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.
Note: An excellent account of this journey out can be found in Ralph Covell’s book “Mission Impossible: The Unreached Nosu on China’s Frontier.”
And don’t forget to check out Noel’s recent posts: