One the most beautiful days I’ve ever experienced in Beijing and I was lucky to spend it with a good friend and a lovely tour of a siheyuan.
These are traditional Chinese courtyard houses, like what you typically see in those old Chinese films. Our first stop with tour guide Gao Jun was the Shichahai Courtyard Hotel. Just the experience of walking through the front gate is surreal because of you’re immediately transported back to a time of lantern light, stone steps, and ceramic vases. It’s beautiful. Traditionally, the courtyard would be open to the sky, but for the sake of modernity and keeping a comfortable temperature, a glass ceiling with vents have been added to the top. Although it somewhat takes away from the whole scene, I was quite happy to see the tiled roofs still intact. According to our tour guide, this used to be theXinghua Mansion, which belonged to an official during the Qing Dynasty. During the renovations, they took great care in preserving the old architecture and history. In the basement of the hotel, a piece of the ground is walled and glassed to preserve the artifacts they unearthed during the renovations.
During the renovations, the hotel added a whole wing downstairs that serves as a conference room with a lounge. Several office rooms fill up the other corner and both are filled with lacquered desks and scrolls of calligraphy lining the walls. It’s a beautiful twist of traditional design with modern thinking. The atmosphere at Shichahai Courtyard Hotel is surreal and for a few nights or even just one day, you can experience a traditional Chinese luxury with the benefits of today’s technology.
We continued our afternoon walking through the rest of the hutong and coming to a stop at the Shichahai Club, which is part of the Shichahai Hotel group. Compared to the courtyard hotel the only thing that’s missing is…well, a courtyard. A small staircase leads down to the main lobby which has darker accents than the first hotel. However, the lobby then opens up to an impressive lounge complete with a piyingxi(shadow puppet) stage. Dangling from the tops of the glass ceiling are gourd like chandeliers that add to the traditional dark accents of the hotel. Gao Yun took us around the stage and described some of the shadow puppets use. Paper cut out dolls are glued from the joints to sticks and the puppeteer stands behind the screen and acts out the scenes, deftly moving the sticks in time to the narrator. The hotel guests and other visitors can enjoy this traditional Chinese entertainment 8pm on Tuesday, Thursday and weekends.
We took a tour through the hotel, stopping at all the different rooms and trying out the kangbeds! Winter is fast arriving in Beijing and soon these beds will be turned on. When I say turned on, I mean the surface is on will be heated and sleep will be the most amazing ever on this bed. Traditionally, the beds would be heated with a little fire tucked in that alcove (see picture). However, due to safety and just overall cleanliness issues, the surfaces are heated electrically and the alcove serves as a slot for your bedroom slippers.
An afternoon of traditional Chinese luxury and hutongs, Mira, Gao Yun and I sat down for some tea. This was probably my favorite part of the day. The hotels are gorgeous and the detail is just incredible, but I love talking to people more than anything. So by pulling together our two year level Chinese, Mira and I had a great conversation with Gao Yun about China’s changing culture. I asked what he thought Beijing’s modernization and if it was getting harder to protect parts of China’s culture. He said explained that’s why they try to keep up hotels and places like this. They restore and renovate these places and add in modern features to appeal to the changing times, but still retain the traditional aspects and atmosphere. Beijing is constantly changing and updating its city but places like the hutongs and the sihouyuans need to stay permanent. Because this is what makes it Beijing. It’s these pieces of culture that made it what it is today.