It would be fair to say that China today is a very different place than it was 30 years ago. Its fast paced economy and commercial expansion appears unstoppable and in its wake much of the old landscape is fast disappearing. What most tourists are left with are ‘Chinatown-like’ images of what the old country might have been like; a pastiche of clichéd depictions of a bygone era. However, if you are prepared to venture out beyond the big cities, you are still able to experience a more authentic taste of China that has long since disappeared in many parts of the country. Tongli is such a town and despite being round 18 kilometres outside of the bustling city of Suzhou, it still provides a genuine insight into traditional village life within a uniquely preserved environment. Jules had read about this place as she trolled through various websites in preparation for this trip. What had particularly attracted her to the town was its mantle as the ‘Venice of China’ and with a history of over a thousand years, it had remained largely unchanged. It sounded so fascinating that we just had to make sure that we included it as part of our tour.
After about an hour and a half of driving we arrived at Tongli and while the old village was indeed very authentic, it was clear that this watery attraction was gradually being discovered by the outside world. In the surrounding areas new infrastructure was quickly being built and a host of commercial businesses were springing up with an eye to cashing in on the anticipated influx of tourists over the next few years. Fortunately this was all at arms length from the village itself, which could be visited by simply crossing over an arch bridge much like the ones you might see in Venice itself.
Once on the other side we felt as if we had stepped into another world in which time had stood still. We entered narrow streets that were lined by simple, but traditionally styled buildings. Some were residential, while others were small business trading much as they had done for centuries. Of course Jules was fascinated with the various eating establishments that were open to the streets cooking all manner of food. She couldn’t resist buying some sticky toffee on a stick from an old lady who was making it as she sat in the doorway of her home. Elsewhere groups of old men were playing chess, pedaled rickshaws were moving up and down the laneways and visitors sat drinking tea in the open air as they overlooked the narrow canals. Meanwhile, our guide had organized for us to visit one of the oldest teahouses in the village (established 1898) to enjoy our tea with some local food. This was definitely the most authentic eating experience we had in China, in a setting that was as genuine as you can get. We could only imagine the many conversations that would have occurred here over the years whilst sipping Chinese tea.
Of course we were quick to resume our walk around Tongli with its picturesque sites and photographic scenes around every corner. With 15 canals and 49 ancient stone bridges, it is no way near the size of Venice, but it is not as busy either. The village was certainly very quaint and largely unspoilt, at least for the time being. We enjoyed criss-crossing over the various narrow bridges to obtain different viewpoints of the town. Our guide was quick to point out that the three most significant bridges were Taiping (peace), Jili (luck) and Changqing (celebration). The story goes that when celebrating a wedding, the groom is supposed to carry his bride over these three bridges in order to obtain good fortune in their lives. Thankfully they are all very small bridges and close to one another!
Narrow wooden boats line the canals and still provide one of the major ways of moving around the 64 square kilometre town. However, the most fascinating of these crafts were the ones that provided perches for trained cormorants. These amazing birds earn their keep by diving into the water for fish, all for a guaranteed share of the catch. As we walked along the canals, we could see one of the local fisherman cleaning the catch as a group of cormorants sat on the boat patiently waiting for their cut of the haul. This was yet another scene that was typical of this remarkable water town. This was the type of place that tourists increasingly come to China to see, but are disappearing all too fast. We were certainly glad that we had extended our departure from Shanghai just one more day in order to visit Tongli. Even though it too was changing fast, it was still unmistakably Chinese.‘Venice of China’ remained like a remarkable time capsule that was both scenic and rich with history. We can only hope that it will remain that way and doesn’t, like so many other places, become swamped by the current wave of progress!