The story below describes another facet of Chinese life that I never fathomed before traveling there. With a billion plus people, holiday travel woes reach an unimaginable level of madness. Happy Chinese New Year!

Chinese hit the road for New Year’s
Associated Press

BEIJING – The Chinese are on the move. Hundreds of millions of people have clamored aboard cars, buses, planes and trains to return to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year in an annual event that stretches the country’s transport system to near its breaking point.

The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, starts Sunday to usher in the Year of the Pig, but the Chinese have been boarding trains and planes for the last several weeks to go home for family reunions.

Airlines were expected to have run more than 4,000 flights during the two weeks leading up to New Year.

“I go back home every Chinese New Year. It is very important for Chinese just as Christmas is for Westerners,” said Wu Xingbiao at the Beijing airport.

The People’s Daily said the total number of trips – including by plane, train, ship and vehicle – could total more than 2 billion journeys during the 40 days around the holiday, an increase of nearly 5 percent over last year’s holiday. To avoid the crunch many people leave early or return late.

The travel strain has increased in recent years as tens of millions of migrant workers flood big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai in search of construction and other jobs. Those types of workers cannot afford to fly, instead crowding into places like the Beijing West Train Station to board trains for trips that can take up to 35 hours.

“I am feeling very happy because I can join my family soon and I can see many old friends in my hometown. We will celebrate a happy New Year together,” said Liu Juanhong, a migrant worker in Beijing heading home to Henan province.

Liu is one of an estimated 155 million people who will travel by train during the holiday period. The government has extended the length of the official holiday to one week in recent years to encourage tourism as an economic development measure.

Chinese media has reported in the past that because of the crunch on the trains, some people have bought adult diapers to avoid the long lines outside the often stinking toilets.

Police also issued cautions warning people to be careful of pickpockets. Travelers often carry large amounts of money to give as “hong bao,” or red envelopes filled with cash, to children. State television on Saturday showed police pulling one thief off a train in handcuffs.

Those who cannot be near friends will send messages through their mobile phones, the official Xinhua News Agency said, with an average of 40 million New Year messages an hour sent on Saturday.

The Spring Festival is also one of several holiday times of the year when direct flights are permitted between Taiwan and China. Regular direct flights were suspended more than five decades ago, when the rivals split amid civil war. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese living in China are now being allowed to fly home on the annual direct flights.

The Beijing Meteorological Station said the temperature in Beijing on the eve of the festival would reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the warmest festival eve since records began in 1951.