Go West in Style
Xi'an is not just for visits to the usual sites. The Sofitel Legend People's Grand Hotel and Gran Meliá are among many reasons not to dread business trips to the capital of 13 dynasties.
Text: Nels Frye
Imagine you are visiting Xi'an for the second time. This time you aren't a tourist and you're not a backpacker any more. No terra-cotta warriors or Goose Pagodas, you've already been up the Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing and you don't really have patience for looking at Han and Zhou artifacts in the museums. You don't want to face the crowds of Islamic street at night even if those lamb skewers are mighty juicy. The thought of fighting through that mob for almost a kilometer without the option of stopping for a drink - alcohol isn't permitted on this street where all is halal - sounds claustrophobic. Those local noodles are just too heavy. It's been a tough day going from the Xi'an Hi-Tech Industries Development Zone to the Xi'an Economic and Technological Development Zone and then ending up at the 3rd Western China Multinational Sourcing Fair at the Xi'an Greenland Pico International Convention Exhibition Center. Thank goodness you're back within the city walls because everything outside of them looked exactly like a thousand other cities in China.
After all that exuberant monotony, you need a good beer. Surprisingly, there is a place in town that offers an ample selection, a bar by the south gate with the very revelatory name Belgian Bar. There you will meet familiar friends like Chimay, Duvel, and Delirium as well as the various fruity beers like Lindemans, but there are also some more obscure entries like Maredsous, La Cuvee des Trolls, and the must-try Rince Cochon Thirsty Pig. This bar has even been in the Monocle.
Before leaving the hotel, a bike is essential. Getting cabs in the city is treacherous, and they are BYDs so not the height of luxury. Fortunately, the Sofitel Legend People's Grand Hotel Xian has a charming fleet of customized two wheelers available to guests. Seeing the part of Xi'an in the walls by bike allows visitors to gain an appreciation for the vernacular architecture which can be quite attractive in many places. Xi'an has done a good job of hiding it historic flourishes to modern neighborhoods. In the city there are functioning neighborhoods that actually look Chinese. Many of the areas to the east and west of the South Gate have this appearance and this is the place to explore by bike.
But for those fond of architecture, the first Sofitel Legend in China and Fifth worldwide, the People's Grand will be the choice for a stay or just a visit that includes lunch at its Italian restaurant, Dolce Vita, and a walk through its lovely gardens. Opened in 1953 as the State Guesthouse, the hotel was designed by Hong Qing, Chief Architect of the Northwest Institute of Architectural Design. Countless luminaries have stayed in the hotel including Premier Zhou Enlai, Marshal Chen Yi, Zhu Rongji, François Mitterrand, and Henry Kissinger as well as royalty from Europe and Asia.
Right next to the provincial government complex, the People's Grand is a blessed spot where plants from osmanthus to olives seem to grow with no problem despite the temperate climate with cold winters. This may be because this was formerly part of the grounds of the Tang imperial palace. The structure itself has many French touches, including fleur-de-lis (stylized lily) as a recurring motif. Joe Cheng, chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-based Cheng Chung Design, created the interiors for the public areas and 71 rooms and suites with a design that respected the themes of the original design while updating it and bringing it to the cutting edge of contemporary luxury.
Population: 6,501,189 (Nine urbanized districts according to 2010 Census). Xi'an is one of 13 emerging megacities in China, according to a July 2012 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
GDP (2013) Total: USD 81.4 billion - Per capita USD 9,220.59.
Most famous person (living): Director Zhang Yimou.
Deceased: So many, but probably Emperor Qin Shi Huang.