It’s Thursday morning in Chengdu for Joann and me, while our families are still living Wednesday evening in Minnesota. We’re regrouping today before launching out tonight to places where Esther actually lived and worked.
Last post, I wrote about worshiping at Shanghai Community Church 4 days ago, on Sunday. That afternoon we flew to Yichang, which in Esther Nelson’s day was known by foreigners as Ichang.
For Esther, it was a stop on her voyage up the Yangtze river from Shanghai to Chongqing (known to her as Chungking). She might have spent a few days at a time in Yichang, waiting for the next boat, whose schedule might be uncertain. But she never lived or worked here.
Still, there were a few photos of “Ichang” in her old albums, including 2 of the sort of monumental buildings we associate with London or Washington, DC. In fact, one of the buildings was flying an American flag, so we guessed it might have been the American consulate.
We showed those photos to taxi drivers, hotel personnel and others. No one recognized them. The best pointer we could get was directions to the neighborhood where the old city and foreign governmental buildings used to be.
So we set out wandering. We walked along the riverfront, where Esther’s steamship from Shanghai would have docked. We looked to the hills across the river and tried to find the notch from which one photo was taken, looking back to the town. She and friends must have taken a small ferry across the river that day for an outing in the hills.
As we turned away from the river and toward the town, we saw the large Yichang City Hall. It is common that Chinese government buildings now stand where foreign official buildings used to be. That confirmed we were in the right neighborhood.
We found some wonderful old narrow passageways and alleyway streets lined with houses, shops, open air vendors–streets Esther would have walked. Along the streets, amid the newer buildings were random ones that were very old. But all of them were everyday, normal places, not the grand government-like buildings we’d seen in Esther’s photos.
Then Joann noticed the historic preservation plaque on a large could-be-old-enough building. It was property of the Catholic Church. Around the corner was the church building itself. Inside we were met by a friendly woman who was a treasury of information. She introduced us to the priest. He didn’t recognize “our” buildings, but he knew of one old place, and asked the woman to walk there with us.
Hidden in a courtyard, surrounded by “regular” buildings was the former British Consulate, now a restaurant. The US Consulate would certainly have been nearby.
We walked out of the courtyard, excited over this discovery and thinking we’d found all there’d be for us. But right across the street within a wall was an old, gray, squarish, business-like building. The historic preservation plaque by the gate named it as the former British Steamship Company.
Here was another find. Esther’s transportation up and down the Yangtze was often via British steamships. As Joann said, “Who knows? She probably stopped in here to buy tickets, confirm schedules, and check on her frequent traveler miles.”
So, in Yichang, merely a layover city for Esther, we saw places she would have seen and walked where she would have walked. This is more amazing than it might sound, because China–though it has a millenia-long heritage–has covered much of the old with new.
I’m sorry, I can’t take time to upload photos into this post, because I need to skim over Esther letters to check again for names and places and details that will aid our searches during our next jaunts.
So here are the photos where you can see the old Yichang story for yourself.
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