WUHAN - Tens of thousands are expected to leave Wuhan via rail on Wednesday (April 8), the first day major transport links reopened in the city after a major lockdown to contain a coronavirus outbreak was lifted at midnight.
The city of 11 million people was closed off - with no one allowed to leave - on Jan 23 after the virus, which first surfaced in the central Chinese city late last year, spread quickly.
Most of the nearly 82,000 confirmed infections and 3,331 deaths in China have been in Wuhan.
An estimated 55,000 are set to leave Wuhan by rail on Wednesday, officials said, many of them going back to work across China. About 21,000 were slated to leave from Hankou, the city's oldest railway station a stone's throw away from the Huanan Seafood Market, which was an early focal point of infections.
Just past 6am, scores had already been patiently waiting to board the first train out of Wuhan - a high speed rail to Jingzhou, about 200km away.
Many were holding gift packs which had been given out by station management, who had arranged for staff to stand at the platform holding up red signs that read "Hankou Station welcomes you".
In a sign that life has yet to return entirely to normal, everyone sported a mask and at least a dozen were clad in the white full-body protective suits that have become a familiar sight in the city.
"I'm just very happy that we can finally leave, it's been too long," said a man who gave his name only as Mr Zheng, anxiously eyeing the line to board.
He had arrived two hours early, asking a friend to drive him as public transport had not yet started running at that hour.
At exactly 6.25am, D9301 pulled out of Hankou, travelling westward with about 60 passengers.
Along with railways, major highways and the city's Tianhe International Airport have reopened while taxis are allowed to ply the roads again.
Public transport has been operational for some time but require a green "health code", a programme on one's phone as proof of health, to be allowed on board.
The airport was a hive of activity. The first flight was at 7.25am that flew to Hainan's Sanya with 49 people on board.
By about 9am, hundreds had streamed to the airport where a positive health code was also required for entry.
Travellers had to show the same code before they were allowed to approach the check-in counter, and once more at the boarding gate.
Airport officials said 96 flights are expected to take off from Wuhan on Wednesday alone, with 11,855 travellers expected to come through the airport.
It is a far cry from the 600 flights and over 80,000 travellers during normal times, but the airport is working to get operations back on track.
As of now, there are no direct flights to Beijing or on international routes.
Dressed in full body PPE with one in kids' size on her son, a woman on her way home to Chongqing told The Straits Times that she felt "surreal".
"We've been stuck at home for more than two months so while it's nice to come out, it doesn't feel real,' she said.
At the riverside Hanjie shopping area on Wednesday afternoon, scores were milling around enjoying the pleasant spring weather while window shopping, mostly international brands like Levi's, Nike and Uniqlo.
But shoppers had to scan a QR code as proof of health and have their temperatures taken before they could enter the outdoor plaza. An amphitheatre and a mega cineplex remained closed, while restaurants were enforcing a takeout-only rule.
Yet that did little to deter residents from enjoying their favourite snacks.
A popular skewers shop, Weibatou, had at least a dozen people patiently waiting in line for sticks of barbecue while a bubble tea stall across had a similar queue.
"I initially came to try and shop but Adidas was closed by the time I got here just before 6pm, so I'm buying some skewers to take home instead," said Ms Wang Yunxing, who works in finance and in her 20s.
It was the first time she had left home in weeks. "I just wanted to enjoy the nice weather," she said.
Another two shoppers spotted with Singapore shoe brand Charles and Keith paper bags said they were nurses who finally got to have a day out.
Other businesses like bars and gyms remain closed.
On Hubei state television on Tuesday night, there were multiple programmes counting down to the reopening of Wuhan at midnight, featuring interviews with frontline crowd control staff at toll booths, airports and railway stations.
By 11.40pm, there was a 4km long queue at the main toll booth leaving Wuhan. Along with the cars were about two dozen traffic police officers in formation on motorbikes, showed footage on Hubei provincial TV.
The second car in the queue had four people in it. They said they were going back to Hunan province.
"We work in hotel management and haven't gone back at all this year. We were supposed to go back for the Chinese New Year but we didn't manage to," the unnamed driver said.
At the stroke of midnight, the officers moved to open a barricade as cars zipped through.
Across the city, buildings lit up in celebration with a laser light show as boats on the Yangtze River sounded their horns.
On some buildings were the slogan "Wuhan city of heroes" while others simply said "Wuhan, hello".