TONGREN, China–Millions of Chinese began the biggest holiday of the year without power on Wednesday after more than a week of fierce winter weather, but tens of thousands of stranded passengers had finally found trains, buses and planes to get home for family reunions.
Scores have died in snow -related accidents in the run-up to the Lunar New Year break, one of the greatest annual migrations of humanity, with the traditional travel chaos compounded by the coldest winter in 100 years across vast swathes of the south, centre and east.
Skies were clearer across most of the country on Wednesday, a three-day rain and snow “severe alert” was lifted for the worst affected areas and temperatures had risen to well above freezing in the south.
Whole cities have had their power and water cut off for more than a week and 11 electricians have been killed trying to reconnect lines or break ice encasing poles and cables. Livestock and crops have been destroyed.
The remote township of Wengxiang in the snowy mountains of Guizhou hasn’t had electricity since Jan. 14. Residents also have to negotiate steep, icy paths to fetch water in buckets because pipes are frozen or cracked.
“At night, it’s like a blanket of darkness,” said resident Pan Zhengkai, adding that families ate their dinner at 4 p.m. before darkness set in.
“I guess we’ll have to have the new year celebrations in darkness.” he said. “We can’t afford candles.”
Chenzhou, a city in the central province of Hunan and the worst hit, began its 12th day without power on Wednesday after a short-lived resumption on Tuesday night.
“Power supply will be restored gradually for citizens in Chenzhou starting today,” Huang Qiang, vice general manager of the Hunan Electric Power Co, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.
About 1,000 pylons and poles had collapsed under the weight of ice and snow, which means the local grid, that took decades to build, had effectively been destroyed, Xinhua said.
Across the country, 170 of more than 2,000 counties had suffered outages. By Tuesday night, 131 counties had had their power restored, or partially restored.
Rising prices of coal, vegetables, pork, rice and other staples have added to the holiday misery, but the sea of travellers waiting for trains, especially in Guangzhou in the south, had cleared.
Many mostly poor, migrant workers had already given up trying to get a ticket and opted to stay put. “Millions of Chinese had to say ‘sorry’ to their loved ones,” Xinhua said.
But the holiday preparations continued, including a group of small boys and young men in Wengxiang, roosters under their arms, getting ready for a cockfight.
Firecrackers, which will explode through the night across China and for much of the next 10 days, had already started.
“The biggest problem has been keeping the children warm at night,” said farmer Ye Xiaoling in the farming and manganese mining area of Wanshan in the Guizhou prefecture of Tongren, which has also been without power since January.
“Our problem is that our homes and everything else are not used to such cold.”
She also said the children had complained they would not be able to watch the traditional state TV entertainment special, often described as the most watched on Earth, which many will have to listen to by radio.
With safety in mind, the Beijing city government sent out an SMS wishing residents a happy Spring Festival, a period when firework accidents kill some and injure many across the country.
“Please set off fireworks in a legal, civilised and safe manner,” it said.
Apparently the government had no advice for avoiding hypothermia or starvation.