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    Stranded: Rare Blizzard Impacts Spring Festival Travelers

    Heavy snow and freezing rain have led to widespread highway closures and train cancellations, particularly in central parts of China.

    As a severe storm unleashes heavy snow and freezing rain across large parts of China, motorists and rail passengers this year are enduring the most difficult Spring Festival travel rush since 2008.

    Since Jan. 31, central regions of the country have seen record levels of snowfall as well as icy conditions, resulting in the closure of highways and major disruption to the nation’s train network.

    Jia Lin, who hasn’t returned to her family home in Nanning, in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, for four years, is among the people whose Spring Festival plans have been dashed by the devastating weather. After her high-speed train from Wuhan in the central Hubei province was canceled on Feb. 4, she wrote on social media: “All the tickets for the next few days are sold out. I walked out of the railway station, and when I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the phone, we both choked up.”

    Although the storm did begin to ease on Feb. 5, southern regions will continue to experience heavy rain, while Hubei, Hunan, and Anhui provinces have been warned to brace for a fresh round of snow in the coming days.

    The white-out conditions evoke memories of the widespread disruption brought by the rare blizzard that struck China in 2008. Yet, how severe is the impact on this year’s Spring Festival travel rush?

    History repeating?

    So far, this year’s storm has not reached the scale seen in 2008 in terms of duration and record-breaking low temperatures. However, the total area affected is close in comparison, based on an analysis of the regions affected by icy conditions in the two weeks leading up to the annual Spring Festival holiday.

    Some 255 cities have experienced “freezing days” — defined by sub-zero temperatures accompanied by precipitation — this year, far more than average and approaching the figure recorded in 2008.

    By mapping out the regions affected by the cold weather, it’s evident that the ice and rain are concentrated in central and eastern parts of the country, including the provinces of Hubei, Henan, Hunan, and Anhui. In 2008, the area affected was further south, while the freezing conditions lasted for 20 days prior to Lunar New Year’s Day.

    Like it was 16 years ago, the severe weather this month has been caused by a cold front meeting with warm moist air, resulting in a prolonged, complex mix of heavy snow, freezing rain, and hail.

    Freezing rain, which is rain that freezes as it falls, is especially hazardous as it can quickly accumulate and turn into a thick layer of ice, making roads and railways impassable as well as breaking power lines and trees.

    According to the garden and forestry bureau in Wuhan, Hubei, between Feb. 3 and the night of Feb. 4, a total of 1,740 trees were felled and 53,339 branches broken by heavy snow and freezing rain.

    Although the duration of this year’s bad weather has not been exceptionally long, its arrival amid the peak travel period ahead of Spring Festival will likely disrupt the plans of many people visiting family or heading on vacation.

    Facing gridlock

    Travelers are expected to make an estimated 9 billion journeys during this year’s Spring Festival holiday, potentially a record high, according to China’s Ministry of Transportation. However, the snowstorm has pressed the pause button for many travelers. In comments relating to the topic “Hefei South Station D4832 train delayed by 744 minutes,” which has been trending on the social media platform Weibo, some netizens have shared their own experience of long rail delays.

    One user on Weibo who had planned to take a high-speed train from Zhengzhou in central Henan province to Beijing on Feb. 3 said their train was delayed for more than 20 hours. Another who planned to travel from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, to Henan’s Xinyang on Feb. 4 received a text notification that the service had been canceled after four hours of waiting.

    Wu Ning, a student from Nanjing University, in the eastern Jiangsu province, was seven hours late arriving at her destination, Yueyang in Hunan, on Feb. 4. While waiting to leave from Nanjing South Station she noted that the departure screens all flashed red to indicate delays, regardless of whether they were services headed east to Shanghai or west to Hefei, the capital of Anhui.

    After arriving in Yueyang, she says she was shocked by the sight of the frost-covered camphor trees along the roadside. “The freezing rain had caused the trees to ice up, and branches kept breaking, with ice chunks falling onto the road or onto the cars parked nearby,” Wu tells the Shanghai-based media outlet The Paper.

    Hunan and Hubei have had the greatest number of train cancellations. In Hubei alone, the weather has disrupted 956 outbound services and 1,114 inbound services.

    Roadways have also been badly affected. With speeds constrained by the snow, a large number of vehicles have been gridlocked on highways in Hubei. At 4 p.m. on Feb. 4, a driver who had been stranded for two days and two nights on the Xuchang-Guangzhou Expressway complained that the vehicles had not moved for seven hours.

    To ensure the safety of the roads, clearance efforts have been underway in multiple provinces, while several highways have been closed to inbound traffic. According to data from the highway network centers in Hubei and Henan, as of early morning Feb. 5, more than half of the highway on-ramps in both provinces had been closed.

    Despite measures to alleviate the problem, eight of the top 10 most congested highway sections in the country were still gridlocked, all of them in Hubei. The most congested section was the Wuhan Outer Ring Expressway, which stretches 52.19 kilometers. With vehicles only able to navigate this section at an average speed of 6.91 kilometers per hour, end-to-end travel times went from just over 30 minutes to almost eight hours.

    According to the Ministry of Transportation, road sections affected by the extreme weather gradually began to reopen on the evening of Feb. 4. Yet, 98 highways, 107 sections, and 637 toll stations across Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, and other provincial regions remained closed.

    However, the good news is that, according to the chief meteorological analyst at the China Weather Network, the rain in southern China is expected to clear up by Lunar New Year’s Eve, on Feb. 9, meaning most parts of the country can welcome the Year of the Dragon under clear skies.

    Reported by Chen Liangxian, Chen Zhifang, and Wu Tiantian.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Chen Yue; graphic designers: Wang Yasai and Luo Yahan; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Broken-down cars on a road in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 6, 2024. VCG)