Heading just six miles west from Zhouzhuang, you’ll find Tongli, which is about 50 miles from Shanghai and less than 10 miles southeast of Suzhou. This historic town developed during the Song Dynasty (sometime around 1271 AD) and is surrounded by five lakes, with canals running through it and more than 40 100-year-old (or more) bridges throughout town. Its Retreat and Reflection Garden is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as part of the Classic Gardens of Suzhou. Because of Tongli’s easy accessibility due to close proximity to larger cities (not to mention its lovely attractions), the town is a bit more developed than some of the other five ancient water towns.
Open to the public since 1986, Tongli’s picturesque temples, beautiful gardens, antique bridges, and impressive residences make it worth the visit. Take a bus from Shanghai or Suzhou and then head out on foot to explore the historic buildings or rent a gondola from one of the piers along the canals. Mingqing Jie is the busiest street in Tongli, with shops and restaurants lining the stone-paved 175 yards, and leading up the Tuisi Yuan (Retreat and Reflection Garden). This World Heritage-listed garden was built in 1886 as residences for a court official’s family. Winding walkways, reflecting ponds, pavilions, gardens and waterside buildings (which were built to look as if they are floating on the water, garnering the property the nickname of “the floating garden”) create a regal-feeling complex. For visitors hoping to see residences that have been preserved in tradition, Jiayin Hall and Chongben Hall were homes of well-to-do families from the turn of the 20th century, and reflect architecture styles from that time period as well as older Chinese traditions. The two mansions face each other across the water, and are connected by the Peace, Luck and Glory Bridges. An entrance ticket to see the two residences will also allow you entry to Luoxing Zhou, a small island which sits in Tongli Lake and houses an ancient temple as well as newer temples with mixed architectural and religious influences. The boat ride to the islet is picturesque and gives you a chance to give your feet a rest.
Back on Mingqing Street, have a meal at Xiangge Jiulou (Shanger Restaurant) where the menu is offered in English, but where local delicacies are available and recommended. Try braised pork, smoked fish, and “min bing” (rice pastries) or simply fill up on roasted chestnuts from vendors along the street. Either way, the walk down Mingqing is a good way to take in the lovely waterways and people-watch as you enjoy your time in Tongli. Finally, for those seeking a more modern experience, the Chinese Sex Museum was relocated to Tongli from its previous sites in Shanghai and is now houses in a former school. The museum has relics dating back to 2000 BC and more than 1,200 items total.
Photo Credit: www.tongli.net