If these walls could talk
We exit the train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, after a three-hour high-speed train ride from Beijing, and we're greeted with hot towels and cold bowls of ginger tea on a wooden tray. Bags in the trunk, we sit in the new car for a 90-minute drive south to Jing's Residence, a boutique hotel in the ancient walled city of Pingyao.
We're pleasantly surprised when we reach the entrance, marked by a large, simple wooden door. Jing's Residence stands out in a town that's crowded with small old-style guest houses, most of which have overdone the Chinese special effects.
A Relais & Chateaux hotel, it's nestled among dusty curio shops and busy restaurants. A series of grey-brick pavilions are built around a set of four courtyards that remain loyal to the traditional architectural styles of northern China. The courtyards feature bamboo, running water, and brick-paved walkways that connect the rooms. Small tables and chairs are provided so guests can sip tea and soak up the historical atmosphere.
Jing's Residence is located in the former mansion of a wealthy Qing dynasty silk merchant. The complex played a role in the long, prosperous commerce of the town, which was home to China's first banks, until Shanghai eclipsed it in the mid-1800s. The west courtyard was once a shop involved in the wood products business. The restaurant area previously sold goods from Beijing, but later became a photographer's shop. And the lobby now stands on a site once used for cotton weaving.
The Indonesian general manager explains that an effort was made to use original materials, such as old beams, wood, bricks and stones in the renovation, because 'we wanted to preserve the local culture'.
Yang Jing, the owner, says she originally bought the run-down structure in 1998, intending to use it as a vacation house for herself. However, a decade later, she began to renovate the structure. She recruited Antonio Ochoa, an award-winning Venezuelan architect who has been working in China for almost two decades, to do the interior design.
'The idea was to keep the beauty of the old courtyard structure,' says Ochoa. 'It's important to identify what is old and what we added. By keeping the original language, you can harmonise with and do something that is not aggressive to the old architecture.'
The rooms have nice touches that honour local handicrafts, from the ancient carved wooden window frames to bamboo flooring and rice paper ceilings. Bed heads are made of lacquer or silk, and beds are designed in the style of kangs, the brick sleeping surfaces that are heated from beneath to provide warmth in the cold northern winters - a concept still popular in Chinese farmhouses. Bathrooms are fitted with elegant porcelain basins. Each room is equipped with Wi-fi, flat-screen televisions, a free mini-bar and soothing rainforest shower fixtures.
The old town was added to the list of World Heritage sites in 1997. There are about 4,000 Ming- and Qing-era courtyard structures here, and Unesco says the quantity and concentration of historic vernacular architecture is unparalleled elsewhere in China. The city wall winds for six kilometres around old Pingyao, and it's said to be the most intact city wall still standing in a country that had about 2,000 walled cities. Today, there are about three.
The well-preserved residences and temples clustered within a 40-kilometre radius of Pingyao are also worth visiting, including the 313-room Qiao Family Compound, which was the set for Zhang Yimou's 1991 classic film Raise the Red Lantern.
After exploring Pingyao, relax in the spa, and finish your day in the restaurant. Its chef, an Indonesian, has worked in premier hotel kitchens around the world, and turns out wonderful fusion dishes. Or try one of Chinese chef Liu Yong's noodle dishes. Liu says Shanxi boasts 260 varieties of noodles, which took him 11 years to master.
The second-floor library-cum-bar with its antique furnishings, romantic rooftop views and cosy fireplace - is a comfortable spot for a nightcap and to reminisce about one of China's truly historical sites.
16 Dongjie, Pingyao, Shanxi www.jingsresidence.com
Rates: courtyard rooms 1,400 yuan (HK$1,720); master suite 3,200 yuan