At Beijing’s main train station, the snack sellers are doing brisk business.
As thousands of people stream past them each hour, packs of bottled water, instant noodles and preserved duck meat are flying off the shelves.
The scene is a far cry from the chaos that gripped commuters outside the main train station in Guangzhou, 2,000 kilometres to the south, in the lead up to the new year break.
In Beijing, armed riot police and soldiers keep a close eye on the surge of travellers, ensuring a controlled form of chaos.
“I’m travelling 24 hours on the train back to my home in north-east Heilongjiang province,” said 23-year-old Li Kang.
“It’s going to be so crowded,” she said.
But for travellers on the K5249 from Beijing to Tangshan, the mood is relatively relaxed.
As they file onboard and settle in to the cosy surrounds, it is a noticeably young crowd.
“You have to come home for New Years Eve,” said 23-year-old student Liu Chunya, who was making a relatively short journey to the neighbouring town of Yutian.
“I’m going to eat sumptuous food, and take a photo of my whole family together. Each time I come back with mum, dad and my grandmother, I feel like a kid again.”
Floor space is limited, as boxes of gifts and suitcases compete with passengers for room.
“We’ve brought baijiu (Chinese rice liquor),” said 28-year-old Fan Zhixing, who was travelling home with his wife.
“At New Year we like to buy baijiu to pay respect to the elders,” he said.
These days a series of high-speed bullet trains criss-cross China, connecting big cities and dramatically reducing the time travellers needed to spend on the rails.
But the slower trains are still the best value.
A ticket for the 3-hour trip from Beijing to Tangshan costs just $4.
Many on the train said they were relieved they were not travelling far west or to the south, where slow train journeys take up to 40 hours.
China’s Government said this year around 330 million train tickets would be sold during the Chinese New Year holiday period.
Another 55 million air tickets are expected to be sold, but overall the total number of travellers is lower than a few years ago, when China’s economy was at double-digit growth and fuelling a massive community of migrant workers to seek jobs away from their home towns.
But the lure of returning home for the festival is still strong.
Melbourne couple Jiao Jian and Yu Feng have flown all the way back to Beijing to spend their first Chinese New Year together since getting married.
They said they were lucky.
“Many of our friends couldn’t [come home] because during Chinese New Year there’s no holiday in Australia, so most of them simply don’t have time,” Mr Jiao said.
For him, it is a double celebration — he was born in the Year of the Monkey.
According to the Chinese zodiac tradition, he is supposed to possess the qualities of being smart, ambitious and a little bit irritable.
“It’s supposed to mean I’m very smart but maybe I’m not that smart,” he laughed.