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Holiday travel stories run out of steam and interest
By Doug Young

I don’t want to sound too Scrooge-like so close to the Chinese Lunar New Year, but I’ll personally be quite happy to see the holiday come and go so we can finally see an end to the flood of travel-related stories that inundate news this time each year.

The last three weeks have seen our local media report on just about anything and everything with a travel-related angle, pandering to the millions of out-of-towners who have already started their exodus from Shanghai to their hometowns.

On one hand, the reports underscore the remarkable advances in China’s transport network over the last decade to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside to big cities.

But on the other hand, the obsession with travel stories at this time of year also reflects a cattle-like mentality in many Chinese industries that sees everyone jump on the same bandwagon until the next fad comes along.

Interestingly, this year’s flood of travel stories came to a sudden halt last week, when it was pushed out of the headlines by another flood of reports from the more political Shanghai People’s Congress. But that’s a story for another day.

Over the last few weeks, it’s been nearly impossible to open a newspaper or watch the TV news without being flooded by reports on everything from train ticket machines to extended subway hours and highway tolls.

The frenetic news cycle reached a fever pitch early this season when the government declared that Chinese New Year’s Eve on January 30 wouldn’t be a public holiday, meaning travelers that day would have to pay highway tolls.

Travel story craze

That decision prompted outrage not only in Shanghai but nationally from millions of people who expected toll-free roads on their drive home.

The travel story kicked into high gear after that.

One day at the height of the frenzy, one local paper reported on everything from the plight of passengers traveling to Harbin to increased security at train stations and problems with a new ticketing system.

Many reports centered on individuals, including a sentimental story about the last Lunar New Year period for a woman who had worked on the Beijing-Shanghai railway for the last 30 years.

One photo of people sitting on the floor of a packed carriage, and another of people handing items through open windows to their friends inside a train, brought back memories of how difficult travel in China used to be, not only during the Lunar New Year but throughout the year.

When I first came to China in the 1980s, travel was filled with obstacles. Finding an updated train schedule and buying a ticket were just the first of many difficulties, involving special trips to the station and long waits only to often learn that the class or destination you wanted wasn’t available.

The process was worse for most Chinese, who had to provide numerous documents from their work units just to buy train tickets. Plane travel was even more difficult due to the limited number of flights.

Once you had your ticket, the actual trips were equally challenging. Most people traveled in packed carriages by hard seat or with standing-room tickets, even for journeys of several days. People lucky enough to get sleeper tickets could look forward to uncomfortable beds and days spent in smoke-filled carriages littered with garbage, peanut shells and other items discarded by travelers.

Fast forward to today, when train tickets are easily available online and can be purchased at agents throughout the city. Sleeper cars and comfortable seats are readily available, and the new high-speed rail network offers quick and efficient service to most major cities. For drivers, the national network has thousands of kilometers of modern highways.

The improvements are quite remarkable over such a short period, even if they have come with a few controversies. All this brings me back to my original point, which is that China’s travel revolution is a huge achievement, but also one that should find a place in the history books and not become such big news every Lunar New Year.

Call me a Scrooge, but there really should be better stories to tell each year during this annual holiday.

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