Thousands of Chinese travellers flocked to catch trains leaving coronavirus-ravaged Wuhan early Wednesday as authorities lifted a more than two-month ban on outbound travel from the city where the global pandemic first emerged.
As the ban was lifted on schedule at midnight (1600 GMT Tuesday), many passengers expressed joy and relief as they filed into Wuhan's Wuchang station, leaping at the chance to board overnight trains heading out of town.
"Wuhan has lost a lot in this epidemic, and Wuhan people have paid a big price," said a 21-year-old man surnamed Yao, who was heading back to his restaurant job in Shanghai.
"Now that the lockdown has been lifted, I think we're all pretty happy."
Government estimates have said that as many as 55,000 people are expected to flow out on Wednesday by train from the city, which was placed under an unprecedented quarantine lockdown on January 23.
Some could barely contain their happiness.
"I've been stuck for 77 days! I've been stuck for 77 days!" shouted one man from the neighbouring province of Hunan, who was in Wuhan when it was sealed off.
The lockdown made Wuhan the first place in the world subjected to draconian containment steps now seen in many countries.
It was quickly followed by the rest of surrounding Hubei province, confining tens of millions of people to their homes and cutting the province off from the rest of the world as transport in and out was halted to prevent transmission of the virus.
- Long time, no see -
Chinese media outlets hailed the removal of the travel ban, with headlines posted on their websites after midnight saying: "Wuhan, long time, no see."
Hubei and the provincial capital Wuhan have suffered the majority of China's officially claimed tally of more than 81,000 overall infections and more than 3,300 deaths.
An announcement blaring over the train station PA system said: "Wuhan deserves to be called the city of heroes. Wuhan people deserve to be called heroes."
Despite the measures taken in Hubei, the pathogen spread across China and the world.
But Communist Party authorities -- who are accused of a slow-footed response and an initial attempt to cover up the outbreak -- have claimed recent success in bringing the virus to heel, though questions over the accuracy of its reported case numbers persist.
Its official national tally of coronavirus deaths and overall cases has plummeted in recent weeks, with the National Health Commission saying Tuesday that no new deaths had been logged in the preceding 24 hours.
That was the first fatality-free day since China began publishing figures in January.
Relief over China's falling virus numbers has been tempered, however, by caution over new risks: rising numbers of infected people arriving from abroad -- primarily returning Chinese citizens -- and the invisible threat of asymptomatic cases.
Hubei residents had been confined to their homes until about two weeks ago, when restrictions began to be eased, triggering a resumption of inbound travel from other parts of China.
Authorities, however, had waited until Wednesday to allow normal traffic out of Wuhan amid continued fears in the rest of the country that people from the city pose a risk.
Chinese disease-control officials said in January that the virus likely leapt from wildlife to humans at a Wuhan market that sold a wide range of wild animals for food.
Wuhan authorities said at the weekend that various restrictions on movement would remain in place to guard against a second wave of infections, arguing that "even greater vigilance is needed" now that the travel ban has been dismantled.
People from Wuhan also face hurdles getting out.
They must show proof that their area of origin has been declared safe from the virus, and many face the likelihood of two-week quarantines in their destination provinces.