In the capital Beijing the country's first man in space, Yang Liwei, was the star of an hours-long, lavish broadcast on state CCTV television on Wednesday to count in the Year of the Monkey. 

Wearing his trademark blue astronaut suit, Yang emerged two minutes before midnight on the special New Year programme and said, "We salute our great China." 

The astronaut, who in October orbited the Earth 14 times in China's first manned space mission, also handed out autographs to enthusiastic members of the audience. 

Reuniting with family

The government-imposed seven-day New Year holiday, called the Spring Festival, is for many among China's population of 1.3 billion - a fifth of humanity - a rare chance to reunite with relatives at family homes. 

The holiday sees hundreds of millions of people travel throughout the country, with an estimated 1.89 billion trips expected to be made over the holiday period - the largest mass movement of people in the world and bigger this year than ever before. 

The rush comes with fears over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in many people's minds. Stringent checks are in place at major travel points, particularly southern Guangdong province, where the virus originated in 2002. 

Trains and other modes of transport are being disinfected daily to prevent SARS, which has been detected in three patients so far this year, from spreading, as a cold snap grips the country. 

Railway traffic

A performer plays the role of the
emperor during celebrations

On any given day, China carries almost a quarter of global railway traffic on tracks that account for only 6%of the world's total, and the Lunar New Year mayhem is taking its toll, with daily passenger flow up some 35% . 

The Railway Ministry has added more than 4000 standby railway cars and halted many freight trains, but still it cannot cope, with train tickets remaining one of the few scarce commodities in China. 

This year the traditional black market in tickets has, as ever, flourished, especially in areas where millions of migrant workers live, and a heavy police presence is evident, with some 70,000 police officers mobilised. 

While trains are popular for their safety records and low ticket costs, most people travel by bus, as migrant workers and students head to their home villages in often remote locations across the continent-sized country. 

This has led to spate of deadly accidents, blamed on overcrowding, speeding and driver fatigue. 

New wealth

And in a new trend this year, many people are driving themselves as China's new found wealth has allowed a growing number of Chinese to own a car while a new network of national highways allows them to get where they want to go. 

Extra cash in the pocket is also seeing more people breaking ranks and travelling overseas, side-stepping the tradition that the Spring Festival period is spent at home with relatives, eating and drinking. 

Planes were feeling the strain despite an extra 323 flights being added daily to schedules for the duration of the official travel period that runs until 15 February.