All Aboard

China is a nation on the move--especially now, at the beginning of the much-awaited Spring Festival vacation. Also known as Chinese New Year, and based on the lunar calendar, this is the longest and most popular holiday of the year. And in China, big means really big. Many of the country's 100 million-plus rural-born migrant workers leave, or even quit, jobs in the city and travel to the countryside to spend the first day of the new lunar year with family.

They're on the move already, armies of migrants carrying massive suitcases and cloth bundles--often balanced on shoulder poles--bulging with clothes, toys, electric appliances and other gifts for relatives back home. Hundreds of millions of such family reunions are scheduled for the period from Jan. 14 to Feb. 22, during which time more than 2 billion journeys will be made by rail, road, air and water. Some 700,000 buses will be on the road. Three hundred extra trains are being laid on to help cope with the anticipated 144 million rail journeys--an average of 3.6 million trips a day.

Talk about traffic jams. Less than a week ago, heavy snowstorms hit the central Chinese province of Henan, paralyzing rail traffic on some of the country's most heavily traveled north-south routes. The following day 100,000 passengers were stranded at Beijing's main railway station, and thousands of other disgruntled travelers packed stations in Zhengzhou and Shanghai. On Monday, 15,000 passengers were delayed up to 24 hours in Shanghai, waiting for 17 trains held up by the snow. Shanghai saw a fourth day of chaos on Tuesday as 10,000 stranded passengers--some of whom used nearby underground parking garages and Internet cafes as ad hoc waiting rooms--crowded around the train station.

Rail is still the preferred mode of travel for most of China's 1.3 billion people. The majority of travelers during this holiday period are migrant workers "who have to travel between 1,000 and 2,000 kilometers [600-1,200 miles] from their workplaces to their hometowns," says Prof. Yang Hao of the Beijing Communications University. "This is the largest human migration in the world, especially by rail."

China's travelers differ from those in many foreign countries, where most people prefer to go by air for long distances and by road for short distances, says Yang. Chinese rail travel is cheaper--and safer--than traveling by car. Even though China has only eight vehicles per 1,000 people, it has one of the world's highest rates of automobile fatalities. The trains are also far more affordable than air travel, which will account for just 1 percent of the Spring Festival migration this year.

Authorities hope to train the Chinese to keep taking the train. The government embarked on an ambitious rail-expansion campaign, and will spend nearly $20 billion on it this year. China already has about 44,000 miles worth of railroads, a figure slated to jump to more than 60,000 miles by 2020. The system now stretches as far west as the Central Asian oasis town of Kashgar, and as high as the Tibetan plateau where construction workers have to cope with permafrost and high-altitude sickness in order to build the world's highest railway. The Qinghai-Tibet railroad is slated to begin operation in 2007.

The Chinese have been obsessed with rail travel for decades. A private train was the late chairman Mao Zedong's equivalent to Air Force One; on it he convened mobile Politburo meetings and--at least according to his doctor's memoirs--reportedly engaged in dalliances with female attendants hired for their good looks. During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, radical youth were encouraged to travel--for free--on trains from city to city as they participated in hysterical mass rallies, waving their "Little Red Books."

Mao and the Cultural Revolution may be long gone, but, until recently, the population's travel habits hadn't changed much from those days. Trains--with everyone journeying together in a communal pod, all headed in the same predetermined direction--somehow fit the central planning and collectivization of Mao's era. But rail travel now boasts some newfangled bells and whistles, such as the 19-mile "magnetic levitation" train that whisks you from the Pudong airport to Shanghai's city center in a matter of minutes.

And today's Chinese are locked into a growing love affair with the automobile--a symbol of the country's blossoming sense of individuality and spontaneity. Drive north of Beijing on most weekends and you'll find the sinuous roads near the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs clogged with Beijing families in their own cars, heading out to see the sights, go fishing or enjoy a rustic meal in a farmer's home. "We love to go wherever and whenever we want," says Beijing auto buff Wang Qishun.

Wang recalls that he got caught in a fierce snowstorm a few years ago after he and his family hopped into their Jeep Cherokee on the spur of the moment to drive 785 miles from Beijing to Shanghai during the Spring Festival. "It took us 17 hours to get there, at least five hours more than normal!" he laughs, claiming he had the time of his life. Wang also opened Beijing's first (and only) drive-in movie theater. Private car ownership is still prohibitively expensive for many citizens, though, so the theater sometimes lets you rent a vehicle if you show up without your own wheels.

For all the new railroads being built, China's highways are proliferating even faster. Compared to just 1,900 miles a decade ago, the mainland's expressway network already surpasses 19,000 miles, making it the second biggest in the world next to the United States, says Professor Yang. "But in the long run, keeping environmental protection in mind, we need to speed up rail construction," he says. "We need to conserve our use of energy, especially petrol." Indeed, traffic jams are the bane of big cities such as Beijing, and noxious vehicle emissions help make China home to four fifths of the world's most polluted cities, according to the World Bank.

For now, the choice between traveling by road versus rail remains dictated largely by cost. And officials clearly hope that, in the future, a sense of environmental protection and social responsibility will prevail, prompting citizens to choose trains over gas-guzzling, pollution-emitting private cars. Still, as more and more Chinese join the middle class, many members of the mainland's "me generation" will likely turn their backs on the notion of "collective travel"--and simply hit the road on their own.