On January 25th Jacob and I left Beijing on what was supposed to have been a leisurely 24-hour ride to Hong Kong. We got to the train station on time, despite being almost late, and went through check-in without hassle. The train left on schedule, and the first 12 hours were pretty relaxing. When I went to bed the train was still chugging along, having just entered Hunan province.
The next morning I woke up to the news that the train had barely moved all night. There was a lot of snow and ice outside. We inched along, stopped, inched more, stopped. We stopped in Changsha's train station for about 6 or 7 hours. It wasn't until dinner time, way past our expected 1pm arrival time in Hong Kong, that we passengers were finally clued in.
Areas of Hunan, and other surrounding provinces, were experiencing the worst snowstorm in 50 years. Hunan had a massive power failure, and we were on an electric train. We had no power to run on. By 9pm, almost all the lights were shut off to conserve electricity, in case the conductors needed to jumpstart the engine. There was no more hot drinking water. Heat was also turned off. Bathrooms and hallways were getting filtheir and filthier. We still had to buy, and sometimes pay extra for, all our food.
At one train station, we stopped right by an outdoor snack stall selling ramen, crackers, and large bottles of beer and baijiu. We watched longingly as passengers from another stranded train disembarked and bought their provisions.
We, on the otherhand, were stuck on the train. Hong Kong-bound passengers had already been stamped out of mainland China before boarding in Beijing. Even though we were stuck in Hunan, we were already technically out of China, and thus bound to the blurry political boundary of the train.
I spent another cold night onboard, tucking into a cheap comforter to keep warm. The next morning, I learned that during the night the electric engine had been replaced with steam engine. From about 9 a.m. on, we sped through southern Hunan and Guangdong, and finally arrived in Hong Kong a full 24 hours behind schedule.
Once Jacob and I got through immigration, we came face to face with not only my very relieved grandfather, but also about half a dozen TV crews. One reporter stuck a mic in my face and asked about the situation on board. Train station personnel handed us each a bottle of water and a red bean roll, for our troubles.
It wasn't until I arrived at my great-aunt's and watched the news did I discover the magnitude of the catastrophe. In just two days, 50,000 people were already stranded at Guangzhou's train station. Many had to wait outside because of lack of space inside. Our train was just one of the 136 stranded en route. Hunan still has a power outage. The story was front-page news in Hong Kong.
The New York Times didn't report on the story until today. The Times estimates that up to 600,000 will be stranded at Guangzhou's train station by Monday. China's train system being crippled is bad any time of the year, but especially now, a week before Spring Festival. This is the biggest travel season in all of China, when hundreds of millions of people travel at the same time.
According to the Times: "To cope with the crisis, authorities in Guangzhou have ordered a temporary halt to the sale of train tickets and urged migrants from other provinces to spend the Spring Festival in Guangdong Province."
With 78 million expected to be affected by this crisis, the situation is akin to having every airport in North America and Europe shut down before Christmas. And airport personnel saying, "Oh well, maybe you should spend the holidays in Terminal B, or maybe an overpriced motel nearby."
I'm glad I will be in HK the next few days. Though I am a bit worried about our bus ride up to Zhongshan on Thursday, if the roads don't clear up.