Citizens snake their way home for new year

Fri, Feb 8, 2013, 00:00

Some 200 million people in China will take trains home this weekend for Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on Sunday and marks the beginning of the Year of the Snake. It is the world’s largest annual migration, and it feels like most of those travelling are in the Beijing South train station shortly before the holiday.

It’s fiercely cold, but at least the pollution has cleared a bit, and some travellers are carrying suitcases on their backs bigger than themselves. One family is all wearing large spongy slippers, while others are carrying children’s cars on their backs. The KFC, McDonald’s and Bruce Lee-themed noodle restaurant are all doing a roaring trade.

Inside the station, there are groups of young volunteers wearing bright coloured vests over their winter woollies to help you find your ticket, or your platform, or through whatever bureaucratic muddle crops up. This is something you would not have seen before the Olympics.

A volunteer marshals you into a stainless steel corral where the queues for tickets are long, fairly boisterous and generally good-natured, until a man holding two Russian passports aloft pushes his way to the front of the line demanding loudly that the ticket seller serve him first.

The move causes people to look up for a second from their smartphones, and there are a few grumbles, although the overall reaction is more of resignation than anger. The pressure in the queue builds, however – no one likes feeling the agent with the passports got away with queue-jumping.

The surge of demand for tickets means the electronic ticketing system, introduced last year with great fanfare, has struggled under the weight of demand.

Ticket touts are little in evidence on the station concourse because of a crackdown on buying tickets, then selling them at a premium at Chinese New Year.

This year, clever IT firms have filled the gap with plug-in software programmes that allow travellers to snatch tickets as they are released.

Still, the most reliable, if often the most frustrating, way to get tickets is to go and wait.

China’s economy has swollen in recent years, and flights around the country are full at this time of year, just like the high-speed trains are packed, but these options are primarily for the middle-classes.

Most of the one billion journeys people will make at this time of year will be on buses and slow trains, with people standing to save money.

A big seller in the train station are small metal folding seats, retailing at a fairly hefty €5, although the foreigner probably paid more for the ingenious seat.

Adult nappies are also big sellers at this time of year. In Japan, the ageing population means that sales of adult diapers are now greater than those for babies, but China’s population is ageing fast too. However, for the crowded new year train trip home, the nappies are there because the toilets are inaccessible.

Once the millions of travellers get home, the family will gather and make jiaozi (dumplings), and hundreds of millions will watch the annual CCTV gala Spring Festival show, which this year features Celine Dion singing My Heart Will Go On from China’s favourite film, Titanic.

The CCTV mainstay, which occupies a place in Chinese hearts similar to The Late Late Show’s Christmas toy special in Ireland, will have competition this year, because Shanghai-based Dragon TV has hired South Korean pop star Psy, to perform his Gangnam Style song and dance routine on its gala event on Sunday.

The fireworks will sound like a full-on barrage by Saturday and continue for the duration of the weeklong holiday.

One firework that will not feature so strongly this year is the “Tokyo Big Bang” for fears of heightening tension with Japan.

The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and associates each of the 12 years forming a rotating cycle with a zodiac animal.

The snake is sixth of the 12.

The outlook for the Year of the Snake is auspicious, according to fortune tellers. Party secretary and military leader, Xi Jinping, who will be named president in March, was born in 1953, a snake year. Normally entering the year of your Chinese zodiac is a bad thing, but necromancers say the elements work in his favour.