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Lunar New Year rush under way, despite SARS

Despite concerns about the possible spread of SARS, millions of Chinese have hit the road for travel during the Lunar New Year.
Beijing station
Chinese paramilitary officers maintain order outside a train station in Beijing on Monday as the holiday rush began.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They’re crowding planes, trains and buses, unfazed by SARS and price gougers. As the Lunar New Year arrives, hundreds of millions of Chinese are bound for home or holiday — a mass movement of humanity that dwarfs the Muslim hajj.

Even in a country that contains more people than any other, the numbers are startling: The government estimates some 1.89 billion journeys will be made during the Spring Festival travel season, all pegged to Thursday, the start of the new year.

Of that number, an estimated 295 million Chinese, many of them students and migrant workers, will be driving — as if the entire population of the United States decided to hit the road at the same time.

“It’s our country’s biggest holiday, and everyone is traveling more because the economy is good,” said Tong Yin, 21, a student. As she waited for her train at Beijing’s Railroad Station, thousands of travelers laden with luggage and plastic sacks scurried around her.

Fears that a resurgence of severe acute respiratory syndrome might cast a pall over the beginning of the year of the monkey are proving unfounded. Only three cases of SARS have been confirmed this season, and the disease does not appear to be spreading.

Still, it’s this very scenario — high-speed modern travel — that launched the virus around the planet last year, and China is doing its utmost to be, and appear, ready.

On Saturday, Health Minister and Vice Premier Wu Yi urged transportation authorities to enforce anti-SARS efforts. And a ministry spokesman this Spring Festival promise: “No effort should be spared in guarding against the spread of the disease.”

Temperature checks are already in place in major airports, and the government has barred anyone with a fever higher than 100.5 from boarding a train.

China’s airline authority is also requiring that people flying from Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital and the focus of the SARS investigation, disembark in separate areas for temperature checks.

“The suspected SARS cases in Guangzhou affected the business,” said an employee from the China International Travel Agency in Beijing who would give only her family name, Xiao. “Travelers were worried.”

At its peak last year, the flu-like disease — which killed 774 people worldwide and infected more than 8,000 — brought travel in China to a halt. SARS subsided in June, but health authorities have been on guard for its re-emergence with the cold weather.

But disease isn’t the only potential peril amid the hubbub.

More than 100 people died in accidents in the past week as hundreds of thousands of migrant workers left east coast industrial cities for their inland homes. Overcrowding, lane-hogging and dangerous passing have been the main culprits.

The number of Spring Festival travelers has ballooned in recent years, both because more Chinese can afford to travel and because more migrant workers leave their rural villages for work in the city and do their utmost to get home.

Hard-to-find tickets have produced another problem common in China — fakes. Police in the southern province of Guangdong have detained more than 1,000 scalpers, closed almost 300 illegal ticket offices and confiscated thousands of counterfeit copies, according to the semiofficial China News Service.

Real tickets have become a precious commodity, with prices increasing up to 20 percent for trains leaving from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in recent days — if you can obtain them at all.

“I went to a lot of ticket offices, but had no luck. So I came directly here,” said Tim Zhang, a 26-year old medical equipment salesman from the northeastern province of Jilin standing in a lengthy line at a train-station ticket booth.

Oil Li, a 20-year-old student, was hoping to get to Hebei in the north. He had tried buying tickets at another of Beijing’s train stations to no avail.

“I’ve got to find a ticket!” he said.

Then he rushed off, swallowed by the sea of travelers and heading for China’s activity of the week — joining a long line, hoping for a ticket, dreaming of home.