Some passengers sobbed as their travel nightmare was ending. Others just grabbed their children and sprinted into the station with other Chinese travelers Thursday when train service returned to normal in southern China after days of delays caused by the worst snow and ice storms in decades.
Many were so desperate to get on a train that they ditched their luggage outside the station in the city of Guangzhou — the starting point for the busy rail line north to Beijing. Piles of suitcases, dirty blankets and duffel bags were left behind in the station's rain-soaked plaza.
Although railway officials said the restored train service could carry 400,000 passengers a day, hundreds of thousands of people, most of them migrant workers, were still waiting to leave Guangzhou, formerly called Canton. More were streaming into the city every hour to catch a train home for next week's Chinese New Year in one of the world's biggest annual mass movements of people. A record 178.6 million people — more than the population of Russia — were expected to ride the rails in the coming weeks.
To control the crowds, police used tall metal barricades to build a massive corral, as big as two or three football fields, around the train station's plaza. Thousands of travelers were herded into the waiting area on a first-come-first-served basis. Inside the zone, they waited shoulder to shoulder, pressed tightly against one another. Some hefted their luggage over their heads, while others let their children ride on their shoulders so the kids could breathe better.
"I've been stuck here for two days, and I stood here in the plaza all last night and couldn't sleep," one scruffy migrant worker in a green work suit yelled to a reporter before he was swallowed up by the waiting crowd.
As soon as one wave of passengers was allowed to board trains, police allowed another to leave the plaza and enter the train station to wait some more. This would spark a stampede as people pushed past guards and dashed into the building. A policeman helped one woman by carrying her toddler, whose tearful face was scrunched up in terror. The mother ran behind the officer, clutching the nape of his coat so she wouldn't get separated from her child.
Several women became overwhelmed with emotion as they neared the station and began crying. In the frantic rush, they wouldn't stop to explain why they were sobbing.
China's rail system was thrown into chaos last weekend, when heavy snow in regions just north of Guangdong province began downing electrical lines that powered the trains. Guangzhou — the capital of Guangdong — quickly swelled with migrant workers who had just taken holiday leave from the thousands of factories in the province. The nation has nearly 200 million migrant workers.
More blizzards forecast
The freakish blizzards, which are forecast to continue, also caused dozens of deaths, blackouts and airport closures in southern, central and eastern China — regions that aren't accustomed to such severe winter weather.
The storms also took a "extremely serious" toll on crops, said Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Communist Party's leading financial team. "The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic," Chen told reporters in Beijing.
In Guangzhou, the transport crisis showed the toughness of the migrant workers and their high threshold for boredom — traits that make them excellent workers in factories that have lured away millions of jobs from the rest of the world. Most of them slept outside or on the floors of schools and convention centers as they waited patiently for the trains to run again. So far, there have been no reports of riots.
Zhang Yusheng, a 45-year-old truck driver, was stoically waiting with his wife to go home to central Henan province so they could see their two children — a trip they can only make once a year.
"We came here last night because our train was supposed to leave this morning, but there is no way we're going to get on it," Zhang said with no signs of agitation. "There were just too many people ahead of us, so we are just going to wait here until there is another train we can get on. We might have to wait two days."
Few dressed for weather
Most of the workers also showed up in Guangzhou dressed for the normal moderate weather in the province, which shares the same latitude as Florida. But a cold snap began gripping Guangzhou this week, and the temperature has been dipping down to 39 Fahrenheit.
Only a few of the workers had parkas or coats, and most endured the chilly rainy weather with cheap polyester blend sweaters covered with light jackets or tattered blazers. They sloshed around in canvas sneakers or flimsy leather dress shoes.
Mixed in with the blue-collar masses were young professionals, who could easily be spotted with their trendy glasses and new clothes. They didn't seem to be as hardy as the workers.
Cheng Xia, 28, a graphic designer, said he went to Guangzhou's station the night before and began waiting but gave up his spot in line and went home. He said he swapped his large suitcase for a small carry-on bag so he could navigate his way through the crowd better. He also packed a tote bag full of snacks and a roll of toilet paper for the trip back home to the western province of Sichuan.
"The weather is still bad," he said. "Once I get on a train, who knows how long I'll be on it? We could get stuck for three or four days."