China's heaviest snow storms in 50 years have wreaked havoc on the country's economy causing damage of $7.5 billion, a senior official said.

"The snow has taken a toll on the Chinese economy," the Xinhua news agency cited Zhu Hongren, deputy director of the Bureau of Economic Operations with the National Development and Reform Commission.

Crops and farmland have been particularly badly hit with around 17.5 acres of agricultural land affected. The Ministry of Agriculture was cited as saying that 14.4 million poultry had died from the cold, as well as over 870,000 pigs, 450,000 sheep and 85,000 cattle.

So far about 60 people have died, with over 77 million people affected in 14 provinces, including Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan in central, southern and eastern China.

The country's transport system has virtually ground to a halt at one of the busiest times of the year causing misery for the 100 million migrant workers struggling to get home for the Lunar New Year holidays next week.

Thousands of cars are reported trapped on highways and millions of people are stranded at airports, bus and train stations. Xinhua reported that there has been some improvement in the situation with the Ministry of Railways saying that 95% of rail traffic had returned to normal, and some airports had resumed flights and roads cleared of ice.

But a Ministry of Railways spokesman was cited as saying: "If the stranded passengers could stay and spend the Lunar New Year at the cities where they work, it will be better. Otherwise, the return journey after the holiday may be also difficult."

The Chinese authorities have established a command center to "coordinate contingency measures for coal and oil transport, power supply transmission and disaster relief in snow-hit areas," the Xinhua news agency said.

Local weather forecasters said, in western China the Taklamakan desert was covered with snow for the first time in its history.