Dragging a heavy suitcase through a Shanghai subway station, 17-year-old Linghu Yong prepared himself to cram onto a jam-packed train today for the 30-hour trip home to spend the Lunar New Year with his family.
And he was one of the lucky ones. Crowds of other migrant workers were still camped out for the often days-long wait for a ticket.
''I'll be celebrating the New Year for the first time on the train,'' said the aspiring college student from the western city of Chongqing, who came to Shanghai to apprentice at a cellphone factory.
''My New Year wish is to go home to celebrate the New Year with my family, and to buy a computer.''
China's Lunar New Year migration is often referred to as the largest movement of people anywhere, with 3.6 billion trips of all lengths by bus, plane and train expected to be made over the 40-day travel rush.
While still an annual ritual for millions working far from home, such journeys are being shunned by many of the newly prosperous who are increasingly using the weeklong national holiday to fly overseas or to tourist spots within China.
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Beijing accountant Wang Zheng, 34, said her whole family will go to China's tropical resort island of Hainan despite its reputation for holiday price-gouging by hotels and restaurants.
''Why not make the holiday more fun rather than just having the usual big dinner with family or going to the traditional temple fair? That definitely gets old,'' she said.
Chinese communities around the world were gearing up for the holiday that begins at midnight. On self-governing Taiwan, revellers jammed into the capital Taipei's historic shopping district to load up on holiday snacks. Health authorities said that nearly 40 per cent of the island's population can be expected to gain two kilograms during the holiday.
Hong Kong officials expected nearly 8 million travellers to pass through its borders from January 29 to February 6, more than the local population of 7.1 million.
Most of those travellers would be mainland Chinese, who have been flooding into the semiautonomous territory in increasing numbers in recent years thanks to rising incomes and a strengthening yuan.
This year marks the year of the horse according to Chinese astrology, generally considered an auspicious time, and business-savvy residents of the territory were hoping for vigorous growth.
''For the Asian economies, especially Hong Kong and China, their luck will be the same ... it will be an economically active year,'' said Peter So, a master of feng shui, or Chinese geomancy.
Koreans and Vietnamese also celebrate the holiday, while festivities are held in cities from Paris to Phnom Penh, both as a celebration by their Chinese communities and to cater to the throngs of visitors arriving for sightseeing and shopping.
Las Vegas has long made a point of marking the occasion, and hotels, shops and casinos were festooned with New Year greetings and decorations in auspicious red and gold to appeal to big-spending Chinese visitors.
Mainland China will virtually shut down for the next seven days, and many residents of the polluted capital, Beijing, already have departed for holiday destinations.
A continuing campaign against waste and corruption foreshadows more modest celebrations this year, while a crackdown on air pollution seems to be reining in the usual orgy of fireworks.
The holiday is generally a time for feasting and visiting friends and relatives, along with making visits to Buddhist and Taoist temples, many of which hold fairs and stage performances.
Mainland Chinese have traditionally tuned into the annual New Year's Eve variety show, which state broadcaster CCTV is hoping to reinforce this year with a cast of bigger-wattage stars overseen by popular film director Feng Xiaogang.