says Ju. "But I'm glad when I do."

One young man wearing white socks but sporting a new Western-style coat looks up from a newspaper to say he is going to Dalian from a business college. His parents are peasants, but they pushed him into higher education. "They love me. I couldn't afford going home last year," he says. "But this year I have to, I want to."

This year brought a 25 percent ticket price increase. The hike was accompanied by an unusual first-ever national "public hearing," in which Chinese officials consulted workers and consumer representatives before the rise. State media reported - wrongly, sources say - that workers were happy to pay more.

The ticket buying is partly a byproduct of China's economic emergence. The lunar festival has been paramount for eons here. But, poor or rich, Chinese have never moved around as they do today - slowly breaking the Communist Party-instituted hukou system, which allowed only permit holders to live in a city.

With $300 billion in foreign investment and a thriving export market in the 1990s, more expendable income is available. The state has built some 100,000 miles of highway for a new domestic car market that is being felt this season.

Rural migration

Not surprisingly, too, the Spring Festival, is undergoing commercialization and higher media profile. Gifts of food are treasured. So especially are hong bao, the red envelopes of cash that are passed from parents to children, to friends' children, and from wage earners to nonwage earners, such as grandparents.

Wealth has brought to the city migrant workers who want to go home during New Year. The official estimate is 70 million, but more likely 125 million rural people - who are often found sleeping or eating en masse around urban construction projects - want to go home. Migrants leave two or three weeks ahead of the rush and account for the some 2 to 3 million rail tickets sold per day during that time.

Cramped quarters

Migrants are also prime users of the so-called "long-distance buses," that have become the bane of holiday travel. Double deckers that contain a "sleeping berth" on top, these buses have 28 seats for trips of up to a week. Yet they are notoriously crowded, unpleasant, and sometimes subject to highway hold-ups. A police car stopped one long-distance bus outside Shanghai last week and found more than 90 people on a bus built for 35.

Making it home before midnight tonight means the family has been together that year, a literal interpretation of family continuity, but one that carries weight here. Chinese have a special dinner, tell stories, offer toasts - and of late, some 700 million will watch a TV extravaganza, planned for six months, that involves a light show, dancing, and films stars. Later in the week is a time to visit family, friends, and former teachers.

Air travel is still an elite activity, but prices are dropping. Cong Ri, a Beijing computer engineer, wanted to fly home to Inner Mongolia for the first time this year. But, no tickets. His answer, after a day in line, was a "platform ticket." This ticket, usually used for family sendoffs, will allow Mr. Cong access to the platform where the train doors open. There he will give some money to a rail official to let him on the train. Once on, he will buy a ticket, but have no seat.

"I'm going to have to stand this year, it is the only way," he laments.

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