The Upgrade

Where to Stay in China, Away from the Crowds

On a recent trip to China, our columnist discovered a diverse range of design and experiences away from the country's frenetic urban centers.

anyScale transformed a three-century-old mansion in a Song Dynasty village into Wuyuan Skywells.

Red lanterns, lion dances, brilliant pyrotechnics—China’s Lunar Year celebration welcoming the Year of the Earth Pig in February drew the usual hordes to the country’s megalopolises, the largest annual human migration in the world according to Ctrip, the country’s leading provider of travel services. I’m more interested in what’s happening in China’s vast interior, however, which is opening up to a new generation of visitors. 

But first, if you do find yourself in Beijing, you can still escape the masses at a couple of gems. Situated within Beijing’s Summer Palace, built in 1750, architect Jean-Michel Gathy and interior designer Jaya Ibrahim repurposed a handful of dwellings built for Empress Dowager Cixi into the Aman Summer Palace. Latticework doors slide open to reveal polished clay tiles, exposed-wood beam ceilings and silk-covered opium beds in the 50 Imperial–style guest rooms. A private access door near the East Gate allows guests to enter the UNESCO World Heritage compound, with its 3,000 palaces, pavilions, and gazebos. On a recent visit, I watched elderly locals fly kaleidoscopic handmade kites in the morning mist from the bridges over Kunming Lake and practice tai chi among the weeping willows. Also just outside the capital, the Great Wall provides backdrop to a Mao-era tile factory converted by an American expatriate and his Chinese wife into Brickyard Hotel. The 25 cozy quarters were thoughtfully finished with exposed-brick walls and Chinese antiques, but I hardly noticed. Instead, I fixated from dawn to dusk on the unobstructed, sweeping views of the Wall’s Mutianyu section, which dates back to the 16th century.

I was no less captivated by a more recent feat of Chinese engineering and design, but not the viral, Disney–esque Shimao Wonderland Intercontinental byJade + QA that opened inside of an abandoned quarry in January as one might expect. Two hours west of Shanghai, Beijing architect Ma Yansong connected two arched 27-story towers of white aluminum and glass over Tai Lake at the Sheraton Hot Spring Resort. When I first arrived, I stood in the rain to stare at the structure’s surreal horseshoe shape reflected in the still water. Ma says he intended to emphasize the harmony of man and nature. Less spiritual than materialistic, the hotel’s opulent lobby gets decked out with a 28-ton jade sculpture imported from Iran as well as light fixtures dazzling with 20,000 Swarovski crystals.

Architect Ma Yansong's horseshoe-shaped Sheraton Hot Spring Resort.
Neri & Hu's Suzhou Chapel at Sangha by Octave.

Gag-worthy but true, the tagline “Immerse yourself in a journey to holistic well-being” describes what I experienced at the new Sangha by Octave. It’s a man-made yet restorative escape, master-planned by Brooklyn based Tsao & McKown architects on 46-acres just outside Suzhou, said to be the world’s fastest-growing city. The encyclopedic wellness menu offers serious cardiac management and anti-aging plasma infusion as well as less invasive options, such as aromatic facials and guided meditation. A simple meander around the campus led me to the luminous chapel designed by Neri & Hu, its mazelike entry leading to a silent sanctuary of jutting gray bricks under a cathedral ceiling wrapped in pale oak slats.

Farther south in Jiangxi Province, Beijing’s anySCALE architects touched up an abandoned mansion built three centuries ago in a 900-year old Song Dynasty village that is off limits to cars. Reincarnated last year, Wuyuan Skywells features 14 high-ceilinged guest rooms centered around stone and timber-clad courtyards. I majored in Chinese Studies, yet it was here, “IRL” where I came to appreciate that the Cultural Revolution, while unimaginably destructive, did not entirely obliterate remote outposts like this one. The new owners found a local artisan named Yuzong who meticulously resurrected the property’s wall carvings, revealing the lives of the merchant families who once resided here.

A Naxi–style villa at Banyan Tree Lijiang.

Even farther afield, Lijiang sits on a Tang Dynasty trade route known as the Ancient Tea Horse Road, where an alphabet of ethnic groups populate China’s southeastern border. Artisanal traditions of the Bai, Dai, Lisu, Lahu, and Wa people thrive around Old Town, an 800-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site of cobblestone streets and narrow canals crisscrossed by 354 bridges. I came to collect impossibly intricate Miao-embroidered jackets and Naxi black clay pottery. Rhododendrons bloom everywhere you look from May to August, but I don’t mind braving colder temperatures to come at this time of year. Here in the foothills of the southern Himalayas, some 7,900 feet above sea level, it’s especially quiet at Banyan Tree Lijiang. As the rest of China rushes to and fro, alone in my Naxi–style villa with its upturned phoenix rooflines, I’ll take the calmness of snowflakes hitting the steaming water of my private plunge pool over the big-city bacchanalia any day.

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