KAILI, China – Trains and planes are starting to return to normal across China, but millions are likely to spend the biggest holiday of the year without power and water in what for some is the coldest winter in a century.
The freezing weather in the run-up to the Lunar New Year break, which begins on Wednesday and offers the only chance for poor migrant workers to visit loved ones, has killed scores of people and left millions stranded.
Whole cities have had their power and water cut off for over a week and so far 11 electricians have been killed trying to reconnect lines or break ice encasing poles and cables.
Kaili, with a population of half a million in the subtropical southern province of Guizhou, was cut off for several days by thick ice and hail.
On the road from the provincial capital Guiyang, many areas are still covered in thick ice with pine trees wilting or broken under the weight. Local television has shown downed powerlines and towers.
Kaili and other larger county capitals are receiving electricity, but officials and locals say many villagers in the countryside remain without power and there could be many days if not weeks before it is restored.
Traveling through the countryside at night, hamlets were in thick darkness with only candles providing flickering light.
“The situation has been improving with all the outside assistance, but fixing supplies to smaller towns and villages will take a long time,” said engineer Zhang Xuejiang.
“Once a tower is down, it takes a lot of work to bring in a new one, especially with roads like they are.”
But for many locals, the biggest headache is skyrocketing prices with pork, rice, vegetables and other staples doubling in price, or going even higher.
Army and civilian trucks are bringing in diesel generators and boxes of blankets and food.
“The electricity is back on now, but the problems certainly aren’t all over,” said a vendor called Xu Song. “Food is so expensive.”
He said he knew that leaders in Beijing were working to fix the problems. “But we’re very poor and out of the way. Anything always takes a long time.”
Another headache for residents, with telephone connections either ruptured or weak, has been trying to trace family members working as migrant workers elsewhere and planning to return for the holiday, also knows as the Spring Festival.
Zhang Dehua, waiting for his son at Kaili station, had called him on a borrowed phone a couple of days ago but hadn’t heard of him since.
“I was hoping he would be on that train but I don’t think he was,” he said forlornly. “I will just have to wait for the next one and maybe the next one.”
About 80,000 commuters were still stranded at the railway station in Guangzhou, capital of the booming southern province of Guangdong, but the figure was down from a peak of 800,000 last week, Xinhua news agency said.
China has largely avoided unrest ahead of holiday, which heralds the Year of the Rat, due in part to the deployment of soldiers and police throughout the country.
The China Meteorological Administration said on Monday the weather was the coldest in 100 years in central Hubei and Hunan provinces but it expected milder conditions ahead.