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January 17, 2012

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Struggling to get home for the holiday

A joke goes like this: A photographer meets another photographer. "I just saw a poor, shabby beggar shivering in the cold."

"What did you give him?"

"F3.5 and 1/1000 shutter."

That's what came to mind when I took out my pen and camera and interviewed migrant workers who line up night and day to buy a train ticket home and later crowd into carriages, sleeping next to each other on their bags. All to get home for family reunion in the Spring Festival.

I had nothing to offer but words and photos, which they would probably never see, while they had plenty of stories - of sadness and separation, struggle and hard work, disappointment and frustration, as well as joy.

For the past three years I have covered the annual, 40-day chunyun or spring rush, the world's largest human migration when hundreds of millions of Chinese rush to get back to their hometowns, and then return. Around 235 million will take the train this year.

I stand at the Shanghai Railway Station in an open space turned into a ticket market and watch the backs of disappointed workers who waited in long queues but failed to get a ticket.

"The gap between supply and demand still exists," the Railway Ministry acknowledges. Every year we hear capacity is insufficient, while the numbers surge.

During this period, more than twice the total Chinese population are on the road, by train, plane, bus and car. That's around 3.1 billion. Some people take multiple trips to get home and come back. Shanghai's three main railway stations along will handle more than 7 million passengers.

The migrant workers do almost every job you can think of and some you can't imagine. And they are optimistic, despite the long wait, cold weather and frustration.

Zhao Jixiong, a Sichuan Province native, told me he spent 100 yuan (US$15.87) and used up two cell phone batteries dialing the railway ticket hot line. He couldn't get a single ticket. He has a 10-year-old girl and doesn't want her to stand all the way home on the train. He'll keep trying.

Wang Jie, a Henan Province native, wants to be an actor and has confidence that he will become famous. Now he works in the interior-decorating business in Shanghai. "Maybe you can take some good photos of me," he says.


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