It’s really becoming cliche on this blog for me to bitch and moan about Chinese New Year (aka Spring Festival) but really, I cannot stop myself. I wish I could explain the importance of this holiday but it is so hard for anyone outside the country to understand. (Here’s me complaining about it in 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 )
And the stress around this holiday beats anything in the West. Combine Christmas and Thanksgiving pressures, traffics and expense and you still aren’t anywhere close. Famously called the “World’s largest mammal migration” you used to just have to worry about everyone going home. But now, with China’s growing middle class, you have to worry about a lot more. Millions now also take some time to travel around and as a traveler, that spells trouble for me.
But I’m a planner and I can book my places and tickets early and with the best timetable to set myself up for as much success as possible. This past holiday I went to some of the biggest tourist attractions and they were virtually empty (by Chinese standards) because I went during the week and had the good fortune of a cold snap which plunged the temperatures to arctic level which forced people to cancel.
But the Beast that is Spring Festival will not be denied. And in my ignorance and arrogance of a trip well planned the gods decided to have a little fun with me.
This is one of my earlier train stations. It was the train station at China’s most famous mountains: Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan). Expecting large crowds I planned the trip during the beginning of the week and an early train ride to beat the crowds. It worked. I was feeling EVER so proud of myself.
Basically most train rides were like this. I traveled exclusively on trains this time, booking my tickets almost a month in advanced and choosing the least busy travel times. Smart Becky, right?
But the gods must be obeyed. And they decided I must be punished for my arrogance. So a mere 6 days after that delightful empty train station I got stuck in this:
Yep, I was involved in a travel day so bad it was newsworthy. There had been some bad weather, cold and snow, and for some reason it crippled the train system. (It wasn’t that cold or that snowy so I don’t know why so many problems.) Trains weren’t arriving and therefore not leaving. I had no idea what was going on at the time, but with all the delayed signs I knew it couldn’t be good. China’s high speed trains are notoriously punctual so I knew something was up when I saw all the delays.
I got to my gate where there was a line of hundreds for the train leaving before mine. Then that train was delayed 10 minutes, then another ten minutes, then briefly cancelled, then delayed again. I was just kinda standing around (no seats available) for over an hour, being pushed around by all the people unsure where to stand when suddenly my train, to Xiamen, turned green. I had been looking at all the other gates and not a single gate had a “green” which meant boarding.
I didn’t even know how to get to my gate since there was so many people packed tightly in line blocking the entrance. So I kinda snaked around to the side gate entrance and a woman clipped my ticket, and hissed in English, “Hurry!”
So I hurried, pushing my way onto the train and into my seat and just sat back as chaos exploded around me. I don’t know exactly what was happening, but the train workers, a bunch of ladies, were storming up and down the aisles screaming bloody murder. Wailing harpies had nothing on these ladies and they were shrieking so loud I couldn’t understand them. The only thing I could make out was, “Do you want to go home?! DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME?!”
They moved all the standing passengers to another car, there was a blessed moment of quiet, and then all the extra passengers were herded back through my car to another. Then the shrieking women came back and literally pushed these people out of the train. There was a security guard on the platform restraining some of these people who were waving their tickets and trying to “reason” with the train attendance.
The attendants coolly stepped back into the train, the doors slid shut and we took off. The stranded passengers threw up their arms in frustration as we left them behind.
Out of the 30 or so tracks at the Hangzhou train station, mine was the only train to leave at that time. Why? I have no idea. The next stop was also filled with chaos and this time aside from the screaming attendants, one of the male conductors joined the fray. I could understand him a bit better and he kept saying *something* was too dangerous and if we did it the train couldn’t go. So he pushed people around (saw him smack a kid out of his way) and finally, after about 4 stops and an hour later, we had settled into a controlled sort of chaos. They even made up the time on the train and I pulled into Xiamen seven long hours later exhausted and achy but in one piece.
Mind you this was one whole week before the actual holiday. It only gets worse as it gets closer.
See, the thing is this happens every year during this time. With millions of people traveling one little delay of one train can send the whole system spiraling. I see the pictures of the mobs, hear the stories of people stranded, and always thought “if that was me I’d just high tail it out of there, get a room and wait it out.”
But when you are in it, you kinda just get sucked into it. Luckily I didn’t wait that long and I didn’t fight to get into the train station like in Guangzhou where thousands were stuck outside. But now I’m wondering what my tolerance really is.
Luckily I hope to never find out. I’m now finished traveling and back in Xiamen and will stay put for the rest of the month. I had an amazing month of travel which I’ll be writing about soon, but here’s a tiny smidge of a preview: