China's latest cyberwar: the battle for New Year train tickets

As hundreds of millions in China flock home to celebrate the Year of the Sheep, the world's biggest human migration places extraordinary pressure on roads and railways—but technology is offering new ways to find a route home.

Chinese tradition requires people to gather at their family home before the Lunar New Year begins—on February 19 this year—with authorities expecting more than 2.8 billion trips to be taken over the festive period.

Rail is one of the favoured ways to travel and while historically there have been endless queues at the ticket windows, China's official train booking website is helping to relieve congestion in stations and kiosks.

But with such huge demand users say it can be still be an exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Posters on social media say the booking website is "more difficult to access than the Diaoyu Islands"—the uninhabited East China Sea archipelago disputed between Beijing and Tokyo, which calls them the Senkakus.

There are, however, new tactics in the battle.

Kelly Gan, a 27-year-old accountant, explained: "I was using a program that refreshes the page every five seconds to grab a spot as soon as it was available on I basically did it all day long, from when I woke up until I slept."

She finally managed to get her ticket from Shanghai to Chengdu, a journey of more than 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) and 39 hours. It cost her 450 yuan ($72) for a "hard sleeper"—a bed and mattress that are a far more comfortable option than the firm bench most passengers will have to endure.

1,000 tickets a second

Chinese train can only be bought a maximum of 60 days before departure, triggering a scramble.

All tickets are sold in the first few minutes after they become available, and purchases for this year's festivities peaked on December 19, with at one point selling 1,032 tickets every second.

The next best opportunity to buy is 15 days before departure, the last date that people can secure a full refund for tickets if they are unable to use them.

Vast numbers of people initially buy tickets that are not exactly what they want, in order to have some way to get home, and then seek better alternatives.

At Shanghai railway station, more than 7,000 tickets were being returned each day, reports said in late January.

The program Gan used to secure a returned ticket was an open-source one made available for free by a lone independent developer, but major Chinese internet firms have also waded into the fray.

Chinese search giant Baidu developed software to speed up the booking process and avoid losing a ticket between booking and payment, one of the most frustrating user experiences.

The company says 18 million people have installed it, and bought 28 million tickets between them.

Web browser LieBao offers a pre-booking function, allowing users to select a ticket beforehand and sending an automatic request as soon as booking officially opens.

Digital divide

Equality of the people may be a founding principle of communism, but it does not exist in the rat race of Lunar New Year ticket purchases.

Instead runners come in two divisions: the Internet users who have ways to handle the booking rush, and the technologically illiterate, often poor migrant workers.

A maid in Beijing, Guo Dengxiu is one of the hundreds of millions of migrant workers who have left the countryside during China's economic rise to seek work in the cities.

But she does not know how to use online tools, and failed to secure the ticket to return to her home in the Anhui province, 1,000 kilometres south of the capital.

"My son bought me a standing ticket. If I do not find anything else, I'll do the 15-hour trip without a seat or on a folding stool," she told AFP. "I have to be home for the New Year!"

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© 2015 AFP

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Feb 15, 2015
I'm seriously planning on taking a trip to China. I've been on a dating service for like 2 weeks and got numbers of two very, very high quality women already, which is more than any U.S. dating service. Their people are so easy to get along with.

I talked to one of them already a little bit, and there's a little bit of a language barrier, but I think it can be worked out. Hey, I don't understand women half the time anyway, right? So this is no big deal. If we make fools of ourselves we can just blame it on the language barrier and try again.

"Yes, yes, honey. I like fruit....WHA-AT!!? No, no not play with fruit. Not yet anyway. Eat, Eat fruit." I could hear her taking care of some younger cousins in the background. It was fun.

Well, seriously I like her as a friend and was kinda curious, but she probably isn't the right one.

The girl I'm about to call is the one I'm really interested in, and she's a lovely balance of classy and sexy. haha.

Feb 15, 2015
I want a mixed child, preferably a mixed daughter. Have to work some overtime with my new lovely friend (hopefully things work out) to fulfill our dream together. Haha.

She's a good girl, bit of a wild side hidden under an introverted exterior I guess (NDR type maybe). I was a little concerned maybe too much introvert, then she opened up. Almost a year older than me I guess. After a couple weeks texting and live chat with her, I got her number. No real ill-will to white girls, but I gotta go where the love is honey.

Now if things go well ( I have faith) I just have to figure out what all I need for travel. Passport, maps, luggage, contact lenses, meds, etc.

I figure it can't be a con because it's a secure line, and even if I'm wrong I guess I'll have some fun getting screwed, or some fun getting screwed over. If it is a con, joke will be on them.
I don't think it's a con, but I am wary, however, she is a very cute woman with the right personality for me I think.

Feb 16, 2015
@ Returnering-Skippy. Maybe you should see your doctor about your mental conditions before you plan any trips to China. This article is about hard to get train tickets, not hard to get Chinese-Skippette dates.

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