By Clement Tan
Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) — In China, getting a ticket home for the Lunar New Year can feel a bit like winning the lottery. First, there’s competition for plane, train and other passenger seats for almost 3 billion voyages. Then there’s the quiz to prove you’re not a Web robot.
Beijing hairstylist Yang Mingyue learned how high the odds are in November, when she stayed up past midnight to buy train tickets online as soon as they became available. After finding the best fares for the 20-hour trip home to Heilongjiang province, Yang hit a snag: cryptic questions she had to answer correctly before her booking would be accepted.
The puzzles are part of new cybersecurity measures designed to thwart scalpers from snapping up seats to resell at inflated prices. But in attempting to block scammers, the perplexing process is catching innocent web users such as Yang.
“Those questions were so ridiculously difficult, and even when I managed to get them right after a few tries, the seats I wanted were no longer available,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s too late now. Even standing tickets on the dates I wanted are all sold out, economy class air tickets, too. Business class is too expensive.”
The Chinese New Year holiday, also known as Spring Festival, shuts down the world’s second-largest economy for a week. While officially starting the weekend of Feb. 6 this year, the rush for travel bookings for the 40-day travel period commencing Jan. 24 began when tickets went on sale in late November.
More than 2.9 billion passenger trips, including 332 million on the country’s rail networks, are expected by China’s Ministry of Transportation to be made over the New Year period. The average traveler will cover 410 kilometers (255 miles), the ministry predicted.
That magnitude of travel, which represents for many Chinese the only trip home in a year, makes the Spring Festival an especially lucrative season for scalpers. In the first two weeks of online fare sales, railway police detained 85 ticket re-sellers and confiscated more than 6,000 legitimate and 12,000 fake train tickets in a nationwide campaign, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Dec. 11.
To beat the cheats, rules were introduced in 2009 requiring ticket-buyers to identify the passengers for whom bookings were being made. After sales went online via China’s official train ticket booking site, 12306.cn, tech-savvy scalpers developed computer programs to buy up masses of tickets. That prompted the introduction of increasingly stringent security measures, culminating in the questions added to the site in late 2015.
Users of 12306.cn are required to match low-resolution images with ambiguous descriptions. One test in early December asked users to identify which among eight pictures of female leotard-clad dancers in similar postures best exemplified “attitude.” Another question asked them to identify the dance pose that translates into English as “purple crown champion” from eight pictures of dancers in various postures.
Frustrated customers complained to China Railway Corp., the country’s national rail operator, which pledged to remove the test questions that garnered the highest error rate and most complaints, the official China Daily newspaper reported in December.
Questions have become more intuitive since then, but the most affordable seats on desired routes have mostly been taken — a problem for many Chinese. For China’s 246 million migrant workers, Spring Festival is typically a once-a-year opportunity to spend with the parents and children they leave behind in their hometowns.
Even with confirmed tickets, travelers aren’t guaranteed on-time arrival. The Jan. 24 start of this year’s Spring Festival travel period coincided with the worst cold snap in China in 30 years, with blizzards in parts of eastern and southern China delaying flights and trains.
Wang Tianzhang and his wife woke at 4 a.m. that day to travel by motorbike from Foshan city in the southern province of Guangdong to the Zhuang Autonomous Region in neighboring Guangxi province. The ride enabled the couple to avoid a 20-hour rail journey that would have required several train changes, Xinhua reported.
“It was freezing, and we had to stop every hour to find some warmth,” Wang told the news agency.
Hairstylist Yang won’t be as intrepid. Resigned to being a loser in what’s becoming an annual fastest-fingers-first tradition, she planned instead to usher in the Year of the Monkey with fellow Spring Festival orphans over a hot pot dinner in Beijing. Although she found tickets to get her to Heilongjiang on the fourth day of the lunar New Year, Yang couldn’t manage to find a return seat, making it impossible to book.
“Tickets are sold out even on the 15th day!” she said.
This story was first published at Bloomberg.com.