With the Olympics looming ahead, a large number of international visitors have already arrived to get a taste of traditional folk culture in this dynamic city. Instead of staying in humdrum star-rated hotels, they have chosen to live with local residents.
Host and hostess of the courtyard Jing Jichang (L1) and his wife Wang Zhixi(L2) pose with Berlin visitors Peter Voigt(R1) and his girlfriend Simone Teuber (R2) on July 30, 2008. [CRIENGLISH.com]
Through an "Olympic Family Hotel" program sponsored by the Beijing municipal government, overseas guests can take a closer look at the day-to-day life of ordinary Beijing families. Let's follow our reporter to find out more.
Berlin visitors Peter Voigt and Simone Teuber have just arrived in Beijing, and checked into a siheyuan, a traditional courtyard home, in the city's Shichahai area on Tuesday.
They are among the first group of foreign visitors to stay in one of the designated Olympic family hotels since the program began earlier this month.
Voigt said he and his girlfriend chose to stay in the hutong-style home because they were interested in its profound culture.
"We decided to stay in a hutong, not in a big quarter, because we want to be next to the Chinese history. We want to spend our holidays in a quite and nice place like this. You can see the traditional Chinese architecture here."
Besides the special atmosphere, he also felt a strong sense of hospitality from the hosts of the siheyuan. He said he had no problems communicating with them, despite the language barrier.
During their stay in Beijing, the couple plans to visit some of the city's popular historical sites.
"Today, we are going to the Forbidden City. Tomorrow, we will go to the Great Wall. We want to see the Chinese culture."
The host of the house, Jing Jichang, has lived in his courtyard home for over fifty years. Since retiring, he has found a new profession, as a tour guide for visitors to his home. Jing says his family has lived in the hutong for four generations. Their home is one of the best-preserved estates in the area.
Jing says his family has made extensive preparations, along with brushing up on their English skills. He had refurnished parts of the apartment to ensure that his guests feel as comfortable as possible.
"Since China's successful bid for the Olympics, we have been upgrading the facilities of our house. To better serve guests from around the world, we have added Western toilets in the bathroom and exchanged our electric water heater for a bigger one. We also equipped our rooms with toasters and computers, and set up a wireless network so guests can surf the Internet."
Jing's wife, Wang Zhixi, says she is thrilled to receive guests from different countries of the world.
If the guests want her to, she will buy some local specialties for them and guide them around the hutongs.
She says her family has had international guests from all walks of lives stay at their house in the past. She feels proud to be part of the Olympic family hotel scheme, which also serves as a platform for cultural exchange.
"The Olympics will come to an end, but I hope my work receiving guests won't stop, because I have such a complete courtyard where only my husband and I live. I would like to show them the modern characteristics of Beijing's household, along with its traditional lifestyle. I hope more foreigners will come to my house in the future, and I hope they feel at home."
The homestay system known the Olympic Family Hotel program launched in April this year.
According to the Beijing Tourism Bureau, 598 families have been selected from 1,000 applicants to host overseas Olympic guests beginning in early August. 726 rooms can accommodate more than 1,000 potential guests as a supplement of Beijing's hotel resources. Guests will pay between 400 and 650 yuan, or roughly between 50 and 80 US dollars, per night to stay with local families.
Thirty-three of the families in the program live in courtyard homes, or siheyuan, in the Shichahai area, which were built during imperial times and represent old Beijing architecture. Foreign visitors staying in the siheyuan will get a chance to experience old Beijing life.
Shichahai, located northwest of the Forbidden City in central Beijing, is one of the most popular scenic spots of the old city, known for its well-preserved hutongs and numerous bars and restaurants.
With the Olympics just around the corner, Olympic homestays like Jing Jichang's courtyard are very popular now. Travel agencies from Japan, the United States, Canada, Chile, Singapore and Taiwan have expressed interest in renting rooms from these families during the games.