Up until now our travels were comfortable. Suspiciously comfortable. Although we were warned about the altitude, few of us have experienced the effects that nearly two miles of elevation can bring out, and like most, I was honestly pretty curious to see how this one would turn out. The constant warnings of altitude sickness bred a sense of alertness before we took our first steps. Knowing the altitude may be too strong for some, our group took on a silent sense of comradery. True to the spirit of the adventurer, together we walked, onwards, but mostly upwards.

As we made our way into Yuhu I couldn’t help but notice the pace of life. Not just human-to-human interaction, but the serenity that made up most of the village. I first remember observing the slowness of the mosquitos living at such great heights. After watching a man taking his work break slowly swat at an even slower mosquito, I caught a glimpse of the tranquility so many of the villagers enjoyed. For a moment, I thought this coolness came withouts some of the luxuries we appreciate today. However, what I saw next offered a new perspective: A local woman riding a horse and using an iPhone to pay for street food. I was surprised. To see such a modern thing seamlessly make its way into everyday life was interesting for me. So many little things went into that brief moment to create a mixture of the past and present. Before our trip to Yuhu we discussed how all cultures have a right to pick and choose how they’d like to change – that moment was the perfect picture to better my understanding.

It was also interesting to imagine what Joseph Rock would’ve seen. The dedication to preserve his old house was telling, as well. It was cool to learn that some older members of the village still have memories of him from their youth.  At the town museum, I was able to see a picture of Rock. He really looked like he owned the place. I immediately thought, “This probably isn’t a good thing”, but apparently some elderly villagers had happy memories of the 外国King. Our visit was short, I left without fully grasping his impact on the village, why he looks kingly in all of his existing photos, and why he’s immortalized in Lijiang. Thinking about this puts me somewhere between a rock and a hard place (I had to), but from the local people’s perspective there was nothing to worry about. That aside, although our journey into Yuhu marked the beginning of our upward adventures, in many ways it was the first time we could smash our preconceptions of rural China, and see China from a new perspective.

The group in front of Joseph Rock’s old home



Lijiang: Old Town and Party at Nongjiale!

After spending two days at Dali we hopped onto another bus and made our way over to Lijiang. Once the three-hour bus ride was over, we arrived at a hotel that was 7,874 feet high in elevation. When entering the hotel it had a small wooden bridge that led us into a beautiful courtyard (see below). It reminded me of the openness and nature-like aura of the Linden Center in Dali.


Once we were settled into our new rooms the group ventured out into the old town to explore Lijiang. Our tour guide was Lilly, a friend of Dr. Bullock, and we followed her down the small mountain into the main part of town. While there the group parted into two groups, one that went to a Western-style restaurant and the other that was more of a traditional Lijiang meal. After dinner, we were given time to explore the old town. While walking around the old town it felt like we were in a completely different time that was not modern and industrialized like Shanghai. The buildings looked new but had an ancient architecture to them while the mom and pop shops were welcoming and intriguing. During our time there we honed our skills in bargaining (讨价还价) and immersed ourselves into the Lijiang community. Below are some pictures that help to capture what walking around the old town felt and looked like. On the left shows the beautiful river that runs through the whole town and on the right is an alley that took me to a cafe that had live music being played by local artists. I remember that while the woman was singing our assistant director could not help but sing along and connect deeply with the song. Apparently, the woman was singing a really old Chinese song that spoke about true love and the aching feeling of loving something very deeply.


At night Lijiang’s old town turned into a city full of lights. A couple of the group members and I made our way down the mountain and into an underground mall that had stores similar to the ones you would find in Shanghai. To make it feel even more like a modern city there was a huge club that was playing techno music that had many people dressed up like they were going to a cocktail party.

Before we left for our next stop in Yunnan Province some of Dr. Bullock’s friends invited us to a dinner that gave us a taste of the Nashi culture. We ate some hot pot that included potatoes, chicken feet, beef, pork, corn and much more! At the end of the meal, the Nashi people sang one of their traditional songs and then we had a dance party. Once the folk music went on we all got into a macarena line and kicked out our legs from side to side (shown in the pictures below). The party ended when it began to pour so we said our final goodbyes and headed back to our hotel.

Reflecting back on Lijiang now, I really enjoyed the old town and how it felt like it was taking me back in time. However, it is worth mentioning that tourism is a double-edged sword for the people that live there. While all the tourism gives them a steady flow of income it also enables the government to start demolishing pieces of the old city to make Lijiang more modernized. I spoke with some of the local people and they said that the present Lijiang is completely different because the new developments in the city are taking away some of the old town’s natural attractions. I hope Lijiang can still maintain its beautiful aspects as more and more people go to visit. This was one of my favorite places to explore while in Yunnan Province.

Cui Hu Park: A Jade in Kunming

As we approached the end of our trip, we came full circle and spent our final night in Kunming, in the very same place we stayed our first night. Upon landing at the airport, we split into groups and found our way to the hotel; it was a familiar route and I was feeling more comfortable using my Chinese and getting around than I had when we’d first arrived the week before. The area surrounding the hotel was vibrant and full of people; we hadn’t had much time to explore our neighborhood the first time, but we got time to walk around and see the stores, restaurants, and of course, all the bubble tea shops in the area. We split up for dinner: some people went to have the traditional ‘over-the-bridge noodles’ and some people went in search of other types of cuisine. We walked through the Cui Hu Park in our search for dinner, and it was so pretty to see the lake at night. The walkways next to the water were full of people: couples strolling, people walking their dogs, and kids chasing one another. The bridges that connected the various parts of the lake were lit up, and the lights illuminated the lilies floating on the water surface; it was quite a sight.

The next morning, we had time before our flight to walk through the Cui Hu Park, the Green Lake Park conveniently located right across the street from our hotel. After breakfast, Dr. Bullock, Caroline, and I strolled through the park and saw a great deal of different activities taking place. We saw people of all ages participating in Taichi (and Dr. Bullock joined in for a bit!), women dancing in large groups, kids playing badminton, and many joggers running through the park… it was quite an active area.

In addition to all the physical activity, there were food stalls and small shops scattered around the park. It was quickly evident why the park was called the “Green Park”: the area was covered in enormous trees with branches that sagged so low that they brushed the top of the water. The water itself was also an emerald color, as a result of the many lilies and the green moss that covered the entire surface of the lake… it looked like you could stand right on top of it! Caroline stuck her hand in, but when she removed it, the green moss clumped back together, blocking any view of the water.

Although our trip was only one week, it felt as though our group had come a long way since the first day. We came to Kunming (the first time) after only having been in China for a few days: some of us knew one another but many of us were still getting to know each other. Additionally, speaking from personal experience, I was tentative to speak Chinese because I hadn’t practiced in so long. But upon our return to Kunming at the end, I felt as though we had grown as a group, and I felt more at ease to practice my Chinese. I thought that our return to Kunming helped center us after all the incredible places and sites we’d seen over the week: the trip was an incredible experience, and I felt lucky that we should end on such a high note in such a beautiful city.

Dali: A Marbleous City

After spending the previous night in Kunming, we caught a late-morning bullet train to Dali. The installation of this high-speed train last year cut the travel time between the two cities by a staggering 9 hours– it took a mere 2 hours to arrive. Our guide from the Linden Center in Xizhou, Jiajia, greeted us at the Dali station and led us by bus to the iconic gate of Dali Old Town.

Entrance to Dali Old Town

The sudden change of elevation and the food from the previous night launched a powerful attack on me, but it was nothing an Imodium couldn’t handle… for now. We then had our first culinary taste of Yunnan on the second floor of a restaurant that overlooked the plateau of single-story buildings with tiled roofs and white plastered walls.

Alex feeling the sudden wrath of an unwashed Rambutan

The roofs are laced with intricate patterns that feature mystical creatures that represent old tales that are almost believable because of how mystically beautiful the town is; it seemed as if some sort of sleepy curse was cast upon the grey buildings, the animals, the water, and even the trees. Or maybe I was just delirious from the high elevation (6,500ft.)  Dali is also renowned globally for its marble, with designs so abstract that even the Spanish Dali had nuthin’ on.

Jiajia gave a brief introduction on the Linden Center, run by an eccentric American named Brian, and its efforts to work in tandem with the Chinese government to preserve the local culture and architecture of the region, as well as the Erhai lake from the increased pollution that resulted from the recent increase in tourism.

Crowded streets of Dali

As we strolled down the rain-washed, slanted roads of Dali Old Town, oft-times I caught an unpleasant whiff and wondered if it came from nearby durian or from one of us with 拉肚子 (traveller’s diarrhea.)

Crowded Streets of Dali pt. 2

It was only day two in Yunnan province, and unfortunately I spent most of my time rushing in and out of the various McDonalds toilets of Dali, mastering the art of the squat. Jiajia guided us through the crowded streets lined with charming Yunnan snack and trinket shops.

We were given a few hours of free-time to explore the shops and to practice our Chinese with the locals by asking them about their thoughts on the Erhai lake preservation efforts. Turns out that the latter was a hard task for two reasons:
1. Because most people were also tourists

2. All the McDonald’s toilets only had one stall so I didn’t really have any chance to communicate with the locals…

Catholic Church

We stopped for pictures at a Dali-style Catholic Church, erected in the 1930’s by a French missionary. Jiajia explained that in recent decades, the Chinese government became more and more tolerant of Christianity. However, very recently it has started to re-associated Christianity with subversive Western values and has cracked down on Christian institutions.

Dog hit by the sleepy curse of Dali








By the end of the day, it felt as if that spell had also been cast upon all of us, as we were really looking forward to kickin’ it back at the Linden Center. It was truly a marbleous day.


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