Tongli Water Town
For me, I have always been very comfortable in my position as a backseat traveller. I have a strong desire to see new landscapes and revile in experiences undone, but in truth, I am lazy. Lazy in a sense that I dislike the responsibility and planning of journeys. Therefore, when travelling, I need someone to push me. I need someone to get me going, and last weekend, I got going to Tongli water town.
Yes, Tongli, hardly the crown jewel in the China travel repertoire, but it was a weekend trip, and I wanted to go somewhere close to Suzhou that I had not been to before. For us new Suzhou locals, Tongli is often passed around as somewhere to go, especially now that the Subway reaches there, but for me, it was always too close, too accessible, so I never went. I am incredibly glad that I held off going because I would never have had such a fantastic weekend there if I had gone before. In my mind, Tongli was just another water town, a dime a dozen in many respects and though this may still be true, there was something undoubtedly a little bit more special about my time there. Perhaps it was due to the cold weather (which I love), the lack of crowds or simply the company I was with, but waking up on Sunday morning after spending a day and night there I relished in my surroundings.
Tongli is quite similar to downtown Suzhou, mirroring in many aspects the side streets of GuanQian Jie. The feeling is similar but not the same; there is more of a hush lying over the streets of Tongli. There is no rushed feeling, it exudes an atmosphere of a slower pace, somewhere to take your time, to look around and take in your surroundings. I have lived in China, more specifically in Suzhou, for a few years now and after so many years, I have no desire to feel the crush of people around me and this desire is exactly what I got when traversing the almost deserted pathways of Tongli. I got there quite late in the day, as winter is almost upon us and the dark nights are descending earlier. It wasn’t long before twilight reached me as I walked the narrow pathways, it was cold, it was quiet, it was perfect. Most of the shops closed early, lights switched off and only the glint of a distant lantern or neon sign was lighting the way.
With the paths dark and empty, a real sense of quiet settled on the small water town, the inhabitants were no longer selling their wares but now doing the more mundane tasks of cooking dinner, putting out laundry, meeting neighbours. A feeling of quiet contentment came over me, and I could appreciate how beautiful this place really was; the architecture, the lanterns lining the canal, the reflection of the neon signs in the water.
When down a small side alley, I found a shop that was still open. A small man was sitting inside eating a bowl of noodles, his shop that of wood carvings, mostly small, delicate wooden bookmarks, 20 RMB a piece. Inside was all manner of wood carvings and a stuffed bird on top of a wardrobe, a piano to the side.
When I was looking through his work, a small tourist group came behind me, one of them sat down and began to play the piano. I honestly felt I had stepped into a scene from a Ghibli film. When truthfully it became too cold, my thoughts now lingered on the bathtub waiting for me back in my hotel. I decided to retreat for the night.
My accommodation for my time in Tongli was a boutique hotel, named quite creatively, Tongli House. Housing only five rooms, this converted traditional Chinese style hotel was without a doubt one of the most beautiful hotels I have stayed in. Greeted at the entrance by an overly friendly golden labrador, which I had to extract quite quickly from my leg, I checked in and was led to my room, passing tranquil gardens filled with the sounds of birds that they had placed outside each of the rooms. The decor of my rooms was quite subdued in browns and greys, but my eyes fixated on nothing but the espresso machine and the bathtub; two items of true beauty to me.
I was informed that the hotel also provides its guest with a free Suzhou Opera performance at 7 pm. So after exploring the town and rewarming myself in a bath, I dressed and went to the performance. An hour and many cups of tea later, I thanked the performers and quickly came to the conclusion that I should have stayed in the bath, perhaps an hour of opera in a language that not even most Chinese understand is a little too long, but the performers were excellent, and so was the tea.
Sunday morning came with breakfast in bed, my return to Suzhou and my thoughts on what to write about my trip to Tongli. What I have to say to those thinking about what to do on their days off; go to Tongli and go soon, it’s cold, it’s dark, it’s quiet. Now is the time when one can truly wander around the water town and get a real sense of what the place is and what it can show you. There was no pretence; there was no sellers or crowds or people trying to make a quick buck, no stress or pressure, which I know, as a foreigner we can sometimes feel when visiting places in China. I had a really wonderful time there, and I would go back to do it all again.
My advice for anyone thinking of going there is very simple; take the bus, don’t go by subway or didi. It took 8 RMB, and only 40 minutes. It was one of the easiest and most relaxed modes of transport I have taken in a long time to get to my destination. Also, even for those who don’t speak Chinese, it requires minimal communication and “Suzhou to Tongli” even in English is very easily understood.
Suzhou Station – North Square (苏州北广场汽车站)
Busline: from Suzhou to Tongli (苏州到同里)
Tongli House Boutique Hotel
66, Sanyuan Street, Tongli Town, Wujiang, Suzhou