I’d never heard of Tongli before stepping foot in the 1100-year-old, world’s oldest water town. Now, I’d be hard-press to name a more visually stunning, charming place in all of China. Sure, I still love the neon glitz of Shanghai’s Bund, but the spectacular, Instagrammable places in Tongli inevitably etched their beauty on my memory.
Built during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1278), the ancient water town in the Jiangsu Province is just 50 miles from Shanghai, often frequented by the elite poets, artists, and Confucian scholars of Chinese society who came for inspiration. Tongli has only been open to tourists since 1986, and while it remains virtually undiscovered internationally, Chinese nationals flock to the small town, at times giving it an amusement park vibe, but never compromising the cultural charm.
Tongli sprawls over 51 square miles separated by 15 rivers into seven islets, which are connected through 49 ancient stone bridges displaying a variety of lovely architectural styles.
Here’s what makes Tongli so unique: due to China’s recent efforts to modernize the country, the charming historical towns are being demolished to make room for more trendy and technical “upgrades.” Only a small number of these well-preserved ancient communities remain today, and in 2004 Tongli was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I loved strolling around the pristine, pedestrian-only cobbled streets of Tongli, finding one after another opportunity to photograph the captivating beauty and authentic Chinese culture of this gem and seek out the most Instagrammable places in Tongli.
1. The Canals in Tongli
The highlight of Tongli is the narrow, tree-lined canals in the south of the Yangtze River Delta, famous for rivers, ancient bridges, and house complexes.
The Grand Canal passes through Tongli, providing a passageway for these water towns for over a millennium.
The canals are everywhere and are the main attraction of Tongli. You can get out onto the water, or relax in one of the teahouses that overlook the canal and take in the visual panorama all around.
2. The Gondolas
For centuries the gondolas acted as water taxis through the labyrinth of canals. We saw them lined up almost as soon as we entered the gates of Tongli, lined up, waiting for passengers.
While there are a lot of them, and it’s an experience not to be missed, they are perfectly timed so as to avoid traffic jams.
The ride lasts about 30 minutes, gliding under the famous stone bridges and past flower-lined alleys of restaurants, teahouses, art galleries, and sweet shops.
3. The Tuisi Yuan
There are many small gardens that contribute to the serene atmosphere. Tuisi Yuan is the best–known and most-visited garden, also known as the Retreat and Reflection Garden.
Designed by artist Yuanlong for retired government official Ren Lansheng and built in 1886, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is laid out in three sections, with the family’s residences in the west, meeting and entertaining rooms in the center, and landscaped garden in the east. Covering one-fifth of an acre, the small garden includes winding walkways, cantilevered pavilions, pagodas, bridges, rockeries, flowers, and a reflecting pond make the garden appear larger than it is.
4. The Ancient Bridges
There are 49 bridges in the town of Tongli. The three most famous are Taiping (Peace and Tranquility), Jili (Luck), and Changqing (Lasting Celebration).
The small and exquisite Taiping Bridge was built during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); Jili Bridge is an arch bridge and inscribed with ancient sonnets describing the exquisite views at either end; Changqing Bridge, also named Guangli Bridge, was originally constructed in 1470 but was rebuilt by Xiezhen in 1704.
These bridges meet together, joining three rivers and forming a ring which is the most popular “meeting point” in Tongli. Ternate Bridges are believed to represent blessings. Local residents walk over them for good luck during weddings, births, birthdays, and other happy celebrations. It was the ancient custom to carry a bride in a litter (sedan chair) over all three bridges.
5. The Cormorants
At one point during my gondola ride, we came to a spot which had a boat hosting a bunch of big black-and-gray birds perched along all sides. It was an odd but intriguing sight, and I immediately thought it was staged for photos.
A little later, as I was traversing the tangle of streets, I came back to the same spot. This time, there was a man in the boat, and he was yanking one of the birds back from the water. I was horrified! I thought he was trying to preserve the IG shot, and it seemed like animal abuse to me. I’m opposed to animal tourism.
Shortly after, my local guide told me that the birds were cormorants. Using cormorants was a traditional – though now dying – fishing technique for thousands of years in which fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in rivers. To control the birds, the fisherman ties a snare to constrict the bird’s throat. The birds can swallow small fish, but not larger ones. When it catches a large fish, the fisherman pulls the bird back to the boat where it spits up the fish.
I won’t lie, the memory still makes me uncomfortable, but that’s part of the wonder of experiencing other cultures.
6. The Resident Houses
Tongli is often called “a museum of ancient architectures” with good reason; many houses and temples date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). Built along and sometimes over the water, the homes are adorned with the styles of the ancient time, such as flying eaves, carved windows, and small but spectacular gardens.
7. The Opera House
A central point connecting the Tuisi Garden to the canals is the Opera House. At pre-scheduled times during the day, visitors can enjoy traditional performances for free. Performances include plays, music, and Kunqu.
Kunqu, also known as Kun Opera, is one of the oldest existing forms of Chinese opera, with unique singing techniques originating in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) gaining prominence in the Ming Dynasty. Currently listed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Kun Opera dominated Chinese theater from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
8. The Costumes
Tongli town offered another such opportunity. Small storefronts offer tourists a wide selection of traditional Chinese costumes to don and then have a professional photographer take pictures.
The most popular – and also most crowded – places were along the canals. Throughout the day, we saw lots of people striking a pose for in their photoshoot with the canal as a backdrop.
I didn’t want to have other tourists in my shots, so I chose to go to the Reflection Garden as soon as the gate to Tongli opened in the morning.
Also along the lines of wanting to be different, instead of the more popular and traditional red, I chose an absolutely gorgeous pink silk gown with embroidered flowers. My photographer chose different sites in the garden, exchanging my props from a fan to a parasol.
I loved my limited time as a days-gone-by Chinese aristocrat and had a fleeting sense of the town’s past.
9. The Street Food
Entering the town gate are breakfast foods such as rice cakes, matzo bread, and other semi-sweet treats.
There are a few vendors selling street food along the canals, but most of them are in an area known for street food. You can find all sorts of traditional street food here, such as the renowned barbecued pork on skewers.
10. The Vegetarian Restaurant
I had originally planned to skip this lunch and do more sight-seeing since I’m not overly fond of Chinese vegetables and stick to a more Keto-friendly diet which does not include rice. However, by one o’clock, I was hot and needed a rest so I rejoined my group at Xishantang (“Happiness and Kindness”). It was a good decision. The 400-year-old house of a former silk merchant was relaxing and zen-like. Cool air flowed through the large, beamed rooms with décor that screamed simple elegance with billowing textiles and Buddhist statues. The bento box serving of sweet potatoes, green beans, eggplant, pickled cucumbers, rice, and the soup was actually pretty good. It was a nice time to catch up with my colleagues over a cup of tea.
Tongli is a doable trip from many famous cities in China. Just six miles from Suzhou (China’s silk capital), Tongli is an absolute must-see while visiting that city. For those visiting Shanghai, the most populous (and sometimes overwhelming) city in the world, Tongli is only 50 miles away two hours by bus) and a nice respite for a quieter day trip or weekend retreat. Beijing is also around six hours from Tongli by bullet train.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Travel Suzhou during her stay in Tongli, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.