You’ve heard all the stories. Massive lines of people waiting in packed halls for hours at a time just to board an equally packed train or bus for the long trip back home to the countryside to celebrate Spring Festival with the family.
These days, people with sufficient means can afford to take slightly less tortuous alternatives, such as commercial flights or China’s extensive high-speed rail network, but just a few decades ago such options did not exist, meaning that almost everyone had to experience the same tortuous trip back home.
Earlier this week, photos went viral showing tens of thousands of people lined up outside of the Guangzhou Railway Station waiting for their train to finally come in. The people in this 1995 photo from Guangzhou can likely empathize.
Ticket scalpers and temporary encampments were common fixtures of a Chinese railway station during the lead up to the largest annual mass migration in the world. This 1978 photo of Beijing Station demonstrates the sheer scale of the migration. Here temporary ticket windows have been established to handle the massive influx of people traveling by train.
The standard waiting area for inbound trains was never built to handle the sheer volume of people in this 1992 photo. The area seen above is a special waiting zone established at the Guangzhou Railway Station to accommodate the overflow.
If you think Chinese bathrooms are dirty today, you likely wouldn’t have wanted to visit one 20 years ago. Regardless, options are limited in a train station, and when Chinese New Year’s swings around demand is going to sky rocket. This was the case at the Guangzhou Railway Station in 1991, where this entire crowd of women swarmed a lone bathroom (and you thought rush hour in Shanghai was bad).
As it is today, the vast majority of the people you find at the station during Spring Festival consist of migrants seeking to strike it rich in the big cities. The scene above is a photo of the Xinyang Railway Station in Henan.
Back in 1986, the Guangzhou Railway Station and others like it did not have the same sorts of things you find in many station today: no Starbucks; no milk tea; no KFC, etc. The best you got was a dog pile of tired and stressed migrant laborers.
Amidst the chaotic crowds at Beijing West Station in 1996, a young man waits for his train with his guitar.
Nothing takes the edge off like a train station set lunch, but at the Beijing Railway Station in 1993, only people in specially designated waiting zones for the pregnant, infirm, or elderly could expect any service from the station staff.
After peak hours, station staff in 1984 try crowd control by leading customers in via a single file line.
Train stations are great places to do business, particularly so during Chinese New Year, as this vendor demonstrates in this photo from 1975.
With a crowd this large and this disorderly at the Beijing Train Station in 1993, it is almost certain that a good number have not even bought tickets, making the rush to the train an even more chaotic sight.
At the Guangzhou Railway Station in 1995, the number of passengers far exceeded the number of available passenger cars. To make up for the deficit, the railway resorted to using boxcars to shuttle human cargo around the country.
General aversion to orderly lines, plus the mad scramble that is Chinese New Year, have compelled this woman to find an alternative route abroad.
The woman in this photo climbed into the train through the window while clutching her child, causing the boy standing nearby to cry out in pain as the crowd shoves him into the wall.
In 2002, the large numbers of passengers crowding this Chongqing-bound train have broken the window. Passengers attempt to erect a screen to ward off the wind.
Inside the train, the scene is no less chaotic than in the train station. Both people and luggage are stacked high wherever there is space permitting them to do so.
People often only have so much time to visit their hometowns before they are once again crowding the trains back to the cities. With dwindling opportunities in the countryside, this scene has been replayed time and again since, as these workers in 1999 demonstrate.
A couple kills time while heading home for CNY in 1999.
Travelers catch a bite to eat in a dining car in this photo from 1982.
As the years have gone by, more and more people are choosing to head to the cities to find work or attend school, turning what is arguably the most sacred of Chinese holidays into the only day in the year where families can see each other. So in the end, just like in the past, the hellish trip is all worth it.
By Stanley Yu
[Images via Sina]