In China, a rush to get home for New Year's

Millions – many now jobless – pack the railways during the world's largest annual migration.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Headed home: A conductor checks a ticket as passengers board a train headed from Guangzhou, China, to Wenzhou.
Andy nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
En route: A couple embrace as they say goodbye outside the Shenzhen station.

Hey, you want to know how to get on the train you want?" a white-suited man with a salesman's grin asks as he gives me a nudge.

It's a week before Chinese New Year, and the railway station in Shenzhen, like many across China, is filled with people hurrying home for the year's biggest holiday – or still trying to buy a ticket.

This year 188 million Spring Festival travelers are expected to come and go by train, the government estimates, in the world's largest annual migration.

Shenzhen's is not the busiest station in China, yet nearly 100,000 travelers have come through here daily ahead of the New Year on Jan. 26. Even at midnight, they stream toward the station from every direction, unloading from buses and pouring from the subway. Some wheel suitcases; others carry nylon luggage or buckets. A few balance bags on either end of a shoulder stick.

President Hu Jintao himself has urged a smooth "Spring Rush," and railway staff, police, plainclothesmen, and soldiers are out in force to make that happen.

It's certainly a concern here in Guangdong Province, China's factory heartland. The global economic crisis has hit manufacturers hard and forced many migrant laborers out of work. Some 600,000 have headed home early, jobless.

We've put out more police, an officer tells me. We're afraid people might be upset because of the economic situation.

Downturn aside, migrants have reason to be frustrated. Simply getting a ticket home can be at least a full-time job. Some try for days, even sleep at the station overnight. Earlier this month an elderly man in Hangzhou, a city near Shanghai, died while waiting in line. (The Ministry of Railways claimed he was using the place to sleep.)

One young man traveling to Xian says he settled for a ticket to a city 100 miles shy, hoping he can catch a train home from there.

The overwhelming demand makes this a busy season for scalpers. The government has pledged to crack down, especially after a video posted online last Monday showed a saleswoman in Beijing printing stacks of tickets while people waited outside to buy one. (The Ministry of Railways denied that the station was colluding with scalpers.)

Meanwhile it has banned most ticket sales outside its network, and prohibited ticket sellers from carrying cash or phones while working. Some 30,000 police officers have fanned out to hunt scalpers and so far detained more than 2,000, according to the China Daily.

For now, no one seems to have investigated the cluster of men loitering around the Shenzhen ticket office after hours. Four of them surround one young man, who's holding up a ticket as though to check if it's real. In the end he shakes his head and walks away.

Nearby, the white-suited man gives me a tip.

Just buy any ticket, and when you see the train you want, squeeze through the line, he urges. Security won't notice, he says; they have so many people to deal with.

Most of the crowd, though, is waiting peaceably. Some sit on plastic stools that they brought. A group of men plays cards. This outside plaza, where many have waited for hours, is only holding area No. 1. Not until their train is called can travelers go inside.

There, they wait some more. Then, finally, it's time to board. Excitement builds.

"Where are you? We're about to get on the train!" a man shouts into his phone. People nearby giggle.

The gates open, and travelers push forward. Journeys can take more than 30 hours, so it's nice to get a good seat (or spot to stand). These passengers have "only" a 12-hour ride to Wuhan.

In less than 20 minutes all have boarded, minus a trickle of stragglers. For a moment, the waiting area is empty. Even the crowd's discarded wrappers and orange peels have been swept away.

Then, chatter. Up the elevator stream the next few thousand people eager to get home for New Year's.

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