The largest annual festive migration of humans has begun

Couple of days ago, my mostly cheerful Chinese teacher looked and talked downcast. I say mostly cheerful because no teacher will ideally appear happy at the desultory progress made by a student or if homework tasks remain perennially unblemished, err, untouched.

But in this case, the misery went beyond her student’s extraordinary inability to pick up spoken Mandarin: her husband and she had been unable to pick up train or bus tickets to travel home for the Spring Festival, the biggest festival in China that marks the onset of the new Lunar year.

The prospect of staying away from family during the Spring Festival was looming for the young couple.

I thought I’d recount to her the story of Xu Zhengguo, an electronics entrepreneur. According to the Xinhua news agency, Xu, 27, took 48 buses to travel the 660 km from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to his hometown of Linyi in Shandong province, setting off at 10 am on Jan 27 and arriving home at about 4 pm on Feb 2.

“As well as the 48 buses, he used a ferry, a free lift and spent several kilometers walking, traveling through 10 cities to complete the journey. The bus tickets cost him about 140 yuan ($23),” the story said.

Yes, being with family during the Spring Festival is that important – it marks the biggest annual migration and back of humans every year.

Every year during the Lunar year, millions and millions of Chinese return home for the festival. This year, the main date for the festivities falls during the intervening night of February 9 and 10; you are expected to be with your family and be part of probably the most important dinner of the year.

The return to home in smaller cities, towns and villages cuts across jobs and economical status. The government shuts down for a week; this year, the holidays begin from Friday and go on till the next Friday. Private companies also shut down from a week to 10 days.

It’s a separate issue that you are expected to work on the next-to-next weekend as compensation for the days off. But no one complains.

Instead, they rush to pick up tickets as counters open about three weeks before the beginning of the Lunar year.

According to the China Daily newspaper, last Sunday, about 430,000 passengers left Beijing from the capital city’s four railway stations, the highest number recorded since the 40-day travel rush started on Jan 26.

“Railway authorities expect the number of train passengers leaving Beijing each day to remain above 400,000 from Feb 3 to Friday, with the peak period forecast to happen on Wednesday and Thursday,” it said.

According to Xinhua, public transportation is expected to accommodate about 3.41 billion travelers nationwide during the holiday, including 225 million railway passengers.

Xinhua added that it has 11 days since the annual Chinese New Year travel rush hit China’s transport system.

“The nationwide railway network is expecting to transport over 6 million passengers on this day (Wednesday, February 6) alone. More than 600 extra trains have been added to handle the rush.

The Spring Festival travel rush is expected to last for about 40 days, and the transport system is expecting to meet over 3 billion passengers’ trips.

Beijing is gradually emptying out. Traffic on the roads is thinning. So is the crowd in the packed subway lines. By the next two days, small restaurants in my locality – about six subway stops away from the Tiananmen Square considered to be the centre of

Beijing – will shut down; already a few have downed shutters for two weeks. It’s the same case in other parts of the sprawling city, I heard from friends.

Notices have been put up at my apartment’s lobby advising residents to be careful when they are leaving their flats unattended for a long time.

Starting Thursday-Friday, and till the end of the next week, Beijing will be quieter, cleaner and traffic jams will disappear – that’s good news, even if temporary, for a city which gasps for breath for much of the year.

The other good news is that my teacher and her husband finally managed to buy tickets and they will be spending time with her parents this year. Next year, will be the turn of the husband’s parents.

As for me, I’ll finally get some time to finish my homework and practice my Mandarin with the nearest wall.

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