GUANGZHOU, China – Crowds of frantic Chinese travelers shouted, shoved and climbed over each other as they fought for seats Wednesday on the few trains leaving southern China amid winter storms that have severely crippled the transport system during the nation's busiest travel season.
One desperate mob stormed a city bus near the Guangzhou railway station, mistakenly thinking it was shuttling passengers to the day's last departing trains. They pried open doors with their fingers and elbowed their way into the hijacked bus. Some climbed in through the rear window as women inside shrieked and two helpless police yelled, "It's not going to the station!"
The scuffles broke out in booming Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, as hundreds of thousands of stranded Chinese grew more anxious to get home for next week's Lunar New Year — a holiday that is just as important in China as Christmas is in the West.
For millions of migrant workers, the festival, which begins Feb. 7, is their only vacation from dreary jobs in factories that feed the world's ravenous appetite for DVD players, laptops, shoes, toys and a myriad of other goods.
Fed up with being stuck for days, many travelers were becoming more willing to criticize the government's response to the blizzards that have paralyzed the country's already beleaguered transport network in southern, central and eastern China.
"If this happened in America, it would have been cleared up much faster," said textile factory worker He Mingtong, 48, as he waited for his train beneath a pedestrian bridge near the station. "America has the equipment, the trucks, to clear away the snow. But we haven't had snowfall like this for 30 years or more, so we were unprepared."
Construction worker Liu Shengren voiced a sentiment common among Chinese: The country's top leadership is on the ball, but local officials mess things up because they're incompetent or corrupt or both.
"The local government should have had a supply of salt for the frozen roads," said Liu, who hoped to return home to central Hubei province. "They should have also done a better job designing the electric train system. The trains' power lines should have been able to withstand the bad weather."
The snow and ice storms have also caused dozens of deaths, airport closures and blackouts during the past two weeks. Half a million soldiers were clearing roads so that deliveries of food and coal could restart. But the situation might get worse, as forecasters warned that more snow might fall in the next three days in parts of eastern and southern China.
Jing Ulrich, chairwoman for China equities for JPMorgan Securities, said the snowstorm came at the worst time.
"In the first quarter, we're going to see pretty high inflation because of what is going on right now," she said.
Workers kept streaming into Guangzhou, carrying luggage and bundles that made them look like refugees fleeing a war. They were part of one of the world's biggest annual migrations of people, a period when Chinese railway officials expected a record 178.6 million people — more than the population of Russia — would be riding the trains during the holiday.
It was difficult to get an accurate count of how many were flooding into Guangzhou — the main starting point for the busy rail line north to Beijing. Police said 7,000 people were camping outside the railway station, while 200,000 sought temporary shelter in a massive exhibition center blocks away from the station.
City officials said that only 40 trains — half the normal number — were leaving the station each day with a total 80,000 passengers. The lucky ones riding the trains were those who could first find a seat on the caravan of 10 city buses that were shuttling passengers to the station from the emergency shelters. The buses took passengers through barricades and into a special waiting area — the highest circle of the travel hell.
Although scores of police were deployed in the area, they did little to make sure the passengers would line up and board the buses in a safe, orderly manner. The travelers filled up half of a wide avenue a few blocks from the station, and they waited anxiously for the mad crush to get on the buses.
"I'm really nervous and scared," said He Jingsha, 23, a petite officer worker who was vying with scrappy factory laborers for a good position to board the bus. "These people, they'll push and shove you, treat you like you're not a human being."
But she added with a smile and a chuckle, "But I understand why they do it. It's Chinese New Year!"
After the buses pulled up, the vehicles idled for five minutes with their doors shut. Travelers immediately began jostling each other and pressing themselves against the door. Some slapped the side of the bus and yelled, "Open the door!"
When the doors finally opened, women began screaming as they got crushed by the mob. Men who were short and spidery crawled over the top the crowd. Others discarded their trampled luggage on the road as they pushed through the scrum. Mothers holding babies stood on the periphery shaking their heads and looking despondent as their hopes of boarding the buses were apparently fading.
Premier Wen Jiabao continued his tour of the snow zone. He stopped at Guangzhou's station and told the masses, "This has been very hard on everyone," the Yangcheng Evening News reported.
"All levels of government are working on getting electricity restored. After that, transport will resume," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
James Sung, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, said China's top leaders were slow to respond to the massive travel holdup. The daily headlines about the debacle have embarrassed them, he said.
"They probably thought if they could do a good job providing electricity and rail services after the snow, after a few days of chaos, they would be OK," Sung said. "They didn't think it would be this bad."