May 14, 2024 4 min read

The Great Migration with my elderly parents

This Chinese new year was a special one for me and my partner. We had invited my "elderly" parents (they will "love" the title) to join us and celebrate the year of the Dragon with her side of the family in China.

Year of the Dragon decoration in Yidu
Year of the Dragon

This was going to be a challenge with comments from my parents such as can we cope with the 10 hour flight to Beijing and we like spending time at home, in rainy Manchester...

Needless to say we managed to get my begrudging parents to agree to a trip of a lifetime and do what few westerners have done before and join the great Chinese migration "ChunYun". We eagerly prepared, getting gifts for family and red pockets for the youngsters, while my parents practiced their Mandarin.

Flashforward and we are all up bright and early to head off from Manchester airport to Beijing, 5am is quite a challenge for my 70 year old mum who was soon getting coffees in for the team. As we sat having a coffee we checked the news and saw that it was going to be a snowy Chinese new year. Naively we smile and joked that it will be like a snowy Christmas back home, that drizzly kind that barely covers the grass for a few hours if your lucky.

It was time to fly and of course, my farther, the greater component in the "aren't we too old to fly for 10 hours" had fallen asleep, while my mother read a book and me and my partner decide on the "latest" films to watch, Barbie or Jurassic park again. While we all do our thing and try to pass the time mother nature has decided to put a cog in our perfectly placed plans.

Unbeknownst to us China has been struck with snow and blizzards and not just the feeble snow I mention earlier, the knee high kind and whoops you've slipped on your back again kind.

As we touched down in Beijing we check our phones, your internal flights have been cancelled! Fine if we were staying in Beijing but we needed to get Yidu, central China, to see my partners family and we are now stuck in the middle of the great migration without a plan. Everyone in China was looking for ways to get back home and the 10 hour flight has served to put us on the backfoot on the race to find new ways to get back home.

My wife exhausted but not despondent comes to the rescue. Being quick witted she booked us the last flight to Wuhan plus train tickets on to Yichang, which meant we were just a few hours journey from home should a kindly relative pick us up. This stepped our journey up from a comfortable flight in China to a proper migration.

Surprisingly the mood among the elders was good despite the previous grumblings. It was an "in for a penny, in for a pound" attitude, we are here lets do this. So one more flight on to Wuhan we go easy peasy, next stop the train to Yichang.

Travelling by train is easy in China unless it is freak weather conditions or the great migration, so we had our work cut out for us. Standing in crowds at Wuhan Hankou train station we watched the train times on the boards with thousands of other eyes eagerly waiting. Me and my parents sticking out like a sore thumb as the crazy tourists who chose to travel in China during the new year.

Passengers push by to the front of queues hoping their trains will leave soon, while we being quintessentially British hold back. We haven't worked all year to go home to see our kids so it was only fair we held back. Lucky travellers hop on their trains while we wait. The boards began to announce delays for trains as the weather persisted. We can only pray ours wont be delayed, but +50 minutes appears and then +1hour 50 minutes.

We stand pressed between thousands of people wishing the time away until finally the ecstasy and rush as crowds push forward and we are allowed to pass the security gates and board the train.

After hours of agonising waiting if not days (if you count the start of this journey) we are home bound for Chinese new year. As we start to travel along the usually electric fast bullet train we look out of the windows and see a snowy night sky. Then my father notices the speedometer that tracks back and forth on the train notice board is only 60km per hour.

He chides my wife "aren't these supposed to be bullet trains". Now at around 200km per hour we would arrive within 2 hours, and to save us all a primary school maths quiz this journey took a hell of a lot longer than it should have.

But this wasn't all doom and gloom and clock watching we were getting a taste of the true ChunYun we were getting our first smells of Chinese cooking on the train, listening to conversations in Mandarin and watching the everyday life on a train in China.

Most amusingly we were offered miracle medicine by a travelling salesman which absolutely no one could tolerate and even with our basic Mandarin could exact. With a few phone calls and our Chinese family waiting hours for us we were ready to be driven the final stretch of journey.

Only a couple of hours to go and Uncle Jiu Jiu is driving us back with the snow raging on through the darkness. Huge thunderclaps can be heard in the distance with the lightning coming closer and closer.

Each boom giving me this funny feeling that this really is the year of the Dragon. A few skids, lightning bolts missed and we are home ready for a quick bowl of Chinese hot pot...

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