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January 18, 2020

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Chinese New Year: Do you dare to join the largest human migration?

TRAVELING during public holidays in China is something I’ve just never even considered doing — prices are higher, everything’s crowded, and stress levels are up. But don’t get too cocky like I did this year, because it just might backfire on you.

The Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Spring Festival, is China’s largest and most important traditional festival. It celebrates the start of a new year based on the lunar cycle and is the time when families reunite, sometimes for the only time in 12 months.

Because of this need to be with family, coupled with the fact that hundreds of millions live and work away from their hometowns, the Spring Festival brings about the world’s largest annual human migration: an unimaginable 3 billion trips will be made during the 40-day travel period around the festival.

It doesn’t take a genius mathematician to put two and two together here and come to the realization that traveling during this time — even though we all get a sweet seven days off — is nothing short of crazy. But luckily for expats in this great nation, the festival holds no such significance and we don’t face pressure to travel across the country with hundreds of millions of others.

In light of Shanghai’s relatively big migrant population (nearly 10 million are from out of town), the city becomes exquisitely quiet during the Spring Festival as a huge chunk of the city’s residents join the rush across China to watch fireworks, eat dumplings and watch the New Year celebration on TV with family (it’s the most watched annual TV gala in the world, naturally).

That makes Shanghai the perfect place to relax and unwind — you might even enjoy visiting parts of the city you seldom see on unnervingly empty public transportation.

Travel earlier, or later

If you really must travel, do so before or after chunyun (the Spring Festival travel period) as prices will be lower and streets will be walkable. If you can, tell your boss you’d be happy to work over the holiday period and then you can basically just swap those days for a time when everyone else is back at work. You’ll earn kudos with the higher-ups and enjoy better travel and a super-quiet Spring Festival in Shanghai.

It could all go wrong!

But don’t get too cocky: choose your locations carefully in case it all backfires on you, like it did for me this week.

I decided to get some of my travel bug out before the Spring Festival by heading to Manila in the Philippines for a few days. On Sunday, I made my way to the airport and grabbed some local food in an airport restaurant. When I went to pay, I noticed the girls behind the counter were transfixed by a volcanic eruption on the news.

I quickly messaged a Filipino friend who hadn’t even heard of any eruption and had to quickly check the news. He verified that the Taal volcano, about 50 kilometers south of Manila in Batangas province, had started to erupt.

“It shouldn’t affect your flight but I don’t know, I’ve never experienced this before,” he told me. It wasn’t very reassuring.

As I walked toward my gate, I saw people frantically on their phones and one Chinese girl on a video call or live broadcast. “I don’t know if I’ll be home tonight,” she said.

All flights in and out of Manila’s international airport had been canceled as ash started to fall in the capital city. I made my exit and quickly booked a hotel near the airport, managing to secure the last room.

The next three days were filled with drama after drama, and I ended up booking a new flight — from Clark airport in another city unaffected by the volcano — to Kaohsiung in Taiwan and then, finally, on to Shanghai.

Perhaps it was the Spring Festival gods smiting me for trying to wrangle the situation and have my cake and eat it too?

In any event, I wish you all a happy and safe Spring Festival, wherever you celebrate it.


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