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Spring Festival travel a one-way journey for many migrant workers

A giant annual human migration is underway in China, and it's a bonanza for some but a painful process for others.

Some 2.9 billion trips are expected to be undertaken between the start of China's annual travel season on January 24 and the end on March 3, according to China's transport ministry, with this week leading up to Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, which starts on February 8, being the busiest.

With millions of people on the move for what's traditionally seen as a time of fresh opportunities, the travel season is one of top trending topics on Weibo; posts tagged #2016chunyun, meaning "Spring Festival travel season," feature photos of cramped transport hubs and dish out tips on surviving the journey by avoiding ticketing scams and alleviating motion sickness.

Travel tips alone weren't enough to help as many as 100,000 travelers who were stranded at a railway station in the Chinese city of Guangzhou on Monday and Tuesday after heavy snow delayed trains. State media ran photographs of thousands of people crammed into lines outside the station, with some reportedly queuing for 10 hours or more for transport.

But the travel chaos is a boon for transport apps Didi Kuadi and Uber, which added new features including cross-city ride-sharing services to cash in on the heavy travel period. Although the app-makers continue to face regulatory issues in China, the country's transport ministry said recently that it supported car-pooling - as long as it was not for profit.

According to a real-time travel map by Chinese internet giant Baidu, the Beijing-to-Shanghai route on Wednesday afternoon in Asia was the most heavily traveled across all forms of transport, followed by Xian to Beijing and Shenyang to Beijing.

Xinhua | Lu Dawei | Getty Images

For many migrant workers, however, this year's journey home may be their final one, as slowing growth puts paid to their city dreams.

China's factory activity skidded to a three-year low point in January, adding to gloom about the state of the world's second-largest economy. Although growth in the service sector held above the key 50 expansionary level, the January official non-manufacturing purchasing manager's index slowed to 53.5 from 54.4 in December.

Restaurant workers Du Lijuan and Song Yaoguo told CNBC that they would not be among the crush of travelers this week. Both are waiting in Beijing for unpaid salaries of about $1,000 each before heading back home to the countryside, after losing their at a restaurant when it ran into financial difficulties in September.

"We have no money to buy tickets, to buy gifts for our family or children," Du said. "Normally, we spend $650 every Lunar New Year. I am not coming back [to Beijing]."

For years, migrant workers have been the backbone of China's economic growth, by working in factories and constructing buildings, but many are considering new lives in the countryside after this Spring Festival, because they fear being unable to find jobs if they return to the cities.

The migrant population fell by 5.7 million to 247 million in 2015, its first drop in about three decades.

"It's not easy to get a job in the restaurant industry these days," Song said. "When I first came to Beijing ten years ago, I was excited with new hope, I thought I could do well in a big city. But now, I'm so sad and disappointed."

- Reuters contributed to this report.