Zhaoqing, Guangdong province: Lu Qiao and his travelling companions have been up since four in the morning, hoping to make good time with a 10-hour journey on two wheels still ahead of them.
With first light still more than an hour away, trouble has already struck. The back wheel of one of the five motorcycles in their convoy has suffered a puncture, and emergency repairs are in order.
But Lu, who is returning to his home in Longwan village, about 400 kilometres south-west of Guangzhou, for the Spring Festival break, is remarkably sanguine about his predicament.
“These things can’t be helped sometimes, right?” he says with a wry grin. “We’ll still get home in the end.”
Getting home by any means, it seems, is all that counts at this time of year. China’s 1.3 billion people usher in the Year of the Horse on Friday and, in what is often dubbed the world’s biggest annual human migration, more than 3.6 billion journeys are being made on trains, buses and planes, to ensure this most important time of the year is being spent with family and loved ones.
The desperation to get home for the more than 260 million rural migrant workers who have moved to the city in search of better-paying work is plain to see at airports, train stations and bus terminals, which are stretched to the limit across the country.
As many as 157 million migrant workers leave their children behind at home. For many, it is the only time they get to go home after toiling all year long.
Guangdong province, a major manufacturing hub in southern China, has a particularly large population of migrant workers keeping its factories humming, many from neighbouring Guangxi.
With bus and train tickets near impossible to get hold of, more and more workers in Guangdong are taking things in their own hands, hopping on motorbikes for their treacherously long journeys back home.
An estimated 400,000 people will travel home by motorcycle this year, prompting authorities to provide police escorts on national highways, and for one major state-owned oil giant to provide free petrol.
Regular rest stops dotting the highway have a carnival feel as volunteers hand out free plain congee, tea, and even wireless internet and telephones to ring home.
Yao Jingquan is riding home with his wife, Li Meihui, and a live chicken that he will slaughter for the New Year’s Eve feast.
“Of course we’re happy to be going home,” he says. “After all, we come out and work and make money to improve our lives back home.”
Special attention is also on the railway system this year, experiencing its first New Year rush since its reorganisation from a separate government ministry to a state-owned corporation last year.
The railways have been under intense scrutiny since former railways minister Liu Zhijun was dismissed in 2011 on suspicion of corruption. Last July, Liu was handed a suspended death sentence for bribery and abuse of power.
By 2015, China will have 120,000 kilometres of railways, with about one-tenth of that for high-speed trains. This year, for the first time, some late-night high-speed trains are being put into service to cope with demand.
From the hapless worker who camped outside a railway station for six days and nights without being able to secure a train ticket, to the young woman who started to shed her clothes while writhing on the ground in delight when she did, the lengths people take to get home have also served to highlight the haves and have-nots and the widening gulf in wealth equality in China.
“We see how thriving Guangzhou is but I always feel under pressure during the year, I’m always tired,” says Qin Zhiguang, a 36-year-old factory worker.
Qin says he makes about 3000 yuan ($560) a month and that the cost of fuel while riding home was about 10 times cheaper than buying a bus or train ticket.
“Why do we ride our motorcycles home? Because we’re poor. We don’t have rich parents. If you’re rich you have better ways to get home,” says 26-year-old Zhang Yiming, who has been working at a factory for eight years.
The story Chinese New Year: Long road home as 3.6 billion journeys made first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.