24 hours in Tong-Li: China’s ancient gem

The ancient water town of Tong-Li, China, is a hidden gem of the Jiangnan region with spectacular scenery and winding canals.

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September in Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) is often rainy but, as the Chinese say, the most poetic time to visit an ancient water town is when it’s foggy and drizzling. With that in mind, I hopped on a 2 hour bus ride from Shanghai to Tong-Li, on the outskirts of Suzhou.

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Truly untouched, Tong-Li would soon become my favourite destination in China.

Image credit: Joanne Chen

Explore Tong-Li like a local

I arrived in Tong-Li shortly before noon. Small bridges, waterways, and boats portrayed a typical Jiangnan water town. Tong-Li captured my heart almost immediately after I had set my feet on its beautiful flagstone pavements. I satisfied my stomach with local cuisine consisting of fresh whitefish, whitebait, and lotus roots as the prelude to my exploration of a town 1,000 years old.

Surrounded by massive lakes, Tong-Li is divided by 15 canals and connected by more than 45 bridges. Most of the town’s architecture remains unpolished yet well-preserved. Visiting Tong-Li was like visiting the village where your grandparents live. The locals casually chat with each other in front of their homes and do their laundry next to the water. None of the shopkeepers tried too hard to sell me anything. It was the perfect place to unwind from Shanghai’s hustle and bustle.

Image credit: Joanne Chen

Get lost among the narrow streets

I spent the afternoon walking through every passage I could, stumbling upon Chuan Xin Nong (穿心弄). This alley is the narrowest in Tong-Li and could only fit one person at a time. I could hear the neighbours laughing while having a family dinner inside the walls when walking through the 300 metre alleyway.

In Tong-Li, getting to one place from another will almost certainly require a walk over one of its many bridges. The oldest was built more than 700 years ago, but the most famous is the Three Bridges (三桥). The locals walk across the Three Bridges to pray for peace, luck, long-life and health. Right next to the Three Bridges, you can find a boat with fish hawks resting. If you’re lucky, the fisherman who owns the birds might put on a fishing show with the magnificent creatures.

Image credit: Joanne Chen

As someone who constantly seeks authentic musical experiences when travelling, I couldn’t resist having afternoon tea at Nan-Yuan Tea House (南园茶社). This establishment is 100 years old and hosts traditional Suzhou “Ping-Tan” musical performances almost every day. I ordered some local pastries and a drink made from sweet olives as well as a cup of freshly brewed green tea to go with the music. The singing in Suzhou dialect and the sound of pipa (a Chinese musical instrument) drew my mind to another time and space.

A town of exceptional culture

The entrance ticket for Tong-Li covered all the cultural museums and classical gardens that the town has to offer. I particularly enjoyed strolling around the Tuisi Garden (退思园) in the evening (an extra fee applies if entered at night.) The dim light of the red lanterns and the sound of raindrops gave the UNESCO site a mysterious vibe that was quite different from daytime.

At night, the LED lights adorning the canals border on being tacky. The lights aside, there is plenty to see of a night in Tong-Li. The town theatre hosts an epic production called Tong-Li Impressions (水墨同里), while there are plenty of canal-side spots to sip tea in. I found a boutique bar playing jazz and serving craft beer from Hangzhou. Most parts of the town switch off after 8 pm. The tranquility that ensued was a beautiful way to end my evening in Tong-Li.

Early next morning, I made my way to the Pearl Pagoda (珍珠塔). The name, while not quite describing what I found on entry, is derived from a fictional love story that took place here. My jaw dropped when I saw how extravagant the classic garden looked.

Image credit: Joanne Chen

I didn’t expect to fall for Tong-Li this hard. Time appears to have stopped still in this town, and the locals seem to coexist with visitors in a state of pristine balance. Before I departed, I took my last walk around Tong-Li. The rain didn’t stop me. After all, the authenticity and simplicity of this charming water town are now embedded within me. I eagerly await my next visit.

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