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China's annual long march

Chinese New Year brings the world's largest migration as millions of city workers head home to their villages, reconnecting briefly, and awkwardly, with families and a life they barely know.

February 20, 2011|By Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Passengers line up at the Beijing East train station to begin their journey home for Chinese New Year.
Passengers line up at the Beijing East train station to begin their journey… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Beijing and Liloucun, China — Li Guangqiang rises early and pulls on his sharpest city clothes: dark jeans fashionably distressed, puffy down coat, black pouch slung over one shoulder. An outfit carefully chosen to announce: I am not a farmer or a villager. Not anymore.

Li's journey will be long, and he has no time to lose. Heading out into the dry, dirty cold of a Beijing winter, he rolls his suitcase along frozen canals the shade of curdled milk, through the warren of alleyways where he and other migrants sleep in makeshift shelters of concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs.

When the holidays are over, when he makes his way back to work on the construction of the new Microsoft site, his home will be gone, swept aside in booming Beijing's tireless bouts of gentrification. But he's not thinking about that now, because these are the dying days of the old lunar year.

Today Li will go home.

Figures loom out of the darkness and make their way up the worn steps of the bus station, lugging booty for seldom-seen families: gifts of clothes and food wrapped in auspicious red to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, boxes of cheap toys, sacks of grain hefted on broad shoulders.

Li is one of many now.

This is the world's largest human migration: Every year, millions of workers flee the big cities and industrial hubs en masse and retrace their steps to their home villages.

These precious days are the most eagerly awaited of the year: a rare chance for rest, and the coming together of families painfully split apart by economic necessity. Self-conscious spouses are reunited. Children peer shyly at parents they haven't seen in a year. Men who are mocked and exploited in the slick cities puff out their chests and strut, get drunk on rice wine and lavish their hard-won cash on their families.

Many of the workers sleep outside train stations for days to get tickets, then stand packed tight as cattle in train carriages. Li opts for the relative comfort of the bus for the 12-hour trip to his village, about 400 miles south of Beijing in Shandong province.

In the drowsy din of the bus station, Li's eyes dart anxiously from gate to gate, but he tries hard to appear nonchalant. The 38-year-old has been making the journey for 16 years, and tries to adopt the swagger of the big city.

"I used to get very excited," he says, shrugging, "but now I go back and forth every year."

Li's bus is called, and he joins the crowd surging through the gate. They toss bags into the belly of the bus, scramble aboard and elbow their way down the aisles. Every seat is full, and almost all of the passengers are men.

The bus shudders to life and pulls onto the road. It rumbles south past shopping malls, gas stations, construction sites. The bus is filled with the click of cellphone cameras taking parting shots as Beijing falls away.

Turn on the heat, the passengers beg.

No, the driver replies. It's a waste of fuel.

The passengers do not insist. They're used to shabby conditions and physical discomfort. Soon the bus is rocked by snores and coughs. Li doesn't sleep; he just waits.

Familiar journey

Li is not tall, but there is a bullish solidity to his body. In repose, his features fall into a wary stillness, and his eyes narrow as if he is perpetually on the lookout for a trick. But his smile is quick, spilling unexpected relaxation over his face.

When he migrated to Beijing in 1995, he planned to stay only a few years. He'd make some cash and go home.

But now he's addicted, not just to the money, but to the city itself. He describes his village as unsophisticated and dull.

"I'll stay in Beijing until I'm 50," he declares.

Hours fade, and the bus rolls over country roads cluttered with the tokens of Chinese growth. Factories and sprawling construction sites are overhung with cranes and fronted by billboards showing the housing developments that soon will be completed.

In the early afternoon, the driver pulls over, urges everyone off the bus and then locks the doors. This is the lunch stop; always the same place, Li grumbles.

In the restrooms, waist-high partitions separate one stinking hole from the next, and icicles drip from the ceiling. In the cafeteria, Li grimaces at vats of oily vegetables and indistinguishable meat.

"It's not clean," he warns, and heads back outside. In the trash-strewn parking lot, he stuffs his hands into his pockets and stares at the horizon until the driver finishes his lunch.

The landscape turns to mountains and thicker trees, then flattens out again into fields as darkness falls.

The county seat is gaudy with lights, the market stalls and supermarkets packed with shoppers from surrounding villages who've come to town to stock up on holiday delicacies and decorations. Everybody is a little more flush with cash at this time of the year.

Li is the first one off the bus. Early fireworks burst into pinwheels in the sky.

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