By the train station, Yong unassumingly leans on his crutches. A traveler approaches him for a brief conversation. A few words are exchanged, then he hands Yong a blue bill—10 yuan (USD 1.60). “Business is slow,” he says. “It’s nothing like during the spring festival.”
He’s referring to chunyun, the 40-day travel period that envelops a month-long holiday marking the beginning of spring, when everyone is on the move and tempers run so high that Chinese soldiers are deployed to maintain order at transit terminals. This year, 3.6 billion trips were taken in China during chunyun, more than 2.5 times the country’s population.
Yong used to make money by scalping train and bus tickets, supplying travelers heading home. But one day, in the midst of a shouting match between a migrant worker and ticketing agent, Yong realized he had a hidden talent. The two men were arguing about how to get from Shanghai to a town in Yunnan, the most southwestern province of China, and Yong blurted out a set of connections. His offering was more efficient than the route produced by the railway employee. Others in line began to ask Yong about transit options, so he charged a small fee to answer their questions.
Yong has never left Shanghai, yet he consumes bus and train routes ferociously. He cannot describe his mental process, but it’s something akin to photographic memory, and he chooses to apply it solely toward learning where buses and trains go. Though others in China offer a similar service, it remains a rare phenomenon. He has never met anyone who shares his gift, nor does he desire to. “It is fortunate that they are not in Shanghai,” he says. “They would just be competition.”
Though the Ministry of Railways does not sanction his service, the employees Yong interacts with know his skill is useful. “The ticket sellers are not well-trained,” Yong says, “so any itinerary with more than one connection becomes too complicated for them to look up.” Theoretically, the plotting of routes is automated. Poor training and management mean the official mapping software and its resulting directions are useless.
Yong paired this skill with ticket scalping to grow his business, which became so popular that he had to carry four mobile phones to manage reservations. He maintained steady income until the Ministry of Railways passed a new regulation: tickets could only be purchased if they were matched with legal identification checked by ticket controllers. This made bulk-buying tickets impossible and put an end to Yong’s scalping.
With recent rollouts of new apps, websites, and software that supplant Yong’s eidetic mapping, his skill is approaching obsolescence. Nonetheless, he still hangs out at the station and manages to pocket a few blue bills from travelers who are less prepared.
“Rich or poor, everyone goes home for the new year,” Yong says. “I am happy as long as a few go through me.”