Choosing to visit China during the first part of October has both advantages and disadvantages. It's a national holiday, so lots of people will be out and about, and everything possible is going to be open for business. However, the crowds can be large, so you have to be very patient.
After being away from China for more than a year, I returned to Beijing in October of 2010 for a two week visit. Mostly I planned to visit friends, with only vague plans to check out a few of the sights I missed during the time I lived there. There was also the MIDI Music Festival, which I've already written about on my Sina blog in four parts.
Strange as it may seem, I'm actually a little unclear what the name of the place was. When I found it on the internet and booked my room, it was called Hutong Courtyard Hotel, which is a ridiculously generic name. The sign over the door says 四和居招待所 (Siheju Zhaodaisuo, or Siheju Guest House), the yellow sign says G.D. Hotel in English and Siheju in Chinese, and the business card I picked up at the desk says Good Stone Hotel on it.
In any case, it's a cute, if a bit dilapidated, courtyard hotel with a half dozen or so rooms surrounding an open area where they dry laundry and grow gourds. All of the rooms are hand painted with flowers on the walls.
The beds are old-fashioned style with minimal padding (not soft at all, but I got used to it). There was a flat screen TV mounted on the wall above the desk. They advertised free wi-fi, but the signal was so weak in my room I could never connect; I had to take my laptop to reception to get online.
I had a room with a private bathroom, though some of the other rooms had to share a separate bath.
Those are butterfly stickers on the walls. You can see that the shower is not enclosed, but open to the bathroom at large, and it all drains in one corner. In theory, at least. As with much Chinese construction, the slope is not really sufficient for quick drainage, so the bathroom floor was often wet. You have to be careful where you hang your towel if you want it to be drier than you are when you finish showering.
The shared bathroom did not have a Western style toilet.
The staff consisted of a lady and her boyfriend (if I understood correctly, she is divorced and has been with this guy for many years, but they never bothered getting married) plus a young woman who came around a few times to clean up. None of them really spoke any English, but they were very friendly and quite willing to deal with my bad Chinese pronunciation, limited vocabulary, and frequent pauses to look up a word on my phone's Chinese dictionary app. It was a little awkward and frustrating at times, but in the long run I feel that it helped my language skills a lot being forced to rely on my Chinese. Several times, they shared breakfast with me and never charged me for the food, I even had a beer out of the cooler one night that they didn't bill me for; they also did some of my laundry for free.
The hotel was also fairly cheap. I won't go into the hassles I had getting them to take my American Express card for payment - that's a story for another day.
The neighborhood around this stretch of Xisi Avenue seems to consist mainly of little hardware stores, so if you're in Beijing and need a light fixture, a ceiling fan, or plumbing supplies, this is where you go.
It's a very ordinary part of Old Beijing with nothing touristy to attract foreigners, though it's not too far from Beihai. Luckily, the new subway Line 4 has a stop very close by, which makes it pretty convenient to get just about anywhere. There were several restaurants within a few minute's walk, and one stop north on Line 4 is one of my favorite parts of town: the street full of music shops. Two stops south is the Xidan shopping area, which is a good place to buy clothes and books.
During my first week there, it was the national holiday, so the other rooms were full. A large family from Nanjing was there, and they brought their little dog.
We chatted one evening in the courtyard. One of them was a college student who knew a bit of English, but the chatty old man didn't, and his accent was difficult for me to understand. I showed them some of the pictures on my camera, and they insisted on posing the dog for me. They claimed that Nanjing dogs are better than Beijing dogs, but I'm not sure in what way. When I told them I was from 西雅图 (Xiyatu, Seattle), they of course mentioned Sleepless in Seattle, which seems to be a movie everyone in China has seen.
In Beijing, October's weather is generally pretty pleasant. It rained a couple of times while I was there, but was nice most days, following the usual pattern of clear skies after a rainfall, gradually diminishing air quality over the course of a week or so, then another rain. By the end of my stay, it was starting to get a little chilly in the evenings, but not so much that I needed to see if the heater in my room worked.