Chinese citizens endure the New Year travel rush in pursuit of a taste of home

On a crowded train filled with crimson-colored gifts for their loved ones, Sun Jintao, an IT worker, is traveling from Beijing to spend the Chinese New Year holiday with his family for the first time in years.

This week, hundreds of millions of people are leaving China’s major cities in what is known as the world’s largest annual migration, heading home to share meals, honor their elders, and offer blessings for the upcoming Year of the Dragon.

According to the state news agency Xinhua, nine billion passenger trips are expected to take place across the country during this year’s Spring Festival holidays.

“I haven’t been home for Chinese New Year in three years,” said Sun, a 28-year-old resident of Beijing, as he sat on his crowded berth in a sleeper car, speaking to AFP. Previous years were disrupted by the pandemic, making cross-country travel difficult due to strict Covid precautions. “It was quite troublesome,” Sun explained, recalling his journeys to Handan, the final destination of the slow train, located in Hebei province. “Last year, I visited my partner’s home,” he added, “but this year, I must go home no matter what.”

As the train departed from central Beijing, a magenta sun began to emerge behind a layer of hazy clouds. Many passengers, unable to secure seats as tickets had sold out nationwide, navigated through large suitcases in search of spots for the journey. The cabin filled with aromatic steam from instant noodle bowls and cigarette smoke lingering in the standing areas between train cars, where a few men observed the passing countryside.

For many, the upcoming holidays offer a rare opportunity to take a break from work and escape the high-pressure city life. Dong Hang, an 18-year-old originally from Handan, shared how he had moved to Beijing to earn a higher salary, working long hours in a barbecue restaurant six days a week. “Whether wealthy or poor, we all have to go home to celebrate the New Year,” Dong said, highlighting the significance of the tradition of family reunions and dumpling-making.

Beijing Station is expected to serve over 4.5 million passengers during the Spring Festival period, with the travel rush peaking on Wednesday. Sun expressed his excitement about returning home, despite struggling to relax the night before due to the anticipation. “When I return, I’ll immediately start preparing for Chinese New Year, like buying food and drinks,” he said. “I enjoy cooking, so I’ll buy ingredients and showcase my culinary skills.” Sun also eagerly anticipated savoring his mother’s cooking, describing it as “a taste of hometown, a taste of home.”

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