Jax Fax Magazine

CHINA – Visiting Rural Yunnan Province, By Marian Goldberg

It was not my first trip to China. I had previously been to Beijing and Shanghai and seen the massive redevelopments with high tech sky scrapers. But this was my first trip to rural China – to Yunnan Province in the country’s Southwest, a two hour flight from Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong to Kunming City, the provincial capital, just 340 miles from Hanoi, Vietnam (about the same distance as Boston to Baltimore). I flew 14 and 1/2 hours from Newark to Shanghai on Continental Airlines’ new 777-200 service that just launched on March 25th, and then made my connection to Kunming. I would overnight at a hotel, because it was already too late to catch a bus or a plane. The next morning I took a 4 ½ hour scenic motor coach ride ($20) 186 miles north to Dali City. (On the return I would take a flight costing $60).

Dali, Xizhou, and the Linden Centre Dali is the economic and cultural center of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Talk about picturesque! It is surrounded by mountains on the east, west, and south and has the Erhai Lake in the center. At the bus station, I was greeted by Americans Brian and Jeanee Linden, who I had really come to see. The Lindens sold their house in Madison, Wisconsin to fund their lives’ passion, the newly opened Linden Cultural Centre (www.lindens.cn), in Xizhou Village, about 10 miles from Dali. We hopped a rickety motorized tricycle ($4) for the short journey.

The Linden Centre offers 14 luxury guest rooms, each with modern, private bath in a restored, land-marked former merchant’s house. The largest facility of its kind in Southwest China, the Centre also houses meeting rooms, courtyards, a private dining room, a library, a cultural museum, artist studios, a meditation room, a sunny glass-enclosed breakfast room, a barlounge, a rooftop outdoor reception and view space, a gallery and art work and antiques galore. The Centre specializes in cultural programs from cooking classes and tea ceremony to art and calligraphy lessons to yoga and spiritual exercises.

The Lindens have spent more than two decades on and off in China, speak fluent Mandarin and have befriended the villagers whether they are town elders, hardworking farmers, or playful children. They even offer the local children free, interactive English “classes” (games) that they enjoy with the hotel guests. I personally participated in “English corner,” teaching: “right foot in,” “left foot out,” and “spin yourself around,” in a frenetic Hoki-Poki dance. During my four-day stay, I enjoyed bicycle rides (free loan for Linden guests) – pedaling past the old women in colorful Bai costumes and headdresses carrying children or hay from the fields, old men playing Mah Jong or Chinese shamisen, bakers making fresh rice cakes, markets overflowing with fresh produce and fresh meats, and youngsters running through courtyards and alleyways chasing tiny puppy dogs.

Local Culture With Brian, I explored the local architecture, including a former home of the Yale-China program, which was disbanded during the Communist regime, but is now being restored. We also saw Xizhou’s famed Flying Tigers station, where the shark-faced US planes stopped to refuel, while defending China against the Japanese during World War II. Brian hopes to turn this into a museum.

In general I was amazed by the refurbishment efforts in both Dali and Xizhou – quite the antithesis from Beijing and Shanghai. Everywhere here, buildings are being reconstructed in traditional Chinese style and modern-designed facilities are being torn down. Brian is an antique’s connoisseur, whose father was a dealer. He and Jeanee still own a summer Chinese arts and antiques gallery in Door County, WI, which also helps fund the Centre.With Brian as bargainer and guide, I had a blast exploring the locals’ “field-finds” for sale. I bought three bronze hand mirrors that were each 1200 to 1500 years old for less than the price of lunch at a casual New York City restaurant.

One evening in the Centre courtyard, a village Bai musical troupe entertained us with their traditional instruments in conjunction with the “three-tea” ceremony. During three short intermissions, bitter, sweet, and goat cheese infused teas were served. On a separate afternoon, I learned to make “Xizhou Baba,” with Chef Yang Dong Bing, the Centre’s chef. He is the former head chef at the Yunnan Hotel in Kunming and a former teacher at Yunnan’s culinary school. “Xizhou Baba” is a kind of pizza with pork and vegetables or just brown sugar and margarine that is the most popular “grab snack” from the village street vendors.

A day trip to “ancient” Dali City with Jeanee (by taxi $6) included a visit to a “made-by-hand” textile “factory,” renowned for its Bai-style but modern-looking hemp clothing at a fraction of the price in other parts of China or in the USA. On that same trip, we explored the main Temple and the craft markets – for silver jewelry, Dali marble vases, silkcovered chopsticks, gift tea, herbal medicines, fabric handbags, and more. I also took advantage of a half-hour foot massage complete with scented oil and traditional herbs for less than $9.

The Lindens know which places meet American sanitary standards. Because the Centre is more than a hotel, but rather a place to immerse oneself in local Chinese culture, the Lindens are marketing strongly to those interested in Chinese language, culinary travel, and plein air art and photography. Former New York Times contributing travel writer, Taylor Holliday, who now runs Lotus Culinary Travel (www.lotusculinary.com) will be hosting culinary programs at Linden for four or more guests.

The Lindens’ own Plein Air Painting program, “Painting in the Land South of the Clouds,” led by master landscape painter, Ned Mueller, runs October 14-29, 2009 and costs only $3,800 including round-trip airfare from LAX to Kunming, scheduled local transportation, guides, double occupancy accommodations, and most meals. Notes Ned, who led a previous artists’ trip with Brian to Yunnan, “Of course you get to see the touristy things – temples and historic sites, but we spend more time focusing on the unique aspects of the region – colorful markets, rundown old buildings, local characters, and unique lighting and landscapes.” Information on additional upcoming programs, focusing on spirituality, tea, and mind & body health can be found on the programs section of their website at:www.linden-centre.com/dev.

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