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Commune hotel offers luxurious stay near Beijing

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Beijing

We went to China and paid good money to stay in a commune.

But banish all thoughts of a Communist-kitsch tourist attraction in questionable taste, where everyone works hard and eats glop.

The Commune by the Great Wall is, in fact, a hotel with award-winning architecture, a luxurious spa and, perhaps most valuable of all, a private path to a stretch of the Great Wall, one of the world’s best-known landmarks. This is communal living I could easily love.

Despite some communal aspects -- shared kitchens and living rooms in its huge villas -- the Commune by the Great Wall hardly calls to mind the money-saving, ruling class-disdaining life. Instead, it is an unforgettable weekend escape just an hour from the crowds, traffic and polluted skies of Beijing.

The Commune, now managed by the Kempinksi hotel group, calls itself a “collection of living contemporary Chinese and Asian architecture,” and it won a prize at the 2002 Venice Biennale. It sits on almost 5 miles of mountain land; the 11 original villas each have four to six bedrooms and butler service. The newer, more modest accommodations -- where we decamped -- comprise 265 bedrooms in villas dotted along a hillside road.

Our driver exited the highway at Shuiguan, a bedraggled hamlet that also has public access to the wall, and drove through it to a black gate, where we saw the first of a legion of Commune workers all in black save a small red star on their breasts.

After check-in on a Saturday last summer, we were driven to our suite (about a 15-minute uphill walk) called Farm House 2. It didn’t look like much from the outside. But inside it was all cool gray, stone floors, recessed lights, modern furniture and bathroom. It was quiet, except for some birds, and surrounded by trees and mountains.

We arrived at lunchtime, so we ate in the Commune Club, a building holding the restaurants, fitness center and other communal facilities. The Terrace has outdoor seating in good weather and thrilling views. The food is good too, with Western (top-notch burgers and fries) and Chinese choices. Our cold chicken with Sichuan peppers was delicious, and our sons loved the curry-flavored noodles with eggs, shrimp and pork. A buffet breakfast also is available.

The other restaurant is more formal but shares the menu. There’s also a cafe up the hill among the villas.

For us, the point was the Great Wall. Interestingly, the path to it is not marked on the hotel’s own map, but anyone in the clubhouse can point it out (and arrange tours or pack picnics on request).

Sections of the wall were not linked together until the Qin Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, and it has been rebuilt -- or left to ruin -- at various points ever since. The Great Wall around Beijing, we were told, is mostly from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). My sons were fascinated by the stories they heard about workers who died during construction of the wall and were buried in the fortification.

We set out to walk from the Clubhouse, along the unrestored section, past a guard to a restored section at Shuiguan. We had been told that the guard usually lets hotel guests through, perhaps for a small fee. But no such luck. The young uniformed man would not budge, despite several cellphone calls to the guest service manager at our hotel, and from her to the local authorities.

It hardly mattered. We were wowed by our hike, saw more lizards than people and had great fun imagining traveling along it hundreds of years ago. At various points, the view of the wall winding through the mountains is just astonishing. Later, I went down to the town square and walked up the public stairs (about $3 admission) to a restored section that, although easier to reach, was disheartening, with souvenir sellers and photographers urging you to put on an emperor costume or climb on a camel before you say “cheese.” I shouldn’t have bothered -- the clerk at the complaints desk in the tourist office was sound asleep.

Back at the Commune, the villas are an attraction of their own, with names such as Distorted Courtyard, Cantilever House, See and Seen House and Airport. (The latter has three projections that look like airplane gangways.) Some are covered with bamboo; some have private courtyards. Some are the size of homes in Hancock Park. In fact, the whole place could pass for a swanky housing development. It even has its own day-care center, the Commune of the Children, where kids can cook in a pint-sized kitchen, do art projects and take hikes, among other activities (less than $40 for the day).

If you’re not a fan of hiking, the clubhouse has a small library with walls papered in peacock feathers. Or reserve the screening room, which seats up to 40. (We instead borrowed movies for our suite.) There’s a just-adequate fitness room, and skiing is nearby in winter.

Or get a massage at the Anantara Spa; my Balinese-style massage was dreamy. (I’m a treatment novice but was told it was not too light, yet rejuvenating.)

The attention to detail was notable. Of course, there were terry robes in the rooms, plus terry slippers, decorated with red stars. When we requested extra bottled water, a dozen bottles were soon delivered. On Saturday evening, a thunderstorm provided an exciting reason to retreat to our suite and watch the misty mountains. It also briefly knocked out power to the entire area. Malwine Berthold, the guest services manager who had helped us at the Great Wall, went to every table at dinner to explain what had happened and offer candles (soon unnecessary).

Only a couple of additions could have made me happier: hair conditioner in the bathroom and a swimming pool. But the boys were happy with the kids’ shallow pool, with slide.

But these are minor points. The whole idea is perhaps a bit off the wall, but a whole lot of fun.

Planning this trip

To call the number below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 86 (the country code), 10 (the city code) and the local number.

Commune by the Great Wall: Exit No. 16, Shuiguan, Badaling Highway, Beijing; 8118- 1888, www.commune.com.cn/en/. Our suite, with two large bedrooms, living room and bathroom, was just under $350 a night. The whole weekend -- two nights, meals, spa and surcharges -- cost just under $1,200. A 15% charge is added to most services.

Getting there: You can take a bus from Beijing, but you can also hail a cab or arrange a car for the trip, which takes about an hour. Be prepared to pay $50 to $100; we paid the lower amount from Beijing, after bargaining with the driver. The Commune made our return arrangements. (Many cabs do not have seatbelts in the back seats.)

mary.macvean@latimes.com


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