Three years ago today Noel Piper and I boarded a ferry in Yichang for a 36-hour run up the Yangtze River to Chongqing. It was Day 3 of our “Esther Expedition.” This photo was taken off the bow (that would be stern) of the ferry as we passed through one of the cities along the river.
To read more about the ferry voyage, you can check out these past posts:
At almost four thousand miles long, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river and the third longest in the world. Historically it divides the North and South of China providing a natural barrier against invaders and more significantly today, a waterway for transport, commerce, and leisure cruising. China’s coming of age as a true world power was signaled by the colossal feat of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam, a highlight of most cruises. While literally dozens of ships ply the waters, only a mere handful come close to the Western definition of luxury.
If you can’t imagine being able to tell the difference between a building that is a castle, a building that is a church, or a building that is a public toilet, than you obviously haven’t been to China!
Wuhan city officials have come under fire from netizens after photos were posted online showing an elaborate public toilet built to resemble a castle.
The two-storey toilet in the Hubei capital was claimed to have cost more than 1 million yuan, though an official response from the city’s Chengguan Office put the real figure closer to 800,000 yuan.
City management officials defended the project, saying that it was part of a larger plan to beautify scenic areas throughout Wuhan.
When I read this I was reminded of the first day of the Esther Expedition in March when Noel and I and our local guides mistook a public toilet facility for a renovated old church. You can read all about it in a post titled Seeing What We Want to See.
It’s late Monday night and I find myself back in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, looking for evidence of Esther Nelson.
When Noel and I were here in March, we learned that an institution in town has an extensive archive of pre-1949 mission agency documents. A friend of a friend of a friend has secured permission for me to spend the day poking around the archives, which I plan to do tomorrow.
I will be looking for information on Esther, a bell, and an airplane. (You’ll have to stay tuned to hear more about that.)
Here’s another photo from our trip in March — of the old city of Huili, Sichuan. Take away the motorcycles, the emergency shelter sign and the security camera keeping watch over the citizenry, and Esther probably would recognize the intersection.
It’s hard to believe that we have come to the last day of our Esther Expedition. Our journey yesterday down from Wuhan to Guangzhou to Shenzhen to Hong Kong went like clockwork, with each successive train we were on moving more slowly.
We collapsed in our hotel rooms at 4, only to rally (after eating something) at 5 for a trip to the top of Victoria Peak. We have a few things to see today, then I will leave for Beijing this evening. This time tomorrow morning Noel will be on her way to Tokyo, then home to her family in Minneapolis.
Until I can pull some more coherant thoughts together, I’ll express some words of thanks.
Thanks to those of you who helped us along the way. You bought tickets for us, gave us walking tours, translated, opened your homes, booked hotels, drove us to/from airport, drove us up/over mountains, told us stories, climbed steeples with us, made scones for train journeys. You are all angels and you know who you are!
To those of you who followed our adventures on our blogs, thanks for joining us.
And of course, a special thanks to Noel for asking me to join you on this journey, for trusting me to pull it off, and for being such a GREAT and unflappable travel companion. If you ever want to do another expedition, just tell me when to pack!
Noel and I are sprinting to the finish line of our Esther Expedition, which ends in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Today we flew from Chengdu to Wuhan. On Tuesdaywe take the bullet train from Wuhan to Guangzhou, then another train to the border the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen. We will cross the bridge into Hong Kong, then board the light rail to Kowloon.
The reason we are doing such a circuitous route from Chengdu to Hong Kong is to follow the route of Esther’s final departure from China in May of 1951. Even though the People’s Republic of China had been established in October of 1949, many of the missionaries working in China at the time had been allowed to remain. By the spring of 1951, however, with the new government consolidating its control over the country and fighting between China and the US on the Korean peninsula, the local officials in Huili, Sichuan gave the final order for the foreigners in the city to leave within 48 hours.
Esther Nelson, along with another single woman and 2 families, set out from Huili, bound for Chengdu. Unlike our journey along that route 2 weeks ago, which was by car and train, their party made the journey on foot. Walking over numerous mountain passes and through towns and cities where they were viewed with suspicion, it took them almost three weeks to reach Ya’an. Added to the trauma of the departure and journey itself, when they reached the town of Hanyuan, one of the wives contracted meningitis and died, leaving behind her husband and 4 children, including a 6 month-old baby. They had to leave money with the Catholic mission where they were staying for a quiet burial, then continue on their way, with Esther taking care of the baby.
When the party reached Chengdu, it was decided that the now-motherless family and Esther would fly to Wuhan (as opposed to taking a slow boat), then take the train to Guangzhou and on to the Hong Kong border, which they crossed on foot. At the time, Hong Kong was really the only way in/out of China.
It is that route that we are tracing this week, although instead of a 36 hour train ride tomorrow, ours will take only 5 hours.
In the second week of our trip, we travelled by car and train along part of the route that she and the others trekked between Huili and Hanyuan. We had hoped to stop in Hanyuan and look for a grave or some kind of marker for the woman who died, but Mr. B, our friend and guide had contacted the priest at the Catholic Church there now and found out that the entire old city was flooded a few years back when a dam was built on the river below the town. There would be nothing to find or see, so we decided not to stop there.
Here are a couple of pictures of the area between Huili and Hanyuan which we got to pass through in relative luxury on the train. It seemed incomprehensible to us that Esther and the others had made this same journey on foot.
On a small hill in the middle of the city of Ya’an stands an old school building that was built by Baptist missionaries in the early 1900’s. On park grounds today, it is no longer in use.
One sign on the building indicates that it was most recently the office of the local park administration. A peek into the broken windows and locked doors almost gives the sense of sudden abandonment.
Another sign high above the portico says that it is (was) the Ming De (Bright Morality) Middle School.
One of the things that we have learned on this research trip is that all of the schools that were started by the Baptists were named Ming De, and all of the hospitals were named Ren De (Benevolent Morality). So when we saw the Ming De sign on the building and on the nearby stone designating the building as a Provinciall Cultural Protected Site, we knew that it was the school we were looking for.
Although Esther did not work directly at this school, we imagine that she would have come up here from time to time.
When we were staying at the Hongzhu Hotel in Emei last week, I got up early (but not too early) and walked around the small lake that was across the road from the hotel. Thought I’d share with you something I saw.