Many people regard Tongli as a substitute for Zhouzhuang because Tongli has a similar history and natural scenery, but is much less crowded. Tongli also has its own unique features which are worth exploring and experiencing.
Though long outshined by Zhouzhuang, Tongli is a halcyon and idyllic spot location in Wujiang City. The well-preserved waterside town has a history of more than 1,000 years.
Tongli is divided into seven islands intersected by 15 canals. Because of the landscape, almost all of the buildings in the town are along the waterfront. In front of the buildings, small stairs leading to the canals were built, which are convenient for residents to wash clothes and for traveling around the town by boat.
Arched roofs, lofty gables, stone bridges and green willows lining the banks can be found almost everywhere in the town. They help create a poetic and romantic atmosphere, especially in early spring when trees are budding and refreshing drizzles are frequent.
The landscape also makes Tongli a town of bridges. There are 49 stone bridges linking different sections of the town, each displaying a different style.
Probably the most notable are Taiping (Peace and Tranquility) Bridge, Jili (Luck) Bridge and Changqing (Lasting Celebration) Bridge. They are known collectively as Ternate Bridges, as they cross three rivers and form a natural ring road. The Ternate Bridges are fortunate symbols in the eyes of the local residents and they walk over them for good luck during weddings or birthday parties.
The oldest bridge in Tongli is Siben (Reflecting Origin) Bridge, which was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while the smallest bridge is called Dubu (Single Step) Bridge and is only one-and-a-half meters long and less than one meter wide.
Thanks to the lakes and waterways, Tongli stayed away from the numerous wars which swallowed many other beautiful towns in ancient times. Its former glory can be found in many well-preserved ancient residential and monastic buildings.
In fact, the town is known as a "museum of ancient Chinese architecture," as about 40 percent of the houses and temples in the town date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties.
With their whitewashed walls, black tiled roofs, carved wooden windows and elegant wood structures, these buildings feature the harmonious combination of residential buildings and gardens.
Among them, Tuisi (Retreat and Meditation) Garden is the most famous, especially after it was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2000.
This garden was built by a former royal official Ren Lansheng in 1886 during the Qing Dynasty, after he retired.
"When in office, one should be loyal to the emperor; when away from office, one should meditate upon his previous faults." This was the motto of Chinese officials in imperial times and where the garden's name "Retreat and Meditation" came from.
The western part of the garden is the residential quarter, including a sitting hall, a tea hall and the main hall. The eastern part is the scenic area dotted by pavilions, terraces, winding causeways and rockeries.
Covering an area of 6,600 square meters, the garden is shaded by lush trees and embroidered with various bonsais and flowers. Red carps swim in the ponds, and various birds chirp in the woods. One can feel a classical elegance and harmony.
But Tongli is more than just a town with old bridges, houses and gardens. It is a place where one can rest his heart and totally discard the cares of life for a while.
One can stroll around the town along its stone-paved lane, see women washing clothes by the canals, elderly ladies doing morning exercise in groups, men playing cards in teahouses, and fishermen paddling through the waterways with their solemn cormorants perched on the boats.
Spending little money, one can enjoy a fine array of local specialties. Teahouses can be found everywhere and one can drink the fresh green tea served in clay pots.
In the past 10 years, Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province was a popular choice for those who want to have a touch of nostalgia. Water, bridges, age-old buildings and unspoiled folk customs have earned it the title of "Oriental Venice." More and more people swarm here to seek peace and retreat, only to find that the tiny town bursting with visitors from all over the world. Fame has made it hard to spend a quiet and soothing holiday in Zhouzhuang. Thus, Tongli, a neighboring town, has become an alternative destination.
Best time to visit
Tongli features four distinct seasons, each worth experiencing. April-July is the best season when the climate is the most pleasant and scenery is the most beautiful with sprouting plants. A winter visit can give people a different experience when the town blanketed by snow is like a traditional Chinese painting.
Tongli is only 18 kilometers away from Suzhou and 80 kilometers away from Shanghai. The express bus from Shanghai to Tongli departs from Shanghai Stadium at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. The journey takes two hours. There are shuttle buses from Suzhou Railway Station or Suzhou Bus Station to Tongli, with the journey ranging 35-50 minutes.
A package ticket including most of the famous gardens costs 50 yuan (US$6).
Never miss the chance to taste fresh aquatic plants and fish. Most of the food is sweet. Famous snacks include smoked fish, dried bean curd, cakes made of glutinous rice and spring rolls (fried stuffed rolls).
Family lodges are the first choice. Two family lodges are highly recommended by travel buffs on the Internet. They are Lu's Hostel (0512-63330674) and Wanshun Hostel (0512-63331608, 63907608), both in the center of the town.
(Shenzhen Daily June 8, 2004)