No country on earth is building hotels at a faster pace than China. For the past two decades, the nation has seen a frenzy of construction, with most of the major international brands now represented in the world’s most populous nation.
It is all good news for the independent traveler, meaning greater choice and, with some assiduous research, the opportunity to stay in a brand-new five-star hotel at sweetly priced opening rates. In the nation’s two most important cities — the capital, Beijing, and the commercial center, Shanghai, almost every month sees the opening of a new hotel; the higher end of the market increasingly caters to local executives and travelers rather than just visitors from overseas, as the population becomes more affluent and more transient.
This wasn’t always the case; until 20 years ago China only had a small number of hotels that met international standards. The locally run hotels and hostels were known for their dank rooms with dismal decor and woeful service; visitors to China some became familiar with the phrase mei-you, which translates literally as “don’t have” but was invariably delivered with a surly tone that carried the unmistakable message of no chance whatsoever.
While many major hotels now offer much better service, the proactive approach that is so common in other parts of Asia — in particular Japan, Thailand and Singapore — has yet to become a part of the Chinese hospitality psyche. Extensive training by the major chains is helping to improve that state of affairs, but visitors can still expect communication problems: English language levels, while often technically adept, fall short when it comes to knowledge of colloquial expressions.
Best Beijing Hotels
One of the pioneers in changing the hospitality landscape is the Hong Kong-based hotel group Shangri-La, which opened its first property more than 20 years ago in Beijing. The China World Hotel, still going strong, was also something of a template for the China hotel business model: a property strategically located in a massive Beijing shopping mall, making it a one-stop shop for lovers of luxury. The original China World has been joined by three other Shangri-La-managed properties in the same vicinity — the Traders Hotel, the Kerry Centre and the China World Summit Wing, also located in tony malls.
Within this area of Beijing (the Central Business District) there is also the option of the Park Hyatt, the newly opened and well-reviewed Rosewood Beijing and, on the fringes, the W Hotel. Slightly farther away, in the nightlife zone of Sanlitun, is the uber-funky Opposite House, designed by Kengo Kuma and renowned for its minimalist design approach, still a novelty in a country where big red pillars and chandelier excess usually win the day.
For those in search of a local experience and more affordable rates, deep in the city’s traditional hutongs (alleyways) and close to the Drum and Bell Towers, there is no better choice than the Orchid Hotel. Although situated in a down-at-heel street that has bare-bulb local restaurants, a smelly pubic toilet, hardware stores and hawkers, it’s an amazingly clean, even serene place to stay, bursting with high-tech features that include Apple television sets and custom-made beds, sheets and mattresses. It even has a roof terrace, a great spot for gazing over the hutongs while sipping a cocktail.
Just 90 minutes from downtown is the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, which boasts a property that is a true novelty in China — a boutique rural retreat called the Brickyard, founded by long-term expatriate Jim Spear and his wife, Liang Tang. They converted a series of village courtyard homes to luxury standards and later added a hotel, located in a former brick-making factory. Some rooms even have views of the Wall.
Another spot offering a wallside experience is the Commune by the Great Wall, a property with an eclectic array of buildings, each designed by a different architect. Also within striking distance is the Yanqi Lake complex, managed by the Kempinski group, where past guests have included Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The sprawling resort has numerous accommodation options spread across two main buildings and a series of mini-boutique hotels.
Beijing Hotel Resources:
Best Shanghai Hotels
Second on most visitors’ China wish list would be the bustling city of Shanghai, which offers ample luxurious, characterful and quirky accommodation options. The standout heritage property is the Fairmont Peace Hotel, a grand and elegant building right on the famous Bund promenade. It was famous during the 1920s and 1930s as a place where European-style opulence and spirited partying were much in evidence; among the guests during that era were Noel Coward, who wrote the play “Private Lives” while staying there, and silent screen maestro Charlie Chaplin. It is de rigueur to have at least a drink there, popping in to see the famous jazz band, old-timers whose love of the music form is legendary.
The Peace Hotel and other riverside properties, such as the Peninsula and Hyatt, face the most visible symbol of China’s rise to power, a soaring panorama of glass and steel. These towering skyscrapers also house some hotels with spectacular views. The Grand Hyatt, atop the Jin Mao building, allows guests a bird’s-eye view of the always bustling river; the Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La hotels are also set just back from the waterway.
Shanghai is home to a number of atmospheric boutique hotels including the eco-friendly URBN, located in a former industrial building. The Waterhouse, designed by the dynamic team at Neri & Hu, also takes industrial chic as its theme, with unvarnished walls and a blurring of the interior-exterior concept of rooms and public areas.
Shanghai Hotel Resources:
Local Hotel Options in China
There are numerous locally owned hotels for travelers looking to avoid major Western chains. Keep in mind that you will likely rely heavily on concierge staff for information and directions to specific sites or restaurants — services that upmarket hotels do particularly well. In most cases it is vital to have addresses written down in Chinese characters; it would be a rare taxi driver anywhere in China who was familiar with the Roman script. Locally run hotels also rarely manage to execute more than basic Western-style food; after some time in China, dining on rice-based dishes for lunch and dinner, a proper American breakfast with freshly baked bread can prove to be a very welcome meal.
There are exceptions to this broad rule. The tiny, backpacker-favored enclave of Yangshuo (near Guilin) has a broad array of guesthouse-style accommodation, from simple rooms to boutique-ish properties. In fact Yangshuo is possibly the only place in the entire country that can be compared to the traveler enclaves of Khao San Road in Bangkok or Kuta Beach in Bali, offering a range of budget accommodation as well as cafes and restaurants with menus including everything from such as grilled river fish to American-style hamburgers.
Generally speaking, venturing off the main tourist trail in China means accepting a downgrade in the level of accommodation and choice of food — all of which led to a business opportunity for Harvard Business School graduate Zhang Mei, whose Wild China tours go well off the beaten track, featuring the best possible accommodation available.
Zhang has a particularly keen eye for offbeat gems such as the Banyan Tree Resort in the heritage town of Lijiang, in Yunnan province, or the Pig’s Heaven Inn in Yixian, which is styled like an ancient village home.
The concept of upscale lodges in remote areas is fairly new to China, but gaining in popularity. Among the finest examples are the Songtsam group properties, located in the mountainous region of southern Yunnan province with its raging rivers, steep-sided gorges and soaring peaks. There are five lodges, all in stunning locations.
Staying in hotels or guesthouses is really the only way to experience the remoter regions of China. Camping is not a pastime much practiced by Chinese — and foreigners who attempt to pitch a tent will likely find themselves quickly and unceremoniously ushered elsewhere. (You could even be arrested.) Likewise, you won’t find many Western-style bed and breakfasts here, nor will you see the ryokans so popular in Japan.
China Local Hotel Resources:
Affordable Lodging Options in China
For modest budgets China has local chains — and locally operated franchises of international chains — catering for the most part to traveling Chinese rather than foreign tourists or business visitors. Best Western, Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Novotel are well represented throughout the country, but the conformity of style and service is not necessarily the same as in the West; be sure to research each property’s precise location and read reviews from past guests.
A number of local players have joined the budget-priced field, including Hanting Inns, which now has more than 1,000 properties throughout China. Signs for GreenTree Inns, Motel 168, 7Days Inn and Home Inns can be found throughout major cities these days. As their target is primarily local travelers, not overseas visitors, English-language website information can be limited. It is worth looking at a consolidator such asto compare facilities and prices.
Room and home rental site Airbnb is a potential godsend for anyone in search of an affordable local experience; you can stay in the city apartment of a local resident or expatriate, with all the accompanying creature comforts and insider tips that brings. For now, listings are mostly in the major cities, but in years to come it offers all kinds of scope for staying in, say, a Tibetan homestead in Qinghai province.
One factor that mitigates against ad-hoc style accommodation options is the rigidly enforced law that states all foreigners have to register with the local police station, a duty usually undertaken by hotel staff, who will carefully note down visa and passport details.
There are plenty of characterful back alley gems for people who are prepared to put up with fairly simple rooms, shared shower facilities and the likelihood of a little neighborhood noise. The trade-off is that they may well be located closer to the action than the posh, high-rise properties. The popular tourist hutong of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing has a couple of popular hostels that offer dormitory rooms, individual rooms and even family rooms. This is certainly one way of experiencing the real China, where people wander round in their pajamas during the daytime, some residents are forced to use the public toilets and knife sharpeners still ply their trade by bicycle.
Having an affiliation with an international hosteling organization clearly helps establish some kind of credentials, but note that Chinese accommodation operators may well add the words “hostel” and “international” in an arbitrary way. If the hostel has a decent website in English — and plenty of appealing pictures and personal recommendations — chances are it is worth a shot.
–written by Mark Graham