The Chinese New Year exodus
Updated 21 Aug 2013
Li Anhua (left) and Shi Huaju met twelve years ago, after they migrated to Shanghai. They got married and have two children who live with their grandmother back home in Dayan, Sichuan Province.
Once a year this couple take their place among the millions of Chinese migrant workers who make the arduous journey back home to see their families for Chinese New Year.
The couple work together as street food vendors in the suburbs of Shanghai. Every day they push a wooden cart with two wheels to street corners where students from a local university buy their food.
Life is hard on their monthly income of 2000 yuan ($320) - just enough to send a little money home to support their two children, and for them to rent a room just three meters by three meters in an old apartment far from Shanghai's city centre.
Shi Huaju sleeps inside a subway train as she starts her annual trip home.
Every year millions of migrant workers travel to their hometowns during the holiday period, a massive movement of people that is considered the biggest migration in the world over a short period of time.
Public transportation authorities expect about 3.41 billion train, flight and bus journeys to take place nationwide over the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, which begins on Feb. 10 and marks the start of the Year of the Snake.
Li Anhua and his wife Shi Huaju wait in line at a train station in Shanghai before boarding their train.
"They left their home on a cold Sunday night with 50 hours of hard travelling ahead followed by the reward of spending 30 days with their children."
CARLOS BARRIA, REUTERS PHOTOGRAPHER
Every year millions of migrant workers travel to their hometowns during the Chinese Spring Festival, a massive movement of people that is considered the biggest migration in the world in such a short period of time. Public transportation authorities expect about 3.41 billion train, flight and bus journeys to take place nationwide over the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, which begins on Feb. 10 and marks the start of the Year of the Snake.
Li Anhua and Shi Huaju met twelve years ago, after they migrated to Shanghai and took their place among the millions of Chinese migrant workers that play a key role in the world’s second largest economy.
They work together as street food vendors in the suburbs of Shanghai, setting up their wooden cart on street corners where students from a local university buy their food.
Preparation for the trip began early this year. They managed to buy their train tickets online for 116 yuan each ($19), which saved them the headache of fighting for a place in queues lasting several hours among a swarm of workers and bulky packages.
They got good seats, a place for each of them, which is considered very lucky. Many migrants can’t get a seat on the train and have to travel standing or curled up in any free space they can find.
The couple left their home on a cold Sunday night with 50 hours of hard travelling ahead of them, followed by the reward of spending 30 days with their children. Li and Shi have been doing this trip every year for the last twelve years, since the birth of their son Li Jiangzhon, when they decided to leave the boy with Li Anhua’s mother in a rural village south of Luzhou, 300 kilometers south of the provincial capital of Sichuan Province.
At the Shanghai South Train station, travellers rushed to gate five as the speakers announced the departure of train L633 with the final destination of Chongqing. The couple sat on hard seats in a sleeper train. They would share the next day and a half with four other people in front of them and two people next to them.
As the train departed after midnight, the freezing cold, the noise and the cigarette smoke made it almost impossible to sleep. Shi Huaju tried to lean on her husband's shoulder, looking for a warm place to rest for a few hours.
Passengers played cards, some listened to music, others spent their last minutes of battery on their mobile phones, texting or surfing the internet.
Occasionally a vendor came by selling toys for children, battery chargers, food and beverages. For those who wanted to watch the landscape as the train crossed industrial stretches of land, farm country and polluted rivers, it wasn't that easy; the windows hadn't been cleaned in a while.
After the train arrived in Chongqing, Li Anhua and Shi Huaju rushed to the next terminal where they waited in a jostling line to buy bus tickets for the three-hour journey to Luzhou, near their hometown. A Chinese action movie on a television terminal made Li laugh. He looked happy as they got closer and closer to home.
In Luzhou loud taxi drivers offered their services at the bus station. The couple picked one and started the last 30-minute leg of their trip. At a dark intersection, on a dirt road, the taxi suddenly stopped. Li looked around but he couldn't remember the way to their house. He didn't recognise the way with all the new construction around. “This factory area was not here last year,” he said. Finally a small sign indicated the road to Dayan village.
As the taxi stopped in front of a three-story building a little girl screamed, “mommy, mommy,” as the couple got out of the car. For this little girl and her brother, their most cherished present of this Chinese New Year just arrived.
The family will spend 30 days together, after that they will do the same journey back to Shanghai for another working season.