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50 hours until home: Chinese couple join world's biggest migration

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Li Anhua and his wife Shi Huaju wait for a taxi as they embark on the first stage of a 50-hour journey home, in Shanghai on Jan. 27, 2013.

Like millions of migrant workers in China, Li Anhua and his wife Shi Huaju make the annual trek home for the Chinese Spring Festival, travelling for 50 hours by train and bus to see their two children after a long year of separation. Reuters photographer Carlos Barria, who accompanied the couple on the journey this year, takes up the story:

There was not much emotion left after crossing central China on a 50-hour train and bus journey. Just a soft touch on the face and a forced hug was all that Li Jiangzhon and his sister Li Jiangchun got from their parents after a long year of absence.

They are just one story among millions of Chinese migrant workers who have left their loved ones behind to look for a better future for themselves and their families.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Li Anhua smokes a cigarette in the couple's cramped room in Shanghai as he packs for his Spring Festival trip on Jan. 27, 2013.

Every year millions of migrant workers travel to their hometowns during the Spring Festival, a massive movement of people that is considered the biggest migration in the world in such a short period of time. Public transportation authorities expect to accommodate about 3.41 billion travelers nationwide during the holiday, including 225 million railway passengers, according to Xinhua news agency.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Li Anhua (2nd L) and Shi Huaju (C) wait in line at a train station gate in Shanghai on Jan. 28, 2013.

They left their home on a cold Sunday night. Ahead of them: 50 hours of hard traveling conditions and cold, followed by the reward of spending 30 days with their children. Li and Shi have been doing this trip every year for the last twelve years, following the birth of their son Li Jiangzhon. Back then, the couple decided to leave the boy with Li Anhua’s mother in a rural village in Sichuan province, around 1,200 miles to the west.

Preparation for the trip began early this year. They managed to buy their train tickets online (116 CNY each, or about $19), which saved them the headache of fighting for a place in hours-long lines, as in previous years, among a swarm of workers and bulky packages.

They got good seats: a place for each of them, which is considered very lucky. Many migrants can’t get a seat on the train and have to travel standing or curled up in any free space they can find.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Shi Huaju leans on her husband as they travel on board a train from Shanghai on Jan. 28, 2013.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Migrant workers play cards as they travel on a train near Huaihua, in Hunan province, on Jan. 28, 2013.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Li Anhua stands next to his food cart as a student eats dinner in a suburban area of Shanghai on Nov. 26, 2012.

Li and Shi met twelve years ago, after they migrated to Shanghai and took their place among the millions of Chinese migrant workers that play a key role in today’s second largest economy. After working for a few months in a restaurant, they decided to work together as street food vendors in the suburbs of Shanghai. Every day, they push a wooden cart with two wheels to street corners where students from a local university buy their food.

Life is hard on their combined monthly income of 2000 CNY ($320) — just enough to send a little money home and for them to rent a room just three meters by three meters in an old apartment far from the city center. Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities in China.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Shi Huaju reads a text message on her mobile phone as she boards a bus for the next stage of her journey, in Chongqing on Jan. 29, 2013.

After the long train ride and a three-hour bus journey, the couple picked up a taxi in Luzhou and started the final 30-minute leg of their trip. At a dark intersection on a dirt road, the taxi suddenly stopped. Li looked around but he couldn't remember the way to their house. He couldn't recognize the way with all the new construction around. He said, "This factory area was not here last year." Finally a small sign indicated the road to Dayan village.

As the taxi stopped in front of a three-story building a little girl screamed, “mammy, mammy,” and the couple got out of the car. For her and her brother, their most cherished present of this Chinese New Year had arrived.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Li Anhua hugs his daughter Li Jiangchun as he and Shi Huaju arrive at their home town of Dayan, Sichuan province, on Jan. 29, 2013.

See more pictures of the journey in a post on Reuters' Photographers Blog and more stories by Carlos Barria on PhotoBlog.