It is 10 degrees below freezing in Beijing and Wang Yonghai, a construction worker from Songyuan in northeastern Jilin province, is queuing up in the blustery wind to buy a train ticket home for Lunar New Year.
The week-long public holiday, which falls in mid-February this year, is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar, a time when families reunite and share a meal to usher in the new year. Family members, no matter how far-flung, make almost superhuman efforts to reach home, at times enduring what would pass as gross indignities in other countries.
While technology is making the booking of tickets more convenient from the comfort of an office or home or from a smartphone, Wang ranks among those who are not benefiting.
“Do I look like someone who knows how to buy tickets online and collect via automated machines?” said Wang, 63, smiling sheepishly as he lined up at Beijing railway station. “I am just too old, too old for a job, and too old to learn how to play with my phone.”
China Railway has allowed online booking of its tickets via its official website and widened the payment options to include both Alipay and WeChat Pay, the two most popular mobile payments platforms. It’s not all bad for Wang, however, as the lines are now shorter because of mobile booking.
The grandfather recalls getting up at 2am or 3am to queue for train tickets years ago so that he can take the 15-hour journey to reunite with his family for the Lunar New Year festival.
“Now you come in and you can buy ticket straight away. There’s no need for queuing, as most are buying online,” he said.
Zhu Dianwu, 65, is happy that the lines are shorter than they used to be, though he would still rather not brave the frigid weather.
“We are just the few who don’t know how to buy things online,” he said. “See how empty the ticket office is becoming.”
Even though Zhu only got a standing-room only ticket for the seven-hour train ride to Goubangzi county of Jinzhou city in northeast Liaoning province, he is grateful he can head home to his family.
For Wang and Zhu, talk of facial recognition and artificial intelligence, of QR codes and digital tickets, are topics reserved for the technologically savvy. They are the under-skilled, menial workers who have not managed to climb aboard the internet revolution that is creating “unicorns” – private companies with an estimated value of at least US$1 billion – and making millionaires, even billionaires, of millennials.
Occasionally, there are young people dropping by the ticket office. Most of those who agreed to talk said they were just “dropping by” to try their luck for the trains because tickets were sold out online.
At the Yongdingmen long-distance bus station, informal porters help the overladen with bulky items using electric tricycles. The small shops nearby sell motion sickness pills and power banks for long-haul rides.
A 50-year-old construction worker who would only give his family name as Zhou, said he had “no culture” and didn’t know how to buy tickets online. “That is how I always buy my tickets, at the bricks-and-mortar office,” he said.
Having worked in Beijing for over a decade, Zhao is taking home two packs of the local delicacy Peking duck and a small carry-on luggage. His ticket cost 170 yuan (US$27) for a 15-hour bus ride.
Another passenger waiting at the bus station, a 55-year-old dishwasher surnamed Wang, said that people like him have “jobs at the lowest level”. She would ask her younger colleagues to buy the bus tickets for them online. At the end of the 4-hour ride await her children and grandchildren in Xinji, Hebei province.
China Railways launched its national railway app in 2011, making this the seventh year that passengers could buy tickets with a smartphone. To encourage people to book their fares online – and not to crowd train stations – tickets are made available on the app one month ahead of the departure date. The app sells tickets three days earlier than those available at physical ticketing points.
“It doesn’t matter nowadays which time you queue in the day, there won’t be many people at any ticketing point,” said an employee working at the Beijing railway station.
That is at least some consolation for those who don’t have the know-how to book the tickets online.