I don’t want to sound too Scrooge-like so close to the Lunar New Year, but I’ll personally be quite happy to see the holiday come and go so we can finally see an end to the flood of travel-related stories that inundate news this time each year. The last 3 weeks have seen our local media report on just about anything and everything with a travel-related angle, pandering to the millions of out-of-towners who have already started their exodus from Shanghai to their hometowns.
On the one hand, the reports underscore the remarkable advances in China’s transport network over the last decade to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside to big cities like Shanghai. But on the other hand, the obsession with travel-related stories this time of year also reflects a cattle-like mentality in many Chinese industries that sees everyone jump on the same bandwagons until the next fad comes along.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been nearly impossible to open a newspaper or watch the TV news each day without being flooded by the latest reports on everything from train ticket machines to extended subway hours and highway tolls.
The frenetic news cycle reached a fever pitch early this season when the central government declared that Chinese New Year’s Eve on January 30 wouldn’t be a public holiday, meaning travelers heading home that day would have to pay tolls to use the nation’s highways. That decision prompted outrage not only in Shanghai but nationally from millions of people who were expecting toll-free roads on their drive home.
The travel story kicked into high gear after that, with anything travel-related suddenly becoming the basis for a story. One day at the height of the frenzy saw one local paper report on everything from the plight of passengers traveling to Harbin, to reports of increased security at train stations and problems with a new ticketing system. Many reports centered on individual people, including one sentimental story recounting the last Lunar New Year period for a woman who had worked on the Beijing-Shanghai rail line for the last 30 years.
One photo of people sitting on the floor of a packed carriage, and another of people handing items through open windows to their friends inside a train, brought back memories of how difficult travel in China used to be, not only during the Lunar New Year but throughout the year.
When I first came to China in the 1980s, the entire travel process was filled with obstacles. Finding an updated train schedule and buying a ticket were just the first of many difficulties, involving special trips to the station and long waits in lines only to often learn that the class or destination you wanted wasn’t available. The process was even worse for most Chinese, who had to provide numerous documents from their work units just to buy many train tickets. Plane travel was even more difficult due to the limited number of flights.
Once you had your ticket, the actual trips were equally challenging. Most people traveled in packed carriages by hard seat or with standing-room tickets, even for journeys of several days. People lucky enough to get sleeper tickets could look forward to uncomfortable beds and days spent in smoke-filled carriages littered with garbage, peanut shells and other items discarded by travelers.
Fast forward to today, when train tickets are easily available online, and can be purchased at agents throughout the city for less tech-savvy travelers like myself. Sleeper cars and comfortable seats are readily available for anyone who doesn’t want to fly, and the new high-speed rail network offers quick and efficient service to most major cities. For those who want to drive, the nation also offers a national network with thousands of kilometers of modern highways.
The improvements are quite remarkable over such a short period, even if they have come with a few controversies along the way. All this brings me back to my original point, which is that China’s travel revolution is a huge achievement, but also one that should find a place in the history books and not become such big news every Lunar New Year. Call me a Scrooge, but there really should be better stories to tell each year during this major annual holiday.