The Linden Center: Pioneers in Sustainable Tourism

We spent the day in Dali before taking a thirty-minute bus ride to The Linden Center in Xizhou 喜州, a small Bai village about one kilometer from Erhai Lake.  I had no expectations for what The Linden Center would look like. It was a weird concept—a Chinese protected heritage site turned into a luxury hotel. It sounded so contradictory to tradition. And to top it off, it was run by an American couple, who I assumed were just chasing profit and the Chinese consumers’ pocket books. As we walked down a cement road to the Center, a long-haired man in baggy clothing approached us. “Hi, my name is Brian Linden,” he said. I soon learned that all my assumption were completely baseless.

He brought us down the road to a sprawling courtyard mansion, surrounded on three sides by vibrant-colored rice paddies. After we settled into our rooms, Brian sat us down in the courtyard and told us his story. Brian had come from a poor Chicago background and was brought to China by the CCP on a scholarship to Beijing University. Without exaggeration, he credits the Chinese government with changing his life. Because of his time in China in the 1980s, Linden was awarded prestigious opportunities working with American media companies and was eventually accepted as a PhD candidate at Stanford University.

Brian and his wife Jeannie have dedicated their time in China to championing sustainable tourism that respects and preserves local minority culture. They work tirelessly on their own ventures, while committing to support local businesses and communities as well. The Lindens’ boutique hotel, which has no more than 20 guest rooms, employs 55 local staff members. The kitchen offers dishes made from local ingredients and guest activities often engage the Xizhou community. I came to learn that the courtyard we were sitting in was only one of three sites that comprise the Center. The other site consisted of higher-end, family style suites. The third site was primarily used for housing students. The Lindens host hundreds of students every year to teach about their business practices.

I will admit that even after my initial judgments about the Lindens and their hotel were shattered, I was still somewhat skeptical of Brian’s continuous praise for the Chinese Communist Party. A major part of why the Lindens are allowed to conduct business on a Chinese heritage site is because of Brian’s amicable relationship with the CCP. During his introduction to us, Brian told us how he felt indebted to the CCP for giving his life meaning after he first came to China. He joked not to think he was “brainwashed” by the government. I will note, however, that when I asked him where his allegiance to the government ended, Brian sternly denounced the CCP’s use of censorship. Brian is definitely in the camp of thinkers that believes China deserves a peaceful rise in global power. In his early life, he was let down by American social welfare programs and the Chicago public school system. But once he came to China, he was able to make a name for himself.

Our group’s stay at the Linden Center gave an interesting perspective for some of the students who might feel overwhelmed by the cultural differences of a Communist country. Brian and Jeannie are not dissenters of democracy, but rather open-minded entrepreneurs.  Brian’s story is not political. He came to China because they saw value in him, and he has dedicated his life to teaching others to value China as well.

Bai-style reflecting wall in The Linden Center

 

Yunnan Ethnic Village

What an exciting kick-off for Davidson in China 2018! After a couple of days in Shanghai, we all headed down to the southwestern province of Yunnan to travel and sightsee for a week. For me, the weeklong experience was more than just tourism; I had been challenged with seeing a brand-new side to China that involves more than its economy, government, and Confucius.

Our first destination was Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. Aside from having a new and beautiful airport, my first impression was the weather: It was cooler and less humid than Shanghai, but also a lot cloudier and breezier. It honestly felt like heaven after experiencing only a couple of days of absolute blistering heat and humidity.

I got to enjoy the same weather for the entire week in Yunnan, but the first site we visited in Kunming — the Yunnan Ethnic Village — was a such a beautiful and memorable place, one that gave me such a sensational experience that I believe I could only capture it again there. I’m no stranger to beautiful parks in life, but this park was unique in that it was imbued with such rich heritage emanating the beauty of more than ten, maybe even twenty, diverse cultures of Yunnan’s minority ethnic groups. All day long, the park kindled me with such a vibrant energy that reminded me again what an amazing country China is, and its wealth of cultural heritage spanning not only five thousand years but also dozens of ethnicities.

While walking around the park, I mostly marveled at the unique sculptures, tools, artwork, and buildings placed in a way that did not take away but instead added to the natural beauty of the big, green park. I’m not going to lie, they’re all very bright and colorful. They’re all carved with such precision and detail. But I did not know much of, if at all, Yunnan minority history before stepping foot in the park. Well, we did come here to learn everything we could about Yunnan minority history and culture in the first place, so here began my learning adventure.

In the picture above, that image inside the circle is not a painting. It looks like a painting, but it’s actually the natural pattern of a certain kind of marble, called Dali marble. Dali marble is very expensive and highly valuable because, obviously, those natural patterns which smoothly resemble human artwork are rare.

Like the ancient Greeks, I presume the minorities retold their classic stories and legends on surfaces, depicting people and events. They also had an ancient written language (character-based like written Chinese), which is in the orange picture below. They’re quite hard to see, but I can tell you that they look more like pictographs than the current written Chinese system.

It was mostly after the entire trip ended that I was able to understand and appreciate the intricacies of Yunnan minority cultural beauty. Looking back, I felt quite fortunate to visit a place where all of the Yunnan minority cultures we later on witnessed more in-depth, converged neatly in one location. The Ethnic Village was a great starting point for the rest of our trip.

I highly recommend people to visit this place. It has everything you would want: natural beauty, diverse cultures, clean air, cats, and theme-park like attractions (which we did not really visit, but hey they look cool). I want to individually thank Dr. Bullock for taking us all to this place and all the other places we visited in Yunnan; each and every place was unique in their story, history, and culture.

Wenhai

Throughout the duration of our travels through the Yunnan province of China, we stopped briefly in Wenhai village righ outside of Lijiang to further our understanding of the Naxi and Yi people and their culture. There are 800 people who belong to this region, and culturally are split into two ethnic groups – the Yi and the Naxi. The Yi live on higher grounds in the mountains, while the Naxi inhabit the lower grounds. These people’s economy and livelihoods rely heavily on farming potatoes, corn, wheat, barley and more along with their livestock of chicken, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and donkeys. Our advisor, Dr. Bullock, actually had lived here years ago to develop an Ecolodge that is continuing to expand and flourish. This Ecolodge has expanded quite extensively from the times when Dr. Bullock had seen it last, and can now house 12 travelers at a time who want to spend time in Wenhai to explore the village and trek across the beautiful landscape. Completely built from scratch, the housing is equipped with running water, dining rooms, and living rooms all complete with the Naxi touch. The eco lodge relies completely on solar panels and biogas – all created and carried by the Naxi people along with colleagues such as Dr. Bullock. As the people and the culture of Wenhai has been threatened over the past years due to failure of crops and climate change, it was important to work to help preserve the village, its incredible culture, and traditional ways of life. Creating the Ecolodge allowed for travelers and Naxi people themselves to rest comfortably as they continue their journeys exploring the Jade Snow Mountain while also learning about the history of Wenhai.

We were lucky enough to be invited for lunch by Dr. Bullocks old friends from when he worked in the village, and had traditional Naxi food. Although I was unable to eat any of it due to my extensive list of allergies, everyone on our trip claimed the food to be some of the best they’ve had – stemming from the different meats and vegetable dishes to chicken feet – all raised and grown within the village itself.

Wenhai lies at 3100 meters at the base of the Jade Snow Dragon mountain, just outside of Lijiang. There are not enough words to describe the beauty of the Wenhai village – from the distant rolling mountains to the intertwining streams that lead into the lake – it almost seems as if Wenhai has never seen hardship, and has been perfectly preserved throughout the years. Cattle would peacefully roam the roads, chickens would run around us as we walked, and the surrounding mountains gave us all an overwhelming, and much needed, sense of peace. It was an incredible village to visit in its stark comparison to the constant roar of the heavy urbanization in Shanghai. It allowed me to truly grasp that China has such an immense and interesting history that would take centuries to fully comprehend. Being in Wenhai, even only just for a short period of time, gave me a glimpse of that past history that led China to where it is today.

Below are some pictures from our walks around the village, from the streams leading to the lake, the abundance of beautiful flowers and nature, the cattle, to the Ecolodge Dr. Bullock helped form. It still amazes me how serene and completely incredible it was to be there.

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge

On our way from Liming to Shangri-La, we were able to stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge because of the extremely pleasant weather. The day before we had visited the First Bend of the Yangtze River, where the river takes an almost 180 degree turn, from south to north. At the bend the river spreads out over hundreds of yards, providing us with a stark contrast to the narrow passage of the gorge (82 ft at its smallest). This section of the river gained its name from a local legend which states that a tiger jumped over the narrowest part of the gorge to escape hunters.

To set the scene, the river lies in a deep ravine with steep cliff faces and looming mountains on either side. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain can be seen from the bottom of the ravine, with a peak of 18,360 feet. The river lies at just under 6,000 feet in elevation, which provides an idea of how impressively deep the gorge is. Not only does this disparity in elevation make you feel tiny at the bottom, but it also provides for a wide array of biodiversity from river to mountain top.

Upon arrival we could hear the roar of the river. The view from the top was spectacular, but it didn’t do the power of the river justice. Below (top) is a picture looking up the gorge, (bottom) shows you the fierceness of the river in comparison to the people standing on the platform (where we were headed).

 

 

 

We purchased our tickets, and began the decent towards the angriest flow of chocolate milk (as one of my peers put it) any of us had ever seen. With every stair, the thundering of unfathomable amounts of water smashing into rock got louder and louder. At the bottom, we finally gained some perspective on how terrifying  this section of river actually was. On the scale of international ratings of whitewater from Class I – Class VI (flat water to risking death), I would rate it somewhere around a Class VII. The only people known to have attempted rafting this section of the Yangtze, unsurprisingly, were never seen again.

In the middle of the first photo below, the water plummets into a hole seemingly 20+ feet deep and then periodically erupts in a plume of water droplets. The second photo below, looking downriver, is of Alex (left) and Lucas (right). The platform they are standing on is the one the tiny people are standing on depicted earlier.

 

 

 

The hike back up on wobbly knees proved to be slightly challenging, but was a good way to wrap up this side excursion to a pinch point of the Jinsha River, one of the main tributaries of the Yangtze River.

The river’s immense power tantalizes those who want to harness its energy. With a hydroelectric dam, energy could be provided cheaply for countless people throughout the Yunnan Province. However, the introduction of a dam would displace thousands of local minority people (Naxi) who live along the river. Fortunately, plans for dams have been written off in recent years due to a large portion of the river being protected as a World Heritage Site. This issue raises many questions, posing economical reasons against the ethical. Having been exposed to Naxi culture during our trip, it does not seem right to destroy culture, homes, families, and lives in general, for economic gain.

Shangri-La’s Lamasery Bastion

Today is our last day in Shangri-La, and we wake up at our hotel eager to explore through our last hours in Western China. Our hotel, decorated with elaborately crafted mats and traditional Tibetan architecture, provide a mixed aura of warmth and exoticism. We gather for breakfast downstairs and discuss our day ahead while feasting on some freshly made rice noodles and warm yak tea. Belongings packed and hunger quelled, we march towards the bus stop cruising through the old town and its quaint family stores. Our final destination: Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery.

It is a brisk, lightly clouded day in Shangri-La. At the back of the bus, my classmates and I chat about our memories of Yunnan while playing chess to pass the time. To get to the monastery, we are told, we first need to check into a local tourist center that vets entrance into the region. From there we have arranged tourist transportation that will take us to the entrance of the lamasery. As an enthusiast of Buddhism, I am eager to explore the most renowned monastery in Southwestern China. Even if I identify with the Rinzai Zen school more than the Tibetan line of Buddhism (I find the mysticism surrounding Tibetan practice overwhelming and far-fetched), my interest was peaked by the historical significance of the spot, its importance to the surrounding region, and the fact that a few hundred lamas trained there. We arrive at the tourist center and aided by our friendly Tibetan guide make our way into the reserved bus. Interestingly, one of the members in our group was told her shorts were too short and she would need to purchase pants in order to be admitted. It remained a place of serious religious observance, after all, despite its touristy allure. As the bus sways through the twisting, hilly roads we catch a glimpse of the grandeur of this monastery.

We arrive and gather outside its gates. As we are in high altitude (11,090 ft) we are told to decide rather or not to ascend its many steps — I see a couple of Chinese men going up with oxygen bottles. Most of us feel fine and we agree that seemed exaggerated. Still, to err on safety, the more tired of us remained downstairs. The willing gather their belongings and head upwards. As you can see in the picture, the actual monastery stands towering alongside the complex of surrounding buildings. The other houses, we are explained, serve as homes to the lamas that practice in the temple. We slowly progress upwards and eventually reach the top steps. We take a short break before exploring the main hall.

There are three main adjacent halls filled with paintings of traditional Tibetan Buddhist mysticism and tales. We are not allowed to take pictures inside, and the halls constantly receive followers for prayers. Many kneel and revere the idols portrayed. In the second and third hall (from left to right) there were lamas inside chanting and meditating. In the third one, there was a lama chanting with a microphone — his peaceful mutterings echoed throughout the chambers setting a deeply spiritual feel to our presence. We are told that the Sumtseling monastery was established by the Fifth Dalai Lama several centuries ago. However, original parts of the monastery were partially destroyed in the 1950s in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980s, thankfully, circumstances changed, and now the monastery buildings have been mostly renovated. Its arts are restored to their amazing detail and the fact that lamas continue to meditate and study there provide for a deep dive into Tibetan spirituality. We explore its surroundings a bit more before heading downwards, where we gather for a group picture and prepare to head towards the airport for our flight eastwards.

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