"Chunyun" has become a very special word in the modern Chinese vocabulary. The word, literally meaning "spring transportation," has many implications. For people that work away from their hometown, it refers to the happiness of reuniting with loved ones and the bitterness of battling for a train ticket; for railway staff it represents 40 days of arduous work; for scalpers it suggests a busy season of business; for the police it implies a war against theft and luggage containing inflammable materials; for the government it is a test of administrative ability.
Every year around Spring Festival, hundreds of millions of Chinese travel from afar to return to their hometowns for the most important family reunion of the year. No matter how the national economy surges or lumbers, how the renminbi appreciates or depreciates, how the global climate warms or cools, how avian influenza bites or mutates, the Chinese will go home before the end of the lunar New Year.
The scene of the whole family sitting around the dinner table and toasting amid the steam of savoury dishes and the smoke of firecrackers is what Chinese most look forward to at this time of the year.
Therefore, a phenomenon that is rare in the rest of the world occurs annually in China: hundreds of millions of travellers try to cram themselves into trains, buses, planes and ships during the few days before and after the Spring Festival. That is the so-called "chunyun."
The Ministry of Railways estimates that 144 million passengers will take trains during this year's "chunyun" period. Such a sudden surge in the number of travellers would beat any means of transportation but the disparity between demand and capacity is especially acute with the railway system as it is the only means for the large bulk of long-distance passengers.
The problem has plagued the railway system for many years and authorities have adopted various measures to alleviate the pressure. The situation has improved a lot in recent years but it is still difficult to secure a ticket for year-end travelling. An average 3.6 million passengers will travel by train each day during the "chunyun" period and it could be as many as 4.3 million but the railway system's average daily capacity is only 2.8 million.
The crux of the matter is the shortage of railway lines. The total length of railways across the country is 75,200 kilometres. That translates to the length of a cigarette for each Chinese. A vice-minister of railways predicted a few days ago that the situation could change by 2010, the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan period. This is too remote a promise. Before China's railway lines extend significantly, we have to put up with the situation where three people contend for two tickets.
As a member of the large army of Spring Festival travellers, I would not complain if I became that unlucky one among the three, for I understand that building railway lines needs time and large amounts of money. But I do resent the difficulties involved in the process of obtaining a ticket.
First, you dial the number of the railway information office but you will never get connected. Then you go to a booking outlet but will be told that booking won't start until four days before the departure. You have learned from the media, however, that booking during the Spring Festival period can be made 10 days in advance. Then when you go to the booking office four days in advance, you will be told the tickets are sold out because "the selling began yesterday evening." Finally you end up buying a double, or even triple-priced ticket from a scalper if you don't have the courage (and time) to queue for 12 or 24 or 48 hours at the railway station.
I did not make up those scenarios. They were told to me by friends and relatives and other media outlets.
I believe that most travellers would not complain about the shortage of train tickets but would surely resent the poor service with regard to information publicity, the rampant piracy of scalpers and the (much reported) corruption of some railway staff members.
The authorities can play a better role in this regard. "Chunyun" is actually a test of the government's ability to administer society.
(China Daily 01/18/2006 page4)