China's New Year: there be dragons, but not enough train tickets

This weekend, hundreds of millions of Chinese will return to hometowns to celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Dragon. But the annual pilgrimage is marked by the annual struggle at the train station.

Jason Lee/Reuters
A resident, with her pet dog, walks past trees with red lantern decorations for the Spring Festival Temple Fair at Ditan Park (the Temple of Earth), in Beijing, Friday. The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, begins on January 23 and marks the start of the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Some 235 million Chinese travelers have their doubts.

Every year at the Chinese New Year the Ministry of Railways has the same problem: carrying the hundreds of millions of people who want to go home to celebrate the new year, China’s biggest holiday with their families. And every year it is a nightmare.

Passengers have long complained about endless lines at ticket offices or about paying high prices to scalpers who corner the market; and that’s before they even get on the train to brave agonizingly long and cramped journeys. Being with family at new year is like Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped into one for Chinese. 

So this year, as China prepares to usher in the Year of the Dragon on Sunday, the Ministry offered holidaymakers the chance to buy their tickets online.

That would have been a good idea, except that its server collapsed under the strain.

On Jan. 9, the ticket booking website took 1.4 billion hits, the Ministry said.

The ensuing crash left a lot of disgruntled customers. 

“I tried on the Internet for a whole day but I never managed to log on,” says Fan Zhixin, who works in a website’s finance department, as she lined up for a ticket outside Beijing’s central station on Thursday.

Eventually, she recounted, she had reached the sales office on the phone, “but by the time I got through all the seats had been sold, so I had to buy a standing only ticket.”

Since her journey to Ulanhot, in Inner Mongolia, was going to take 20 hours and the idea of standing in a crowded corridor for that long was too appalling, Ms. Fan was making one last bid for a seat.

As she dreaded, there were none. “This will be very terrible,” she says, wheeling her imitation Louis Vuitton suitcase through the crowd toward the platform.

Ma Anjia, a migrant construction worker heading for his hometown in Shanxi, 16 hours West of Beijing, had secured a seat, but no thanks to the new Internet booking system. In fact, that had made it harder for him.

“I don’t know how to use the Internet,” Mr. Ma laughs. “I queued up.”

But because tickets became available online two days before they were sold at railroad ticket offices, he kept finding the agencies had sold out. “I went to five or six different places and waited hours at each one before I managed to buy the tickets I needed,” Ma says.

Still, at least he should be home before the weekend.

Travelers leaving things until the last minute have something else to worry about: Weather forecasters are warning that a wave of snow and rain over the coming days could make travel even more tricky. 

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