RUILI, China: At a checkpoint on China's southern frontier with Myanmar, shuttered stores advertising the region's famed jade jewellery appear abandoned, driven out of business by a pandemic-induced closure of the border.
The city of Ruili is slowly creaking back to life as China ditches its zero-tolerance COVID-19 strategy after years of strict lockdowns and other gruelling restrictions.
An absence of cross-border travel has haunted the trade-dependent city since April 2020, when the flow of goods and people from Myanmar was cut off.
On Sunday, a Myanmar official told AFP the border had finally been partially reopened, with some trucks making the crossing - spurring hope for a revival of the local economy.
Two men on the Chinese side were leaning against the barrier dividing the countries when AFP visited on Friday (Jan 13), gazing through the gates at the Myanmar town of Muse.
"We are from Myanmar," said one.
"We haven't been home in three years and really miss it."
Ruili was one of China's hardest-hit cities during the three-year campaign to keep the virus at bay.
It became a key battleground in the fight to keep imported COVID-19 cases out of China, with residents living through nearly a dozen lockdowns and prevented from travelling for most of the period.
"We were locked down so many times each year, not just once or twice - as if we were sleeping for months and months at home," Duan, a jade seller in the city's Delong jewellery market, told AFP.
Unable to operate normally, many businesses closed down, Duan said, pointing to the shuttered stalls surrounding his stand.
The city of around a quarter of a million people saw its population decline by 40,000 between 2020 and 2021, the most recent census figures show.
Huang, another jewellery seller, told AFP she became trapped outside Ruili by a travel ban in 2020 after attending her mother-in-law's funeral in distant Shanxi province.
When the restrictions were lifted last month, she rushed back to seize her first chance in years of celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year with her parents.
"VERY BAD EXPERIENCE"
U Min Thein, vice-chairman of the Muse Rice Commodity Exchange, told AFP on Sunday that China was not yet allowing people across the border.
But people in Ruili told AFP that Chinese authorities had given the green light to reopening checkpoints and Myanmar had not yet agreed to resume travel.
In Muse, residents were worried about soaring COVID-19 cases in China.
"Over a hundred people were killed in the COVID-19 pandemic during 2021 in Muse, and so the people in the town have had a very bad experience," a water pipe seller told AFP.
He criticised what he said was inadequate testing on the Myanmar side.
"If they tested properly and carefully, we would not have to be afraid."
He and others acknowledged the importance of reopening to boost people's livelihoods.
"I hope the economy will recover and be like it was before," said Soe Soe Aye, who used to work in a garment factory in China.
Tourists mingled with locals at a night market in Ruili on Friday, sampling deep-fried pancakes and meat skewers.
Zhang, the owner of a Thai-style barbecue and hotpot stall, said business had rebounded since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
But the lack of visitors from Myanmar was still being keenly felt, with multiple other stall owners saying they hoped foot traffic would pick up soon.
Still, there was relief at the lifting of zero-COVID.
"There was really so little time between us thinking that things might open up, to when it actually opened up," Zhang said.
"It feels like happiness came really quickly."