We had hoped to make a few excursions outside Shanghai during the ten days we would be in the city, but there was so much to see and do that we ended up making only one trip which was to the canal town of Tongli. I had read about this city, of over forty-nine bridges, in our guidebook and wanted to explore it to see a little more of the old China. Tongli’s history goes back over 1,000 years. The bridges, built in a variety of styles, join the seven islands created by fifteen rivers and five lakes upon which Tongli stands. The town is situated only eighteen kilometers from Suzhou, a major city in the Yangtze River delta. There are numerous canal towns in the region but Tongli has become known as a ‘museum’ of ancient architecture and has many well-preserved houses and temples dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. From ancient times, Tongli has teemed with poets, Confucian scholars, musicians, painters and government officials.
Andrew had warned us about going to Tongli during the Golden Week holidays, because it would be swarming with Chinese tourists, but we braved the trip just before the holiday hoping that we would find quiet before the storm. We booked a car and driver to take us there and wait while we toured the town. Unfortunately, the driver who arrived was not at all familiar with Tongli; he stayed mainly in Shanghai itself. We weren’t too worried as we would be travelling on a major highway and we had the Lonely Planet with us which had the name written in Chinese characters and had simple maps of the region.
It was a lovely, warm spring day when we set off and it was great getting out on the highway although there wasn’t anything special to see along the way. The land is very flat and undeveloped along the highway in this low-lying area but before long we turned off and began looking for Tongli. I was surprised that it was as difficult to find as it was, we had to stop several times and ask for direction. At last I saw a sign written only in Chinese characters, but I recognized them from the ones in the Lonely Planet. Once again our trusty guidebook saved the day.
We found a parking lot where we could leave the car and driver for the afternoon and set out on foot across the first bridge we came too. As we climbed to the top of the bridge, a sharp gust of wind lifted my sunhat from my head and blew it over the edge of the stone railing. I was sure my hat was history, when suddenly the toggle at the bottom of the chinstrap caught on the uneven stone and halted the hat’s flight in mid-air. It was my lucky day and I just knew we would have more wonderful memories of this quaint town to come. We purchased entrance tickets to the town’s central area and started up a narrow street lined with shops selling souvenirs. Once again, we had to run the gamut of trinkets before we could enjoy the experience of seeing the sights.
As we walked along the street, I was surprised to see handmade items for sale, things that looked like they were made locally. This was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t make any purchases because our suitcases were already full and we just can’t manage to carry anything with us that was not necessary on a day-to-day basis. However, before long we came upon some local snacks and knew there was always room in our tummies to carry away some of the local delicacies. We saw several shops selling small oval savory breads with sesame seeds in them. They were cooking them on large griddles and the smell was mouth-watering. I indicated I wanted to buy some and the woman quickly tossed a half dozen into a bag for me. We all sampled them and then quickly went back for more. They were hot, crispy, flavorful and delicious. Now we were fortified to take on the town.
We anticipated spending only a couple of hours in Tongli and then carrying on to see Tai Hu Lake and the city of Suzhou itself. Little did we realize that Tongli was as packed with things to see and do as it was. We spent over four hours touring the canals, gardens, temples and even the Chinese Sex Culture Museum and still didn’t begin to see all of the treasures packed into this wonderful historic site. Just as we had hoped, there were few other visitors that day and at times it seemed like we had the whole place to ourselves. There are reported to be about 33,000 residents in Tongli but many of them must work outside the town in the factories lining the highway and other major roads. Most of the people we saw were shopkeepers, restaurant staff and the elderly. It really made for a most enjoyable side trip from Shanghai, one that I will always remember fondly.
As we were driving away I began thinking about the canal town that was featured in the movie Mission Impossible III. I wondered if perhaps the movie was filmed here in Tongli itself. I made a note to myself to check it out on IMDB.com, a great movie website that I use constantly as a resource. I know that each movie lists the locations where filming was done. If Tongli wasn’t a filming location for MI3, then it certainly should have been. I think you will see from the photos I’ve posted that this is a charming place to visit. Please put it on your itinerary should you ever make plans to visit China.