January 27, 2006

Cold and cramped, Chinese struggle home by train

By Ben Blanchard

ON BOARD TRAIN L295, China (Reuters) - The window panes
have frozen solid, and the cold has forced the 15 people
crammed in a small space in a train headed for China's east to
huddle even closer together for warmth.

Wang Ming, stamping his feet and surrounded by luggage
stuffed into bursting, tattered, nylon bags and old plastic
buckets, has experienced it many times before.

"This is actually quite good," said Wang, who has already
spent 20 hours without a seat on the train on his way down from
near the Mongolian border where he works.

"Last year the train was so packed you had to fight for an
hour just to get to the toilet," adds Wang, still with another
20 hours to go before getting home to the eastern province of

Wang is just one of an estimated 144 million people --
equivalent to the population of Bangladesh -- who are taking
the train home for Chinese New Year, which starts this weekend.

Many of these are migrant workers from poor, inland Chinese
provinces like Anhui, who work on building sites and as
waitresses and whose wages of often less than $100 a month help
power China's economy, the world's sixth largest.

Too poor to afford sleeping berths, they are lucky if they
can get a seat or just stand in the heated parts of the train
for journeys that may last more than 48 hours.

Liu Qingshan couldn't.

He sits cradling his five-year-old son Boqi, his wispy
mustache tickling his son's face as he crouches on a metal
floor on train L295 bound for southern Anhui's Anqing city. His
breath freezes as he tries to snuggle up to the boy's shaved

His wife has found someone willing to sell a space on a bed
in one of the sleeper carriages, but the 50 yuan ($6.20) asked
for is too much for a man who scrapes a living as a knick-knack
vendor in a city in China's frozen far northeast.

"I don't have that kind of cash," he whispers, fingering
through a thin pile of money stashed in his dirty coat.

The train conductor said there were 1,800 people on board,
instead of the normal complement of 1,000.


The stench from the toilets starts wafting through the
carriage, mixing with the sour smell of smoke from cheap
cigarettes, soon after the train leaves Beijing at around 1

Some trains are so crowded that even using the toilet is
impossible, with state media reporting that migrant workers in
southern China had resorted to wearing adult diapers on long

Despite being packed in, most passengers on L295 are in
good spirits, happy to be going home -- many for the first time
in a year. They swap stories of sickness and weird regional
dialects spoken by co-workers.

A food trolley being forced through the crowds by a gruff
sounding woman annoys some.

"Get the hell out of my way!" she screams, slamming the
trolley into the back of a man squatting on a bucket that used
to hold fertilizer and now is filled with food and underwear.

"Bitch," he mutters under his breath, standing aside.

For the staff who work on the new year trains, this is a
time of year they dread, but there are benefits.

Conductor Sun Zhongyuan, 29, is sacrificing his new year to
work the trains out of Anhui's provincial capital Hefei, but is
earning triple time, a useful addition for a man who earns just
2,000 yuan a month and is hoping to start a family next year.

"At least I have a stable job," says the former soldier,
looking out of the window at the snow-covered countryside
zipping past. "It's better than working in a field or on a
building site."

Not everyone on board is going to have a family reunion
this year, however.

Miao Zhenhua's wife had to stay behind in Beijing to work
at the family business, a fast food restaurant.

"If she didn't, we wouldn't be able to afford to go home
next year," says Miao, though his son Zhijun is with him.

"I couldn't afford to buy any presents. I had to spend the
money on these tickets."

($1=8.060 Yuan)