Millions Scramble To Get Home

Revelers struggle to secure travel tickets during the biggest holiday migration of the year in China.

newyeartravel-305.jpg Passengers line up at the Guangzhou Railway Station during the Lunar New Year travel rush, Jan. 8, 2012.

Overloaded telephone and online ticketing services have done little to make the job of buying a rail or bus ticket home for millions of Chinese any easier ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday later this month.

The desperate scramble for the hard-to-get tickets kicked off on Sunday, as China's railways released the first tranche of tickets and seat allocations in the largest human migration on the planet.

"There is an online ticket-buying site," said a migrant worker surnamed Song, who is trying to get a ticket from the southern economic boomtown of Shenzhen to her hometown in southwest China's Sichuan province ahead of the all-important family reunion meal on New Year's Eve.

"But it's totally useless ... I couldn't order a ticket in the end."

Faced with millions of calls to a handful of ticket sales lines, frozen websites, or all-night queuing and violent jostling at China's main urban railway stations, many people are forced to "go through the back door," compounding the problem for those without official connections.

A second worker, surnamed Zhang, said he had managed to procure his ticket home this year, but not via the official ticketing services.

"You can try the website," he said. "But it's not like there's a cast-iron guarantee."

A third worker, surnamed Zhao, said most options resulted in queuing, which in China is punctuated by yelled instructions from officials with megaphones, scuffles with would-be queue-jumpers, and a constant fear that one's efforts will come to nothing.

"You can reserve by phone or you can queue, but if you don't have time, then you have to queue anyway," she said. "Even if you call up and reserve your tickets, you still have to stand in line to collect them."

Black market sales

A worker surnamed Chen trying to return to her hometown in Hunan province said on Monday that the authorities had instituted a real-name registration system for ticket sales this year, in an attempt to clamp down on a nationwide, and well-connected, black market in train and bus tickets.

But she said the result had been fewer options for beleaguered travelers, with fewer touts selling black-market tickets at inflated prices.

"You can't get tickets, you can't order tickets," she said. "Everyone says you can't get them online, either."

But she said some lines, including the one running inland from Guangdong towards Wuhan, had seen some easing of pressure since the high-speed rail links began.

"At least on those lines, it might take a bit longer, but you'll be able to get a ticket," Zhao said. "But on the lines where there's no bullet train you can stand in line but you still won't get a ticket."

She added: "Online, there are so many people trying to buy tickets that you can't even get into the website."

Officials admitted last week that the railway ministry's ticketing website crashed under the sheer volume of page requests, leaving many people with money taken from their credit cards, but no tickets.

The ministry issued more than six million tickets last Monday alone, official media reported, with 1.6 million of those bought over the phone.

The ministry expects Chinese travelers to make more than three billion trips in the lunar New Year period, which will usher in the Year of the Dragon.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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