Shanghai, China – Despite a long, uncomfortable bus journey ahead Du Ling Ying is smiling. She is travelling to her home town in Anhui province and will see her family for the first time in a year. “I am looking forward to seeing the children,” she says excitedly.
She is one of thousands of people milling around Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station laden down with bags, suitcases and boxes travelling home for Chinese New Year. Like many of China’s migrant workers, it is the only chance each year Du Ling gets to go home and spend time with their family and loved ones.
Du Ling is travelling with her husband Li Wei and his younger brother Li Ping. All three work in Shanghai, the elder Li is a welder while his brother and Du Ling work in a furniture factory. They have a large number of bags between them, mostly full of presents. “We bought things for the children and our parents,” Li tells Al Jazeera. Du Ling closely guards one bag in particular, the one with toys for the children.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese are travelling over the festive season, known as Spring Festival, in what is believed to be the largest single mass human migration in the world. According to the state news agency, Xinhua, 3.41 billion trips are expected to be made during the festival from January 26 to March 6.
Most of these trips will be made by bus and train, putting the public transportation system under a lot of pressure. Extra buses and trains have been put into use in an effort to cope with the rush.
But still it can be difficult to get tickets with many people queuing for hours but being left empty handed. Tickets can be bought online but because of the heavy traffic around this time of year, the website often crashes. Many people travelling by train choose to buy a standing ticket if there are no seats left, an uncomfortable option on the packed to capacity trains for long journeys.
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Li said the bus was not their first choice of transport, they had tried to get train tickets but “they were gone, all sold out”. Instead they have to take the bus meaning an extra eight hours of travel time.
At Shanghai Railway Station, Liu Li and her husband Xia Yuan also had ticket problems. They are also travelling with their young son to Anhui province. They had bought train tickets but went to the wrong train station and missed the train, the only tickets left were for first class, more than double the original price. “At the beginning the two tickets only cost about 300 RMB ($48),” said Xia, “now the two tickets cost over 1000 RMB ($160). You have to pay it, you don’t have a choice”.
It is tradition for Chinese families to spend the Chinese New Year together, with family members travelling as long as it takes to get home on time. This year, New Year’s Eve in the Chinese calendar falls on February 9 and most families will celebrate with a large meal and fireworks to welcome in the Year of the Snake.
It is very important to go home for the new year, says Zhu Xiang Biao who is travelling with his wife and son to Jiangxi province. He has been living away from his home town for more than twenty years and his parents are both dead but he says he still visits “to show respect to the older generation and to take care of family graves”.
It is common for those returning from cities to bring money to give to their parents and also to give red pockets containing cash, known as hong bao, to family members. Zhu says he will spend and give up to 10,000 RMB ($1,600) over the holidays. “It is a lot of money, but it is tradition,” he says.
Liu and Xia have saved for months for the new year festivities. They are travelling lightly and will buy presents when they get to their home town and will also give money to their parents as hong bao. In total they will spend “about 20,000 RMB ($3,200) because it is only once a year,” says Xia.
For couples who are both from one-child families as is common in China, deciding which family to spend the holiday with can be difficult. This issue is known to cause so much tension that police in the city of Qingdao in east China’s Shandong Province gave advice on their micro blogging account on the social networking website Sina Weibo on how to resolve the issue. They suggested bringing both sets of parents together or visiting each others parents in turn.
Thankfully for only children Liu and Xia this is an issue they have managed to solve amicably. “We take turns, this year it is my turn and we go to my family and next year it is his turn,” says Liu. “Because we are both only children, it is the only way to do it, to take turns.”