Hotel Review: SONGHETANG (Hongcun)
Address: Shangshuizhen 7, Hongcun, Yixian, Anhui
Price: RMB 280
Website/Map: Offical Website (in Chinese)
Directions: If you've booked online, just call the front desk upon arrival and they'll send someone to pick you up at the Main Parking Lot (and give you a RMB 10 discount on the entrance ticket). If you haven't booked ahead and want to check out the place, enter the village and find the old mansion of Shurentang. Songhetang is just around the corner, in the northwestern-most section of the village.
The picture at the top isn't from a museum -- THAT is the hotel.
This was our base in Hongcun village for 3 nights, inside a Qing Dynasty mansion originally built for a wealthy scholar in the 8th Year of Emperor Tongzhi, or Year 1869 in the Western World. After a tumultuous 140 years of Chinese history, the building has remained standing and is now officially protected by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Site.
If you have any preconception of a traditional Chinese manor house -- dark curving rooflines upon whitewashed walls, an open courtyard at the centre with a pond full of colorful Koi fish, and a solemn Greeting Hall with scrolls of ink calligraphy hanging down on all sides -- this is probably it. Any character from Crouching Tiger to Kung Fu Panda would fit right in.
Formerly the estate of the most powerful clan in Hongcun, Songhetang is situated strategically where the fresh stream of the Xi River enters the village's system of canals, securing the cleanest water supply before the rest of the villagers get their share. Nowadays this translates to the farthest walking distance (~10 minutes) from the village entrance. For travelers this means two things: 1) hotel guests are mostly the quieter, pre-booked type rather than random backpackers stumbling in, and 2) there's probably some room for bargaining in the off-season should you choose not to pre-book.
The guesthouse has an old section and a new section. There's the original Qing Dynasty wood-and-brick structure centered by an intimate courtyard built around a fish pond, a formal Greeting Hall with intricately carved door panels and overhead beams, as well as the original living quarters now fashioned into a small handful of guestrooms. But just before Hongcun's elevation to World Heritage Site status (and thus a ban on new constructions within village boundary), the owner sneaked by with the construction of a new section of modern but characterless rooms. To us it was a no-brainer -- why deprive ourselves of the pleasure of staying in a genuine World-Heritage-worthy building from Imperial China?
So we booked the oldest, quietest upper floor room, right above the Greeting Hall in the balcony section traditionally known as Xiulou, or Embroidery House. This was where the unmarried daughters of the master lived under virtual house-arrest, honing their needlework and playing their 7-string Guqin zither until they either got married off, or died of old age. While our room on the upper floor were nicely fitted with brand new Western-style washrooms, the bedrooms downstairs weren't quite as recommendable, unless you're okay with Asian-style squatting toilets.
Our room was equipped with all the modern amenities such as a comfy king-sized bed, a new bathroom renovated to Western standards, a Japanese air conditioner, a flat screen TV and wireless internet. Yet underneath the new wallpaper and laminate flooring one could still see the original architectural details, including sturdy pillars made of ancient cedars and a small square window opening to the exterior of the mansion.
The only antique furniture piece in our room though was a carved mahogany vanity table. If you want to sleep in the original antique beds, you'll have to book the ground floor rooms with the squat toilets. As Mencius wrote in his parable more than 2300 years ago, it's "Fish and Bear Paw," and you just can't have everything.
Ask the elderly owner Mr. Wang about the story of how his father amazingly bought this place for RMB 600 during the Cultural Revolution years. Now it's probably worth at least a few millions. While their occupancy rate likely isn't very high (we actually had the entire upper floor to ourselves for 3 days), their operation of the guesthouse and restaurant is probably one of the more profitable in town, judging from the full house of dining patrons they seem to draw almost every night.
To be fair the main selling point of their restaurant wasn't the food itself, but the classical ambiance of their interior courtyard with the charming Koi fish pond, ingeniously built by Qing Dynasty engineers to draw fresh water directly from the village's system of little canals flowing past everyone's front door. The inward-leaning balustrades overhanging the pond now serve as prime seating for the clientele.
If you stay in the guesthouse for a few days like we did, the owner's daughter will probably bug you to have dinner here, every time she sees you. We did give the place a try, which in retrospect I wouldn't recommend. The above pictured local dish of Stir-Fried Eggs with Siberian Ginseng Leaves (Wujiapi Chaodan) was quite a few notches below the same dish we ordered the previous night at the excellent Xiangcun Yilou.
Curious about the pieces of dry-cured ham hanging in their guesthouse kitchen, we gave the Steamed Bamboo Shoots with Cured Meat (Sunyi Zhenglarou) a try. The ham was a bit on the salty side, and the flavor wasn't as complex as the ham we had a couple days earlier in Wuyuan. The bamboo shoots at the bottom soaked up all the excess sodium from the ham drippings, to a point where I couldn't even finish it all. Bleh.
The saving grace of the meal though was a half-order of Simmered Free-Range Chicken Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms (Xianggu Duntujitang), a large pot of savory clear broth and firm, chewy meat. I think we finished our entire half of the chicken.
This was a very mediocre meal overall. During our 3 days here we discovered several much more recommendable eateries, which I'll share in the next article. As a restaurant Songhetang was nowhere close comparatively.
Dinner for Two Persons
|Fried Eggs with Siberian Ginseng Leaves||RMB 28|
|Steamed Bamboo Shoots with Cured Meat||RMB 68|
|Simmered Free-Range Chicken Soup with Shiitake (Half-Order)||RMB 50|
|Large Beer||RMB 12|
|Plate Set and Rice x 2||RMB 4|
|TOTAL||RMB 162 (CAD$25.7)|
So this is what we learned -- just ignore the substandard restaurant and enjoy Songhetang as a unique guesthouse experience and a living exhibit of Qing Dynasty folk architecture. Even at RMB 280 for one of their best equipped rooms, it's no more expensive than an average 2-star business hotel in central Shanghai or Beijing. For a UNESCO-protected heritage building in one of China's best preserved ancient villages, this is a relative bargain IMHO.