Crowds roared with delight and waved hundreds of Chinese flags in welcome as the Olympic torch began an emotional tour of Sichuan on Sunday, three months after a powerful quake devastated large swaths of the lush, mountainous province.
A minute of silence to honour the victims of the earthquake was held before the start of the run in Guang'an. The city is about 190 miles (300 kilometers) from the epicentre of the quake but was unscathed.
Thousands of people were on hand, some wearing orange, red and white T-shirts that said "Light the Passion, Share the Dream." They were gathered in a tourist park that honours communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Guang'an is his hometown.
A traditional drum performance was held before the first of the 189 torch bearers set off on the 4.5-mile (7.3-kilometer) route. The way was lined with thousands of people, many waving Chinese and Olympic flags.
"I'm so moved ... it's been a long wait. Even if we have to wait for hours it is worthwhile," said 28-year-old government worker Li Lei. He said he cried when the torch run started.
"For my parents and my family who were greatly affected by the disaster, this is of tremendous significance. For the Olympics spirit and for Sichuan's spirit, this is a great thing," said Li, who is from a county near Beichuan in northern Sichuan, one of the hardest-hit areas in the earthquake.
Another man said the torch would help Sichuan rebuild. "The torch represents peace and harmony. The Olympic spirit will give us strength to rebuild," said Qin Yi, also a government worker.
After Guang'an, the torch will wind through four more cities, including Mianyang, which was threatened by post-quake floods and provided shelter for tens of thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed by the magnitude-7.9 temblor.
Sichuan is the last stop for the Olympic flame before it heads to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremony of the games. The segment had originally been scheduled for mid-June but was postponed to support disaster-relief efforts.
The province has made swift progress since the May 12 disaster killed nearly 70,000 and left 5 million homeless. Reconstruction is well under way and new routines have been established in temporary settlements that have sprung up across the quake zone.
The Olympic flame seemed to further raise spirits. Families and friends came from hundreds of kilometers away to celebrate in Guang'an. One group came in a convoy of five vehicles, complete with walkie-talkies to keep track of each other. Another consisted of 30 people who rode 125 miles (200 kilometers) on mountain bikes for the occasion.
"This is so inspiring!" said Wu Jing, 21, a student who was part of the bicycling group's two-day journey. "There's a lot of glory in having the torch come here. This is our way of showing our support."
The streets of Guang'an echoed with shouts of "Go China!" and "Go Olympics!" as an exuberant clusters of people marched through, waving flags and banners as cars honked their support. Many had stickers of the red and yellow Chinese flag on their face and matching headbands around their foreheads. Vendors did brisk business selling balloons, Olympic-themed pins and T-shirts proclaiming "I (Heart) China."
"We have had so much sadness buried deep within us," said Lu Guangquan, 36, a volunteer from nearby Linshui county. "The torch relay will help it all burst from within us and dissipate."