Voicing joy and excitement from behind face masks, tens of thousands of people fled Wuhan on Wednesday after a 76-day travel ban was lifted on the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged.
Previously quiet train and bus stations bustled as an exodus began from the city of 11 million, with some passengers wearing hazmat suits.
Hao Mei, a single parent from the nearby city of Enshi, said her two children had been home alone since she got stuck in Wuhan, where she works in a school kitchen.
“You have no idea! I was already up around 4am. I felt so good. My kids are so excited. Mum is finally coming home,” the 39-year-old told AFP as she waited to board a train.
“At the start of the lockdown, I cried every night. I was really miserable, because my little girl is still young, she’s only 10.”
Up to 55,000 people are expected to leave Wuhan on Wednesday just by train, according to government estimates.
Steady streams of cars hit the road Wednesday morning, with barricades on the city’s outskirts dismantled after the ban on outbound travel was lifted at midnight.
Ferries, trams and taxis resumed operations and the airport also opened again for domestic flights, with queueing passengers in protective wear wheeling cases and staff spraying disinfectant on the floor.
State news agency Xinhua said there would be around 200 flights on Wednesday.
A group of medics leaving Wuhan tearfully hugged colleagues from the city goodbye as they prepared to board flights home.
– World-first lockdown –
Wuhan led the world with an unprecedented quarantine lockdown on January 23 in a bid to stop the spread of the then-mysterious respiratory virus.
Chinese disease control officials said in January that the virus likely leapt from wildlife to humans at a Wuhan market that sold wild animals for food.
The rest of surrounding Hubei province quickly followed Wuhan, cutting tens of millions of people off from the world.
As the virus spread rapidly around the globe, around half of humanity has been forced into some form of lockdown.