Angry men, howling women and scared babies
Until this week, the largest crowd I had ever seen was a jubilant 30,000 at a concert by Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou in Shenzhen five years ago. I remember being amazed by the size of that crowd.
Yesterday, I found myself among 180,000 desperate travellers stranded for days at Guangzhou railway station because of the crisis gripping the mainland. I was sardined among them - angry men, howling women and scared babies - and it wasn't amazement I felt; it was fear. The only word that came to mind to describe the scene was 'hell'.
When I arrived at the station at 10am it seemed more crowded than it had been the day before. I was right. Many travellers had been driven away to make room for Premier Wen Jiabao's brief visit on Wednesday - and yesterday they returned.
Most were migrant workers desperate to return home for the Lunar New Year. As a journalist based in Shenzhen, I had talked to them and listened to their stories, observing their plight from the fringes.
But yesterday I joined the crowd and experienced the nightmare first hand. Before I had time to make sense of the situation, I was sucked into the seething mass and lost any sense of direction. All I could see were the backs of heads and necks. Pressed so tightly together it was obvious that many passengers had not taken a shower for several days.
The only thing I could do was keep pace with the crowd. I had to move in quick, small steps; otherwise, I would fall to the ground and be trampled by those behind me. Pushed, shoved and slapped until I was ready to collapse. Horror scenes of a human stampede crossed my mind.
Children screamed as they tried to keep up and hold on to the coats of parents struggling with luggage. Several men with pregnant wives or elderly parents begged police to let them board the train first. Police looked on, expressionless.
Eventually I escaped the madness. But for the waiting passengers it would be another long, cold winter night.