ON Wednesday, exactly a week before the Chinese New Year’s Eve, I left Beijing on a full bullet train and ended up in Shanghai with a nearly empty one, as most passengers got off at Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province, from where they could easily travel to other nearby cities by train or bus.
“I’m much more relaxed about this now,” said Felix Wang, a 26-year-old masseur who sat behind me on the way from Shanghai to Beijing last Sunday. He was getting off at Zaozhuang, Shandong Province, to then take two buses to his home village.
“When I first started working in Beijing six or seven years ago, my boss back then didn’t allow us to leave for more than three days during the Spring Festival,” Wang said. “I was poor, a rookie, and so afraid to lose the job that I didn’t dare to fight for more days. I ended up not going back that year.”
The tradition at Wang’s home was to celebrate for a whole month — from December 16 on lunar calendar all the way to the Lantern Festival, and he felt bad to miss the reunion.
“Now, it’s different,” he said about a change in attitude he and his friends feel. “Money is important, but it’s only to a certain level, and I can always find the next job. Many bosses are also more understanding of this. After all, it’s our own choice, whether you want to spend more time with families or whether you want to take the advantage of making more money.”
Wang chose to rotate every other year. This year he planned well in advance for his trip home, asking to take a 10-day break ahead of the Lunar New Year’s Eve, knowing it would be hectic during chunyun.
As I arrived in Beijing, it took me nearly an hour of waiting to catch a taxi, and I only found out later it was due to a traffic jam just outside the station, at 3pm, not usually a rush hour.
“Well, it’s the chunyun period; you can hardly judge when is the rush hour,” my cab driver Jiang said.
He had been making at least one trip to the station every day since mid-January to pick up the last harvest before the Chinese New Year.
“During the holiday, the city is so empty and business so bad,” he explained.
I had no problem getting my ticket to Beijing when I booked it online a week earlier, and the official site showed an abundant supply. So I was surprised when I tried to get the return ticket only three days later, when the website kept telling me to get in the queue and to wait for 20 minutes, before it got stuck for nearly 40 minutes.
Less than 10 tickets were left for most trains I wanted, and I only got through the queue once in more than two hours. During that one time I got through, it got stuck again as I was queuing to pay for the ticket.
Tickets get canceled if the payment is not made within 45 minutes, and the page got stuck for nearly an hour while I kept trying on my smartphone.
After two and a half hours, I gave up and was prepared to go to the ticket scalper I interviewed. On the way, I passed by an authorized ticket vendor and tried my luck.
At first, it showed all tickets were sold, but when the vendor tried again a minute later, I got the last one!