Napping away the long journey home

  • 24 January 2014
Travellers on a train in China before the Chinese New Year celebrations
Image caption An estimated 258 million people will travel in mainland China by train over the Chinese New Year period.

On a high-speed train, the trip from Hangzhou, on China's eastern coast, to Guiyang, a city in the south, takes just over 10 hours.

But few migrant workers can afford that luxury when travelling home for Chinese New Year.

Instead, the slow journey takes at least 27 hours. Extra trains added to shuttle migrant workers home for Chinese New Year stop and start sporadically, adding hours in delays.

Hundreds travelling on a packed train last week were stuck on the train for an exhausting 31 hours.

"Although the journey was quite tough, the passengers all fell asleep quite peacefully," said Xu Kangping, a newspaper photographer documenting the factory and construction workers' trip home.

"They had finished a year of hard work and they knew they were heading home."

Mr Xu's employer, the Zhejiang City Express newspaper, originally dismissed the photos, arguing they weren't unique. So Xu Kangping posted them on his Instagram account. From there, they spread across multiple Chinese websites.

Image caption People across China are expected to make more than 3.6 billion trips around the country in the period around the Chinese New Year.
Image caption To ease travel, the Chinese railway authorities have added extra trains to the schedule in the weeks leading up to the new year. This was one of the first additional trains heading to Guiyang.
Image caption Most workers enjoy one extended holiday a year, at Chinese New Year. Many can only afford to return to their hometown to see their families once a year. Millions of parents only reunite with their children during that period.
Image caption The cheapest train tickets are sold for "hard-seat" carriages. The seats cannot recline, leaving passengers to find their own creative solutions in the search for a place to sleep.
Image caption Photographer Xu Kangping took many of these photos on the train journey's second evening, when most people had been on board the train for more than 24 hours.
Image caption As the calendar moves closer to the 30 January New Year celebration, trains will become more packed. Travellers are sometimes left standing for over 24 hours.
Image caption The government encourages factories on China's eastern coast to close weeks ahead of the Chinese New Year, to allow workers ample time to travel to their home villages, though most forms of transport are still packed in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
Image caption Most people who travel home for the Chinese New Year say the experience is exhausting. Increasing numbers are opting to stay away from their hometowns to avoid the travel rush ahead of the holiday.
Image caption Workers hailing from the same hometowns often travel home together, to ease the burden of the journey.

'Youngest passenger'

"My photos reminded people of their past experiences of travelling by train. They all expressed sympathy towards these migrant workers and the hardships they face on their way home," Mr Xu said.

"Some suggest the government should improve transportation conditions for migrant workers. For example, maybe they make trains more comfortable so people have a place to sleep or maybe create specific sections for children."

One family, in particular, faced an epic journey to return to their home village for the 30 January New Year's Eve celebrations.

"One family I spoke to was this migrant couple who work in Taizhou, in Zhejiang province," Mr Xu said.

"They were travelling with their newborn baby, a girl named Liu Wanqing. She was only 20 days old. She was probably the youngest passenger on board."

"The baby's father was named Liu Yinan, a 23-year-old worker in a factory that makes large machinery parts. He makes about $16 to $32 [£9.70 to £19.50] a day doing hard labour.

"After the family left the train, they would have to take another five-hour bus journey in order to get home. But they rented a car instead for the baby, so it was another three-hour car journey before they finally made it home."

The Chinese authorities have made attempts to make it easier for migrant workers and students to buy train tickets ahead of the annual Chinese New Year trip home.

But relatively few can afford to travel in anything but the cheapest class of train travel, making the idea of comfortable travel an elusive concept for millions.