By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press Writer
GUANGZHOU, China – Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers desperate to get home for the Chinese New Year shivered in the cold under a sea of umbrellas outside train stations Tuesday, as the worst winter storms in half a century paralyzed China.
One of the world’s biggest annual mass movements of humanity — a record 178.6 million people, more than the population of Russia — were expected to travel by train for the holiday, according to railway officials’ estimates.
Most of those stranded at train stations were migrant workers trying to leave booming southern Guangdong province — often called the world’s factory floor because it makes everything from Honda sedans to Apple iPods and Nike sneakers.
In China, the New Year holiday, which begins Feb. 7, is as important as Christmas is in the West. For most migrant workers, it’s the only time of the year when they can visit their hometowns, and they often take a month off to feast with their families and perform a series of rituals.
The extreme weather showed no signs of letting up Tuesday, with cities blacked out, highways closed because of treacherous conditions and trains canceled. A bus crash on an icy road killed at least 25 people — the worst accident since the blizzards began. The 35-seat bus slid off an icy mountain road and plunged 40 yards into a valley in Guizhou province, according to the State Administration of Work Safety.
Huge red banners hanging at the train station in the provincial capital, Guangzhou, urged migrant workers to cancel plans to return home, cash in their tickets and return to their factory dormitories. About 200,000 people took the advice and got ticket refunds, railway officials said, while about 200,000 others stayed at the station, milling around in a bone-chilling drizzle.
Thousands stood under umbrellas that formed a huge canopy in the train station’s plaza, while a larger crowd huddled beneath a highway overpass in front of the station hoping to catch a train. But the busy Beijing-Guangzhou line may not return to normal for three to five days, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Wang Jigen was one of many workers who couldn’t cash in his ticket because he had no place to go. The 50-year-old day laborer left his job before the holiday and couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel until the trains begin running again to his home in the western province of Sichuan.
“I spent last night outside at a bus depot,” said Wang, dressed in a ragged sweater and a dusty olive corduroy coat. “I have no idea where I’ll sleep tonight or how I’ll ever get home.”
Just blocks from the station, migrants converged on an emergency shelter in the China Import and Export Fair exhibition center — a complex the size of three or four football fields. The place was packed with travelers sitting on their luggage. Free water bottles were being passed around, and lunch boxes of rice, chicken legs and cabbage were being sold for about $1.
The general mood seemed calm and stoic — in line with the traditional Chinese trait of “chi ku” or “eating bitterness,” enduring hardship without complaint. But legions of police and soldiers were ready for any disorder, and the nation’s leaders scrambled to show the public that they were on the case.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Premier Wen Jiabao meeting officials telling stranded travelers at the Changsha train station in central Hunan province that the trains would start again soon.
“Let me express my apologies for you all having been stuck here,” Wen said through a megaphone to a huddled crowd that cheered and applauded.
But the nation’s top leader, President Hu Jintao, warned of more bad weather and urged officials “be aware of the seriousness of the situation and be fully prepared to prevent and fight disasters.”
So far, the central government has given a total $17 million in aid to six provinces and one region battered by the winter weather, Xinhua said. Expressways were shut down in the nation’s financial capital, Shanghai, because snow and sleet made them a slushy treacherous mess.
In southwest China’s Guizhou province, wild macaques at the Qianling wildlife park huddled together trying to keep warm on ice-encrusted tree branches.
Spending the holiday in Guangdong was a painful thought for Wang Yusheng, a 33-year-old salesman from the central province of Henan. He nibbled on a chicken wing outside Guangzhou‘s station as he slowly gave up hope of going home. His backup plan was to spend the holiday where he works in the city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
“We in the North eat dumplings during the holiday, but people in the South don’t,” said Wang. “Southern food really tastes terrible. It’s really going to be different celebrating the New Year here.”