Welcome To Hell: Chinese Lunar New Year Travel Madness

Looking for a nice, quiet place for a late winter holiday this week? Then why not celebrate the Lunar New Year in China, along with a billion plus new friends, many of whom will hit the road to see family members during the chunyun or spring festival travel season that runs from about 15 days before Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on February 10 this year, for 40 days.

Chinese New Year is the one time of year when everyone returns to their home villages to see family members and it’s been called the largest annual human migration in the world. If you think Disney World is crazy at Easter, you’ve never tried to get anywhere in China during the height of the chunyun season.

According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, the Chinese will make 3.41 billion trips during the holiday season this year, up from a paltry 3.16 billion last season. In 2012, China’s trains carried more than 80 million passengers across a two-week span during the chunyun. Years ago, I spent a month traveling by train across China, from Urumqi to Shanghai in the summer, and the boarding procedures seemed like chaos personified to me. But during the New Year season, it’s not uncommon for serious melees to break out as harried travelers scramble to board and exit trains.

According to the Financial Times, train tickets are in such high demand during the holiday season that whole trains can sell out in seconds on the Internet. So companies have developed “ticket snatching” plug-ins that help Chinese travelers game the national railway ticket website. Why? According to NPR, the ticket site got 1.4 billion hits in a single day last year and crashed several times.

Some Chinese who can’t get train or plane tickets find creative ways to get home for the holiday. China Daily reports that one adventurous soul took a scenic route home, using “48 buses, a ferry, a free ride and his own feet to carry him 660km to his home town.” And a Ph.D student at Fudan University in Shanghai managed to cobble together a route home by buying eight separate train tickets.

But scoring tickets, fighting the crowds and breathing in near-toxic pollution is just part of the hellish Lunar New Year travel experience. Legions of young Chinese who have moved to cities also face social pressures when they return home to see their families.

It’s traditional to exchange red envelopes with cash inside and there’s pressure to demonstrate one’s status by laying down the yuan equivalent of Benjamins. And according to The West Australian, single Chinese career women with no imminent marriage plans have taken to renting proxy boyfriends to take home for the holidays, to avoid the awkward, “when are you going to get a boyfriend” questions. In Jiangsu province, male escorts were commanding as much as 2,000 yuan ($308) per day for their services.

The Chinese zodiac calendar works in 12-year cycles and the Year of the Dragon will give way to the Year of the Snake on February 10. The Year of the Dragon is an especially lucky year; the BBC reported last year that births would likely rise 5% in China during the auspicious year. There is some speculation that China’s economy could falter slightly this year from a post-Dragon hangover.

But the Year of the Snake might not be as dicey as it sounds. In the West, the snake is a symbol of deceit but not in China. People born in this year are said to be intuitive, graceful, introspective and refined. However, they are also viewed as manipulative and scheming and can also be excessively proud and vain. The last two snake years were tumultuous ones, in 1989 there was the Tiananmen Square massacre and 9/11 came during the last one.

Huffington Post Canada consulted Paul Ng, a philosopher and who opined that the Year of the Snake will be a great year for the travel industry.

“This year is favourable to [travel by water] because it’s the [year of the] water snake. I’ve said that cruise boats will do well this year and the aviation industry will do well as well,” Ng told HuffPost Canada Travel.

If you’d rather not brave the crowds to experience Lunar New Year madness in China, my colleague Reena Ganga has written a nice piece on where to enjoy this holiday Stateside.

[Photo credits: Harald Groven, Padmanaba01, and rickyqi on Flickr; AP]