Chunyun, the annual spring festival holiday in China, is often described as the world's largest human migration. Over one billion trips are made in a 10-day period. The family reunion over the lunar new year is the local equivalent of Christmas and Thanksgiving combined, and for the many families separated by rural-urban migration it is proportionately stressful.

A major cause of tension is the horrendous logistical requirement of getting folks safely home on time. No mode of transport looms so large in the public imagination as the long-distance trains and hard sleeper carriages, often stuffed to standing room only, hauling migrant workers and their ubiquitous polythene bundles back to their home villages. The railway reservation system alone, with its petty rules, fake tickets and touts, is a nightmare. The unhappy lot of migrant workers at this time is heart-wrenchingly captured in Fan Lixin's 2011 reality docudrama, Last Train Home.

But things are improving. China Railway Corporation reported mid-festival that passenger rail volumes were running 21% higher than a year ago. Normally such a spike might cause chaos, most notoriously memorialised by the desperate 200,000-strong crowd at the gates of Guangzhou station in 2008.

This year things went (relatively) smoothly. Vast national investment in high-speed rail, whatever its economics, is performing an impressive role in relieving China's 'golden week' seasonal festival surges. While many migrant workers can't afford the new bullet trains, others can, and the upward displacement eases network congestion on the slower ones. High-speed rail at such times is a blessing.

But it is other means of transport, namely wings and wheels, that best reveal China's changing consumption patterns.

Just as new fast trains free up capacity on old slow ones, they are also stealing traffic from domestic air travel. Last week's chunyun saw international passenger departures exceed internal ones for the first time. International departure halls at major airports were frantic (expect to hear stories of bad behaviour). China's middle class citizens, seeking to escape the festival's crush at home, instead find themselves part of an exodus of their compatriots abroad. 

Chinese traffic in some Korean and Japanese attractions was up by 50%. Japan received half a million Chinese tourists during the festival. It is said, not in jest, that Mandarin was spoken more than Japanese in some retail streets of Tokyo. Attracted by a cheap yen and the joys of high-quality consumer products (including luxury toilet seats, oddly), Chinese customers have set aside their patriotic distaste and are embracing Japan once more.

This is bad news for Hong Kong and Macau.

While these destinations are still more important for Chinese tourism, they are going backwards. Hong Kong registered its first fall in mainland visitors in more than two decades, a worrying reflection of mainland attitudes, probably fueled by ongoing scuffles between Tuen Mun locals, activists and cross-border traders. Jewelry stores saw sales fall by as much as 30%. Retailers in Hong Kong are asking whether the allure of the city has peaked.

Macau's gross gaming revenue fell a whopping 50% as VIP junkets go into hibernation during China's anti-graft campaign. Visit numbers to Macau are still strong and hotel occupancy was 100%; in fact there is talk of limiting visas again to ease congestion. But the mix of business continues to shift down from high-rollers to 'premium mass' customers who spend less but still want to be pampered with 5-star hotels and spas. What retailers and brand-owners see is an expanding franchise of affluent globalised white-collar clients with clear, independent views on how and where they spend their time and money.

And nothing has emancipated the Chinese from the tyranny of chunyun more than the automobile. On the lunar new's year eve alone, 74 million passenger trips were made on China's highways, eight times the number of rail passengers, according to the Transport Ministry (although that number will include non-festival journeys). Hitching a ride in a crammed car home with co-workers is preferable to the train system for most. Some colleagues boast about road trips of 1000km or more.

Today there are 154 million cars on China's roads, up tenfold in 15 years. Not surprisingly, the explosive growth in the car population and the new-found joys of driving home resulted in horrendous traffic jams during chunyun, made more treacherous by snowstorms and an alarming accident rate. Chinese drivers are stoic and complaints are seldom aired. Even the not-so-open road offers mobility and freedom to workers that was unattainable just a few years ago. The misery of the last train home is fading, and the true liberation of China's workers is drawing nearer: when they don't all have to go on vacation at the same time.

Photo by Flickr user Junyu Wang.