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Glitches Complicate Chinese New Year Travel Plans


Over the last couple of decades, as China's economy has exploded, Chinese have flowed to the country's giant coastal cities to work. This month, that river of people reverses course. Hundreds of millions in China will board, trains, buses and planes to head home and celebrate the Lunar New Year, which kicks off this Sunday at midnight. It's far and away the world's largest annual mass migration. NPR's Frank Langfitt is right in the middle of it at Shanghai's biggest rail station. We got him on the line. So, Frank, I mean, I have seen photos of some of these crowds. This must be really a crush.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It is. There are a ton of people here right now. To just give you a sense of - this is the Hong Chau (ph) rail station. I use this rail station all the time. I think of it as being the size of at least two airplane hangars. You could probably fit a couple of 747s in here. And certainly, when you're up high, for the most part, you can't see the floor. So we're talking at least seven to 8,000 people coming through here right now. And there are other times I'm sure that you won't be able to see much of anything. It'll just be all a sea of people. And I'll tell you, you know, this to us, as Westerners, as Americans, this looks like a ton people, but it's nothing compared to what we've been seeing in other railway stations around the country. Earlier this week in Guangzhou in the south, there had been some train delays, and anywhere between 50 and 100,000 people were stranded there. So this is actually, by Chinese standards, you know, kind of roomy.

MONTAGNE: Well, Frank, let me just take you back. You've been in and out of China, covering China since the '90s. How does this train station filled with people compare to what you would've been seeing about 20 years ago?

LANGFITT: Well, there's huge differences. But actually, what's not - kind of so cool about China is you can see the economic change just by standing where I am right now. I'm looking at a family. This is a lot like the kind of family I would've traveled with in the '90s. They're migrant workers. They have kind of padded jackets. They're actually carrying a lot of stuff home in bags. And so they are kind of low-income people. And definitely, a lot of people back in the '90s were like them, not very wealthy, you know, basically pretty poor. But then you look around here, and you see people in really nice dress overcoats with iPhones, and this is the middle class that's emerged in the last 20 years. I never used to see people like this for the most part when I would go traveling during Lunar New Year. And so you can really see how much the country's changed and also how much more prosperous it's become.

MONTAGNE: Well, here is another difference and having to do with the exploding economy there. Traditionally, Chinese light off huge amounts of fireworks to ring in the new year. But I gather that Chinese cities at - because, of course, they all have these terrible pollution problems - I gather the government is trying to change that tradition of lighting fireworks.

LANGFITT: Definitely. I think Shanghai sounds like they're getting a lot stricter. I mean, this year, for the first time that I've seen it, they are banning all fireworks inside what's called the Outer Ring Road. So we're talking about 260 square miles. They're also really cutting down on the number of people who can sell fireworks by I'm sure more than 90 percent. They're down to just 84 places that are going to be able to sell. And the reason for this is, you know, our air is not getting better in this country at all, and the idea of people going out and just - and I've seen it. You know, the city will look beautiful at night on New Year's Eve here, and then it's just clouds and clouds of smoke. So they really are trying to change the way people think and behave.

MONTAGNE: And Frank, what are your plans for Chinese New Year?

LANGFITT: Oh, I'm completely different than everybody else at this railway station. They're heading off. I'm going to stay here in Shanghai. And the reason is it's my favorite time of the year in the city. About half of the city clears out, so we're talking about 12 million people go home. And this is a crowded, dense city, and it's so nice to be here when it's just quiet. I can drive places. I can go to parks. And in my opinion, it's actually my favorite time of the year in Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from the crush at Shanghai's main rail station as people head home, thousands and thousands of them, for the Lunar New Year. Happy New Year, Frank.

LANGFITT: (Speaking Chinese). That's how we say it in Chinese. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.