BEIJING (AP) — Desperate to return home for China's most important holiday, migrant worker Li Zhuqing lined up for six chilly days and nights at a train station ticket counter only to be told that all the seats were sold out.
Reports of Li's plight in Hangzhou prodded local media to help Li and his family travel home after his case touched a nerve in China, where getting home for Lunar New Year is a nightmare for tens of millions and represents the world's largest seasonal migration of people.
However, a new twist has been added this year with the introduction of online train ticket sales: Many of the country's less-computer-savvy migrants like 48-year-old Li seem to have been left out in the cold.
"I was very sad and angry," Li said. "Why couldn't I get a ticket while every train was full of passengers?"
In the days leading up to Monday's start of the Year of the Dragon, buses, trains and their stations will burst at the seams with people trying to return to hometowns for a holiday that's like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year rolled into one.
For many people, the holiday is the one chance a year to see family, and they return home laden with gifts.
"I told myself I must reunite with my parents whom I'd left in loneliness for a year," Li said in a phone interview after he successfully made it home to his parents' place in Hunan province.
"They had cried over the phone when they knew I didn't get the tickets and had fallen ill. They told me they didn't want anything from me. They just wanted me to be home," he said.
The importance of the holiday, combined with China's sheer size, makes the scale of the migration massive. Transport officials estimate that Chinese will make 3.2 billion trips, from intercity flights and trains to local bus rides to villages, in the six weeks around the holiday, which is also known as the Spring Festival.
Some 900,000 large- and mid-sized buses will be dispatched to transport 80 million people a day while 14,000 flights and nearly 700 trains have been added, state media report. In the south, traffic police have dispatched cars and helicopters to escort tens of thousands of migrants riding motorcycles home.
"Spring Festival travel in China is phenomenal. Nowhere else in the world do so many people move at one time," said John Scales, the World Bank's transport expert in Beijing.
Just five days of rail trips during the Chinese holiday equal all the trips made on the United States' Amtrak passenger rail system in one year, Scales said.
It's a Herculean undertaking for an authoritarian government which stakes its legitimacy in part on organizing large-scale events and which worries that mishaps might trigger questions about its competence.
With the memory of a bullet train crash last year still fresh on the minds of many, the government has emphasized safety in its preparations for this year's travel rush.
When thick smog, snow and rain halted trains in central China, grounded flights in the north and closed highways around the country this week, state media reported that transport officials acted quickly to reduce delays.
The biggest frustration for Chinese has been buying tickets.
For the first time, the government this year is allowing tickets to be bought online or by phone, instead of only in person or through agents. Rampant scalping, a scourge in the past, has reportedly been reduced by a new requirement that identification cards be presented whenever tickets are bought. Local railway bureaus have set up microblogs to answer questions and provide updates on ticket sales.
But the process is still an ordeal. Online services and phone hotlines have been overwhelmed by orders, meaning that many people have been forced to rely on the traditional way of waiting at ticket windows.
Even when they do work, the online services disadvantage older migrant workers with little Internet access, like Li in Hangzhou.
Early this month, Li prepared for what he thought would be a one-day wait in the cold at the Hangzhou train station, throwing on a wool sweater and heavy coat. He bought a piece of cardboard from a fruit seller to lay on the wet ground at night when the sales window closed.
For six days, he was told that tickets to his hometown of Yongzhou and nearby cities had already been sold out. But he kept waiting in case some tickets were returned — which often happens.
In previous years, he was always able to get tickets after waiting several hours, he said.
News of Li's woes circulated widely on China's popular microblog sites. A few local media companies paid for Li and his family to take a train to another city and then arranged for a van to drive them the rest of the way home, he said.
In Shanghai, 61-year-old migrant Wang Yueying finally obtained a standing-room-only ticket for the 30-hour journey to the northern city of Changchun where her daughter lives after someone returned a ticket at the train station.
"In the past, I could spend 50 or 100 yuan ($15) more to buy a ticket from scalpers in the black market, but not any more," said Wang, a teacher. "The online system is much easier for white-collar workers, they can get online more quickly and have better skills. It is too hard for the migrant workers and the elderly."
Frustration over tickets has triggered noisy confrontations.
Photos posted online showed about 50 people in the southern city of Shenzen blocking a road last Saturday after being unable to buy tickets at a train station. Some of them appeared to be in heated arguments with police.
Rising incomes are giving some people the means to avoid the train crush altogether by a new alternative: car pooling. People who want to defray the costs of driving home can post notices on websites detailing their travel dates, destinations and contact numbers.
"Train tickets are very scarce right now and difficult to buy," said Zhao Yongliang, a manager for a water purifier company in Beijing, as he and a couple picked up another two passengers on Wednesday to head south to their homes in Henan.
Zhao said each passenger would chip in 200 yuan to cover highway tolls and gas.
"I'm in a really good mood because I can set off this morning and be reunited with my family by this evening," Zhao said with a big grin.
Associated Press researchers Yu Bing in Beijing and Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.