KAILI, China (Reuters) - Millions of Chinese are likely to spend the biggest holiday of the year without power and water after more than a week of wild winter weather that shut down transport links across large parts of the country.
The freezing weather in the run-up to the Lunar New Year break, which begins on Wednesday and offers the only chance for many poor migrant workers to visit loved ones, has killed scores of people.
Railways and highways were returning to normal across China on Tuesday but millions are still trying to catch trains, planes and buses to see family in what is normally one of the greatest annual migrations of humanity. Millions more have given up making the journey home.
In the southwestern province of Yunnan, four teenagers were found dead after going missing in a snowstorm near the Myanmar border, the official Xinhua news agency said. But soldiers found three other members of the same party alive.
Whole cities have had their power and water cut off for more than a week and so far 11 electricians have been killed trying to reconnect lines or break ice encasing poles and cables.
Chenzhou, a city of about 4 million in the central province of Hunan, began its 11th day without power on Tuesday, with people lining up at fire hydrants with buckets to get water.
The State Electricity Regulatory Commission said it intended to restore power to 80 percent of affected households in the next few days. Supply to the rest of the families would be resumed by tapping some 2,670 diesel-fired generating vehicles.
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 were still covered in thick ice with pine trees wilting or broken under the weight. Television showed 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.
“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.
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 named Xu Song. “Food is so expensive.”
Japan said on Tuesday it would give 57 million yen ($533,800) worth of emergency aid, including blankets and power generators, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The snow has been falling in China’s eastern, central and southern regions since mid-January, bringing down houses, destroying crops and holding up vital coal supplies.
Another headache for residents in and around Kaili, with telephone connections either ruptured or weak, has been trying to trace family members planning to return for the holiday.
Zhang Dehua, waiting for his son at Kaili station, had called him 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.”
At noon on Tuesday, service at two railway stations in the southern city of Guangzhou was back to normal after 11 days of chaos, according to the Guangzhou Railway Group Corp.
“About 3.5 million people left the province by train by Tuesday noon, and basically, all the passengers who held tickets but had been stranded at different railway stations have left,” a spokesman was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
About 350,000 train passengers left Beijing on Monday, 20,000 more than on Sunday, according to a spokesman with the Beijing Railway Bureau. He said that rail stations in the capital would probably see usage peak on Tuesday.
On the roads, a major north-south trunk road, the Beijing-Zhuhai expressway, was back to normal after de-icing work by 1,200 troops and police.
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.
Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by David Fogarty