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China advises millions to abandon travel plans

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  • NEW: Migrant workers advised to abandon Lunar New Year holiday plans
  • Desperate crowds use break in weather to catch buses to anywhere
  • Forecasters expect three more days of bad weather in China
  • Economic cost of winter storms reaches $4.5 billion, ministry says
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China has taken the step of asking millions of migrant workers to forego their annual Lunar New Year trip home, saying the worst winter weather in 50 years is expected to pummel the country for at least another three days.

"For the sake of their safety, and relieving the stress on transport, I advise migrant workers to stay in the cities where they work," Zheng Guogang, chief of the China Meteorological Administration, told the state newspaper, China Daily.

The trip is often the only bright spot for workers who toil all year long in factories far from home. For an estimated 178 million people -- the size of the combined population of Italy, France and Britain -- the annual trek is sometimes the only opportunity to see family that they leave behind. This year, the holiday begins February 6.

On Thursday, crowds thinned -- but only slightly -- at China's major train stations. Masses of desperate travelers took advantage of the break in the weather and crammed into buses to carry them out of their misery. In southeastern Hunan province, trains that had been stranded for 40 hours finally began rolling.

But even with the weather improving, "you can't expect power-cut-hit railways and icebound highways to be restored to normal immediately," Zheng told the paper.

"In normal weather conditions, it would take at least one week for full restoration of power supply. Against the current backdrop, it will take far longer for electricity supply and road and railway traffic to return to normal."

The advisory, Zheng said, is meant to ease the burden on a country that's already buckling under the weight of an unrelenting snow storm.

So far, Chinese authorities have managed to persuade nearly 470,000 people to abandon their travel plans and accept a refund for their train tickets.

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The weather has paralyzed transportation, frozen the power grid, killed at least 49 people and delivered a $4.5 billion blow to the economy.

By late Wednesday, 12 national highways across six provinces remained impassable in areas. In Guangzhou -- a city in the south -- about 800,000 people remained stranded unable to take either bus or train, local media said.

Both the government and several private companies continued to sweeten the pot Thursday to entice workers to stay put.

Some were offering free tickets to movie screening; others were throwing parties. Still others were offering an additional week's vacation, local media reported.

Li Zhaojun, a 19-year-old maintenance worker, said he was glad that authorities had refunded his bus ticket. But, he told China Daily, the government's measures would be more attractive if migrant workers were allowed to visit city tourist attractions for free.

"My co-workers and I have never been to such places because we can't afford the admission fees," he told the paper.

The freebies were little consolation to more than half a million people camped out in bone-chilling temperatures at Guangzhou's packed train station -- waiting for trains that have not arrived.

Tempers flare. Stampedes follow as people try to get closer to train platforms, to no avail. Armed riot police stand watch.

Liu Yu Son told CNN's Hugh Riminton that he and his wife have tried to get out of Guangzhou every way possible.

He tried driving but was stuck in the snow. He tried to fly home -- paying a hefty sum for an airline ticket -- but the plane never took off due to icy conditions on the runway.

"Then I bought a black-market train ticket to try to get back," he said. "Now I just feel like a refugee. I have no idea when I will get on a train."

Still, every hassle is worth it if he can make it home in time for the holiday, worker Jim Hui told CNN.

"It is our Chinese tradition to go home and reunite with the family -- especially in the last day of the year -- having dinner with my parents," he said.

His wife, Hu Yie Chen, added: "Because we left the village and we spend the whole year working in the city, the money saved is really needed to share with the family."

The money is needed now more than ever. Crops destroyed by snow have resulted in increased food prices, while the inability to transport goods around the country has further inflated prices and led to shortages at stores.

The price of cabbage and other vegetables is up more than 50 percent at markets -- in a country that's already battling its highest inflation rate in a decade.

All this comes during the Lunar New Year holiday, the country's busiest shopping season.

Brutal winter weather has pounded China's central, eastern and southern sections since January 10. The China Meteorological Administration forecasts more snow and sleet with freezing temperatures for southwestern, eastern and southern China. Northern China will stay clear but windy.

The winter precipitation had caused at least 49 deaths due to collapsed roofs and treacherous travel conditions, government officials said.

Early Tuesday, a passenger bus plunged off a slippery mountain road in southwestern China's Guizhou province, killing at least 25 people and injuring 13, the state news agency Xinhua reported.

Nearly a million police have been dispatched to help keep roadways open as thousands of vehicles have become stranded in the snow and ice, the ministry of public safety said.

Bullhorn in hand, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao apologized Tuesday to the hundreds of thousands of people stranded -- a rare move by a Chinese politician.

"I apologize to you all," said Wen, standing among travelers at a station in Hunan province. "We are currently trying our best to repair the system.

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"First we'll fix the electric grid. After that, the trains will run again. ... Then all of you can go home for the Chinese New Year," the premier said, bringing applause from the crowd.

Two days later, the wait continued. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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