Guest Traveler:Helen Chen Luan

[The next installation in my series of “Guest Traveler” posts by people I’ve met along the way.]


Name: 陈峦 Helen Chen Luan

Hometown: Luoyang, China (洛阳). She currently lives in Shanghai

Where she traveled: Yunnan Province of China

Where our paths last crossed: Hong Kong

Helen is a friend of mine from graduate school and she now lives in Shanghai. In a exclusive, she shares a story from her visit to Lugu Lake in central China. I like this story a lot because it shows the universality of travel and the arbitrary distinction we often make between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

The Happiness of Fish

by 陈峦

This photo was taken by my friend Yijun.


It might not be the best picture taken during our ten day trip to Yunan, but it is my favorite because it contains both the reasons why I like the place and why I miss it.

This place is Lugu Lake on the border of the Szechuan and Yunnan Provinces in China, 184 kilometers northeast of the city of Lijiang, The people that live there are called the Mosuo People.

I like the lake and its blue skies, white clouds, fresh air, quiet mountains and peaceful water. The only word you hear by the lake is “beautiful,” and often in many different languages.


The above photo is a full shot of the lake, or the fullest my camera could take from this mountaintop. The water in the lake looks like paint.

After a thirty-minute car ride we got to the side of the lake, as seen in my photo below.


Thirteen of us took two canoes and headed for the island in the center of the photo.

As soon as we left the shore I mentioned I instead wanted to swim to the island. (Actually, I did not mean it, but the lake was so attractive that I just could not suppress the idea of jumping into it.)

Immediately I was told by our boat boy “You cannot swim in it.”

“Why not?” I questioned, “I saw people swimming in it just now.”

“They are our people, not you tourists,” he said, making a clear line between them and us.

“What’s the difference?” I questioned. “Is it because the lake is yours?”

“It might be dangerous. You are on my boat, I should be responsible for your safety,” he said.

“But, what if I am a good swimmer and I have life insurance?” I began to talk about things in theory.

“No,” he said.

I knew that would be his answer.

“Would you like to sing us a song please?” someone suggested.

“I don’t know how to sing,” the boat boy replied unenthusiastically.

“That’s impossible,” I said, “Mosuo people are known as born singers,” repeating what I had read in a guidebook.

“I am an exception,” he said shyly.

After a bit of paddling our group settled down—no more requests to jump into the lake, no more conversations about singing and by then, all our cameras were tucked back into their cases.

“Where are you from?” the boat boy opened the conversation with me, I guess because I was the loudest of the group.

“Where do you think I come from?” I asked sitting in the very front of the canoe behind the boy.

“I don’t know. But you are not from Shanghai.”

Because I am from Shanghai, his response surprised me a bit (Just a few days earlier, a group of Tibetan monks told me they knew I was from Shanghai because I had an accent…which can not possibly be true, because no one speaks more standard Mandarin than I do =).

“Why do you think I am not from Shanghai?” I asked.

“Because I have met people from there,” he explained.

“But you’ve met people from other place too,” I retorted. “Why am I not Shanghainese?”

“Because you are different. I have been rowing here for three years. I know people, ” he said with unwavering certainty.

“So you are saying I am different from Shanghai people in a bad way or a good way?” I asked sensing he’d say the latter. (I worked in customer service at the Shanghai airport for four years. I know people too.)

“People from big cities are not so good,” he answered.

“You mean I am a good person,” I smiled, “Thank you.”

“What about foreigners,” I asked, “Are you able to make fast judgments about them too?”

“I don’t know. I don’t talk to foreigners. I don’t speak their language,” he said quite honestly.

“Ok,” I said, “but you are only half right about me. I have lived in Shanghai for four years.”

“…and I think there are good people from every place,” I added.

“Whatever,” he said back.


(In this photo, Michelle from South Africa. Does the water look like silk?)

“You do not like outsiders very much, do you?” I said, sensing this from the way he spoke to us.

“You outsiders do not know what life is,” he said, shocking me a bit with his directness and insight.

“Everything you care about is money. You just come here to see what you don’t have in your place,” he paused a second.

“And we want to go outside to see high buildings and modern cities which we don’t have,” he added, I believe, only to soften the bluntness of his earlier comment by assuring me we had things that they did not.

The difference I realize, is that they could have high buildings and live “modern” lives, if not right now, at least some day in the future; although we could never have their beautiful lake and natural scenery. Everyone seems to be so excited about growth and modernization in China, but I wonder if the “modern” China we are building will still have room for these emerald green mountains, clear blue lakes and warm open hearts?

“Have you been to the cities?” one girl from our group asked.

“No, never,” the boat boy said.

“Do you want to go out there to have a look?” the girl followed up.

The boat boy paused a moment, “Umm, not sure, maybe, maybe not,” he said.

“Some friends of mine went out there and changed a lot,” he paused to think again.

“I liked them much more the way they used to be,” he concluded.

“If there were no restrictions, what are three places you’d most like to go?” the six girls in our boat asked the boat boy.

“I think I do not want to go outside,” he replied.

“Why, you just have said people like to see fresh things?” one of us replied.

“Maybe to see fresh things…but if I wanted to see high buildings, we have TV,” he retorted, “besides, we often get sick when we leave our place.”

He continued, “Some of you outsiders are arrogant and ask if we have electricity, running water and things like that. And outsiders are surprised that we have TV sets.”

I realized that these questions, asked in the wrong tone, could seem quite rude, but most people from China’s big cities have the impression that people in China’s interior live a hard life. (Though my Dad once told me when I was a little girl that people who live near the water would always live a good life since there are fishes in lakes and rivers that connect to the outside.)

“How old are you?” a girl asked the boat boy.

“Age is a secret for Muosou guys,” he said.

“Oh, have you done a walking marriage?” I suddenly remembered, referring to a common, yet often misunderstood Muosou tradition, where by a man will sneak to see a woman at her home at night and return to his own family’s home in the morning. Maybe, I thought, we could deduce his age from that?

“You don’t have any chance anyway,” he turned around and said to me. (I had the sudden urge to again jump into the lake—but this time it was out of sheer embarrassment.)

I told him my age and for that I learned his 20th birthday was next month.

“Do you think we are talkative?” I asked, afraid of saying too much that would make his already scarred image of outsiders even worse.

“Feel free to talk. You people are not those I hate. I have my little tricks to deal with those people,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“I tell them I do not speak Mandarin and pretend I have no idea what they’re talking about. That shuts then up,” he said dryly.

“That’s smart.” I thought.

“Do you mind that more and more outsiders are coming to your lake and are changing your previously quiet life?” I asked.

“We could not prevent you coming,” he responded. “People like to see beautiful scenes. And the lake is not ours. It belongs to nature. We just happened to live beside it.”

“He is a philosopher!” I thought smiling.

“Are you enjoying your life now?” I asked.

“Yes, very much,” he answered quickly.

“What’s the most enjoyable thing,” I questioned.

“Drinking, rowing boats, chatting with friends and swimming in the lake where I feel I am like a fish, happy and free,” he replied.

I smiled, I think we all agreed with him.

People are so alike sometimes.

On the way back from the island, he actually sang a song for us–it was good. He told us more about his people and culture: an optimistic people, open hearted and longing for freedom. I like them.

When it was time to say goodbye, the boat boy let me take a picture of him and smiled.


He joked, “You, hurry up! Don’t get in the way of me making money. ”

And it was then that he told me his name: Tsili.

I am happy, happy like a fish too.

If any of you go to Lugu Lake and happen to see Tsili, please tell him I said hello.


This photo was taken by my friend Yijun. It might not be the best picture taken during our ten day trip to Yunnan, but it is my favorite because it contains both the reasons why I like the place and why I miss it.

What you can do from here:

  • Leave a comment about Helen’s story in the comment box below.
  • Suggest yourself or someone else for a future “Guest Traveler” post by contacting
  • Read entries from past “Guest Travelers” featured on
    • Brian Triplett on life in Africa on his 8 months trip around-the-world.
    • Nicole Bruskewitz saving turtles and backpacking the back roads of Central and South America for a year.
    • David Strackany writing 365 songs in 365 days, while living in his car and touring The United States.

2 Responses to “Guest Traveler:Helen Chen Luan”

  1. Helen Says:

    Thanks for your editing, Andy.
    Seeing my long name reminds me how you arrange the order of my name in the ppt of our presentation at Steve’s Class.
    Helen Chen Luan? Helen Luan Chen? Luan Chen Helen? Chen luan Helen?
    There comes 陈峦from this time on. Ok, that is all me.

  2. Ali Maloy Says:

    The comment in this post that hit home with me the most was “Everyone seems to be so excited about growth and modernization in China, but I wonder if the “modern” China we are building will still have room for these emerald green mountains, clear blue lakes and warm open hearts?” This reminds me of my trip to West Lake outside of Shanghai in 2005 – also a very beautiful place in China – I hope that places like West Lake and Lugu Lake are still around for our great-grand children and beyond to enjoy. Very well-written post, Helen!

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