In Beijing, the Best of Both Worlds

The courtyard at the Lu Song Yuan, originally built to be the house of a Chinese defense minister.
The courtyard at the Lu Song Yuan, originally built to be the house of a Chinese defense minister. (By Michael Shapiro)
Sunday, November 25, 2007

WHAT: Beijing Lu Song Yuan, a historic courtyard hotel.

WHERE: Less than a mile north of the Forbidden City, just more than a mile from Tiananmen Square.

WHY GO: To soak up the atmosphere of 19th-century Beijing -- and to do it in a centrally located property that's both affordable and distinctly Chinese.

Beijing is bulldozing its ancient buildings at an alarming rate, with entire neighborhoods falling as skyscrapers and Olympic venues rise overnight. But the atmosphere of traditional Beijing remains alive along its hutongs, or ancient alleyways, and that's where you'll find the Beijing Lu Song Yuan.

Built 170 years ago, the 58-room hotel -- a two-story quadrangle with upturned eaves and a central courtyard -- greets visitors with swaying red lanterns out front and a helpful English-speaking desk staff within. Relics, including a huge grinding stone and a bulky wooden beam from the original building, decorate the courtyards.

The Lu Song Yuan was built as the residence of Zeng Ge Ling Qin, a Mongolian commander who served as China's defense minister in the middle of the 19th century. In the central courtyard are two statues. One is of Sun Yat-sen, the first provisional president of China. The other, just in front of the window of my ground-floor room, is of Lu Xun, a dashing early-20th-century novelist and essayist.

When I was there, the guests were mostly European and American leisure travelers seeking authentic Chinese digs at a good price (I paid about $40 a day for my tiny single after negotiating a discount, giving up breakfast in the process). Quite small but stylishly decorated with lacquered-wood furniture and a feng-shui sensibility, the rooms feel more spacious than they are. Many overlook the central courtyard, and all have air conditioners and cable TV. The beds are comfortably firm.

My bathroom -- replete with luxe toiletries -- had a tub-less shower, and in typical Asian fashion there was nothing to keep the water off the rest of the tile floor. During a tour of the property with Kai, a staffer who spoke fluent English, I noticed a traditional wooden bathtub of tall planks in a suite.

The reading room, decorated with antique chairs and low tables, provides books on Chinese history, English-language magazines, games such as Go and speedy Internet access (5 yuan, about 70 cents, for each 10 minutes). I enjoyed a cup of tea here while poring over century-old texts (interesting even though I couldn't read the Chinese) and then zipped back into the 21st century by surfing the Web.

One night for dinner I tried the on-site restaurant, which has indoor and outdoor seating, and left unimpressed. I enjoyed the hot-and-sour soup with vegetables, but overall the food was inconsistent and the service indifferent. (And watch the clock: I went in at 9:10 p.m. and was told to order and eat quickly because they were closing soon, at 10.)

A better bet? Go out to eat. Along the hutongs (which few cars enter), noodle stands, teahouses and bicycle repair shops allow you to soak up the atmosphere of China as it used to be. Laundry hangs on ropes draped from wrought-iron balconies. The pace is less hurried than in more modern neighborhoods, and the vibe is friendly. When I appeared lost, one man asked where I was going and in halting English offered to lend me his cellphone if I needed to make a call.

The Forbidden City, a complex of royal palaces built in the 15th century, is a 15-minute walk from the Lu Song Yuan, but I took a taxi to escape the stifling midday heat. Once inside, I followed the Golden Stream (a man-made waterway) to the Forbidden City's Hall of Literary Brilliance and Pavilion of Literary Profundity, hoping a bit of wisdom would rub off.

I learned that each emperor would designate his successor and seal the decision in a box to be opened upon his death, an attempt to prevent disputes over ascension to the throne. Less than a century ago, Pu Yi, the "last emperor," lived here as China's final dynasty fell in 1911.

Returning to the Lu Song Yuan that evening felt like coming home. Though my cozy room wasn't much bigger than the twin bed I slept in, I was happy to be have found an intact enclave of traditional China. Then I turned on the cable TV and cranked up the AC, equally appreciative of modern comforts.

-- Michael Shapiro

Rates at the Lu Song Yuan (22 Banchang Lane, Kuanjie, Beijing) start at $55 for a single, $80 double, $120 suite. Info: 011-86-10-6404-0436, http://www.the-silk-road.com/hotel/lusongyuanhotel. Tip: Print out the name of the hotel in Chinese characters on its Web site so you can give it to your cabdriver upon arrival in the city.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company