In partnership with two hospitals from the People’s Republic of China, the Global Health Institute at Loma Linda University Health recently hosted three Chinese medical students for six-week clinical rotations in neonatology, nephrology, and gastroenterology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

The program was developed to allow student physicians from Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital and Zhejiang University Children’s Hospital, both located in Hangzhou, China, to learn best practices of Western medicine by following residents, fellows, and attending staff on patient rounds and in other clinical situations. The curriculum was designed to blend textbook study with research and clinical experience in a highly interactive format.

The first three students to participate in the program returned to China on Tuesday, June 7, after completing all the program requirements. The weekend before they left, however, “Stephen” Lu Chen, “Candy” Zhou Qing, and “Wendy” Wang Jiawei took a whirlwind tour of the Golden State, visiting Big Sur, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, and the Owens Valley to get a closer look at not only the American landscape, but also the people of this country. Jason Polanco, administrative assistant at Loma Linda University Eye Institute, and yours truly, a writer and editor in the department of public relations, volunteered to serve as tour guides and drivers for the three-day excursion.

The first day of the journey, which started from the Welcome Center parking lot at 6:15 a.m., took the group from Loma Linda to a very fogbound coast. From the first view of the Pacific Ocean at Cambria to the last glimpse of San Francisco Bay 25 hours later, the three guests saw plenty of fog, which kept temperatures down and visibility limited.

A stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park made a big impression on Wendy. The park is world famous for McWay Falls, which drops 80 feet from the top of a hanging redwood canyon onto the beach below. During high tide, the waterfall plunges directly into the surf. Wendy said the waterfall dropping over the cliff onto golden sands rimmed by turquoise waters was her favorite stop on the trip.

After a stroll through the streets of Carmel and a visit to the Weston Gallery to view classic photographs by Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, and Paul Kozal, we stopped for dinner at the Village Corner restaurant. As I casually snapped photos of Wendy, Stephen, and Jason, Candy picked up a very pointed steak knife and adopted a menacing gesture. The resulting image, however, belies any violent intention: the shutter portrays a playful expression on her face completely devoid of malice or intimidation.

One of the highlights of the next day’s two-and-a-half-hour commute to San Francisco was an unannounced stop at Bean Hollow State Beach near Pescadero. Located on the northern end of the San Mateo County coast, the place is also known as either “the other Pebble Beach” or “the real Pebble Beach,” and is famous for two kinds of rocks.

The first—the ones from which the beach derives its name—are hordes of tiny pebbles in an almost infinite variety of colors, the same size and shape as pinto beans. Countless millions of these little jewels line the shore, but a sign near the entrance warns that it is illegal to take them from the premises.

The second type of rocks at Bean Hollow is a mixture of tan and blue-gray sandstone riddled with thousands of honeycomb indentions called tafoni. In places where the sandstone intersects the pounding Pacific on a regular basis, the repetitive, abrasive action scours the rock into smooth forms reminiscent of Brancusi sculptures. Higher up the beach, the bizarre tafoni holes are often filled with the bean-shaped pebbles.

While Candy photographed the rocks and took the occasional selfie, Stephen found a colorful fragment of abalone shell resembling a piece from a psychedelic jigsaw puzzle. When I said he should give it to his wife, he replied that he is single. When I suggested he should marry Wendy and give it to her as a wedding gift, they both blushed and smiled.

Highlights of our time in San Francisco included lunch at Modern Thai restaurant at the intersection of Polk and Bush streets. Jason and I have dined there often in the past, but our appreciation for the food was undiminished and our guests were not the least bit timid in expressing their enjoyment of the delicious and spicy cuisine.

After lunch, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, which was almost totally obscured by the fog. We could see the road ahead of us for approximately 100 feet, but the ghostly mist restricted our view of the two orange towers that anchor the 1.7-mile structure to only the lowest 90 or 100 feet above the roadway. It was impossible to get a sense of the majesty of the giant span because of the weather.

The view from the Marin Headlands overlook, which normally offers amazing views of the famous bridge and city, was a total whiteout. Every once in a while, the fog would momentarily part to reveal a patch of blue water a thousand feet below, but it would quickly disappear. Never once did we see even a hint of the orange bridge.

The view was much better from the funky boulevard that incorrectly advertises itself as “the crookedest street in the world.” In reality, Lombard Street cannot claim the title. A small section of Vermont Street, another San Francisco thoroughfare, is considerably curvier. Lombard Street wins the gold medal, however, for tourism. While there are typically no tourists gawking the steep curves of Vermont, Lombard is flooded with hordes of visitors, each determined to out-maneuver the rest of the crowd for best camera angles.

That night in Mariposa, California, three Chinese students, their two American volunteer drivers, and their Native American waitress ate Greek sandwiches and reminisced on their multicultural diversity at Zorba Greek Café. It was the first time Stephen, Candy, and Wendy had tried Greek food and the small eatery did not let them down.

The final day of the trip started out with an invigorating hike to the base of Yosemite Falls. Unlike previous years when water levels were so low that the mighty Merced River was a mere trickle, there was a superabundance of water this year. All around Yosemite Valley, robust waterfalls were dumping thousands of gallons into the swollen river which, in places, exceeded 50 feet deep. The roar of fast-moving liquid rushing to the ocean filled the air with a palpable feeling of vitality and exuberance.

The hike may have only lasted about 45 minutes, but at 4,000 feet, you feel the exertion a bit more than you would at a lower elevation. The pulse of blood through your veins and the thunderous pounding of whitewater against granite canyons anchored the rhythm section for this late spring symphony in Yosemite, the elemental music of nature.

When the hike ended, we hit the road for Tioga Pass. The sudden rise in altitude from the valley floor to where the pass peaks out at more than 9,000 feet is dramatic. The light is clearer, the air cleaner, and the views just plain magnificent.

We stopped at several spots along the road: an unnamed waterfall, a small alpine tarn, Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, and twice at Ellery Lake. In 1939, Ansel Adams made one of his signature images at that last location and titled it simply “Ice on Ellery Lake.” When we arrived on the scene 77 years later, there was once again ice on Ellery Lake. Not just a little, either. Huge blocks of the white cold substance jammed the surface of the waters in a frenzy of fractalized forms. Care to guess what I named my first photograph of the scene?

With the afternoon sun shining overhead, we bid farewell to Yosemite and started down Highway 120 to its juncture with 395, a mile south of Lee Vining. The rest of the trip consisted of a stop at Astorga’s Mexican Restaurant in Bishop, a hike to Fossil Falls at the southern end of the Owens Valley, and hugs in the parking lot when we finally arrived back at Loma Linda.

The memories may fade over time, but the spirit of camaraderie and international goodwill between three Chinese medical students and their new American friends will not.