An hour away from the Suzhou city center is the ancient city of Tongli!
This ancient water city is one of the six famous ancient towns to the south of the Yangtze River along with the towns of Zhouzhuang, Yongzhi, Xitang, Wuzhen and Nanzun.
When my Chinese colleague learned that I was traveling to Shanghai and was planning to visit Suzhou, he immediately asked me not to miss Tongli.
“Ano ka ba?! It’s a popular destination and it is famous all over the world the Venice of the Orient.”
“Sorry naman, my idea of China is Beijing.”
But true, popular to Filipinos about China are: Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau – residents of the latter two cities do not even identify themselves as part of China.
Okay, so we travelled to Tongli! And true to what my colleauge mentioned, it is indeed really a beautiful ancient city.
But I disagree with his claim that it is the Venice of Chine. I do not think it is even comparable to Venice. I mean, Venice is fantastic so is Tongli. In other words, they do have different charms. The ancient-ness of Venice is different from the ancient-ness of Tongli. It is like comparing apples with oranges for lack of a better analogy (Oooops, how can I actually compare it to Venice pala, I have never been there, LOL! But I am quite familiar with Venice – in pictures!).
Tongli is relatively a new destination for tourists both local and foreign since it was just opened to the public in 1986. The complex (as it is labelled by the tourism industry) is a residential town with architectural motifs and cultural relics of the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties including pavilions, towers, temples, and gardens found everywhere.
My colleagues and I decided to rent a gondola. One of my colleagues was expecting that the boatman would sing us a song.
“In Venice, the gondola rider sings while showing the city. They call it the Venice of China, the gondola master might just sing a Chinese song for us!” Oh well, this colleague – he had visited Venice way back in 2014.
To his disappointment, the boatman never quipped a word during the entire trip. Perhaps, language barrier? I really do not know. He was distant and cold, as a matter of fact. On this note, the only role of the boatman was to take us to the usual tourist route. We had to negotiate with the map we were provided. Luckily, I am into maps. For each monument, I had to peek into it and acted as if I were a local or a tour guide by identifying each monument or each relic.
The most amazing relics/monuments in this water town: the ancient bridges!
Bridges are important parts of the everyday life of the people in Tongli. For obvious reason: it is a water town! As soon as one enters the village, s/he is welcomed by an ancient and very magnificent bridge: the Zhaopai Bridge.
But the most famous bridges among the 49 bridges (according to the brochure) in Tongli are Taiping Bridge (peace), Jili (luck) Bridge and Changqing (celebration) Bridge (collectively called as the Three Bridges), which are important Tongli landmarks and are regarded as sacred architecture by the locals.
According to the brochure we got from the tourism office, it is a custom for the locals to walk across the three bridges during festival occasions such as a wedding. Taiping Bridge (1913) symbolizes good health throughout the year. Crossing the Jilli Bridge (1987) meant to benefit from having a prosperous business. Walking across the Changqing Bridge (built in 1470 and rebuilt in 1704) means a happy year ahead.
A little walk from here and there are ancient houses turned museums, government halls turned into sites of interest, etc.
Of these ancient sites, the Tuisi Garden was the most impressive. Built during the Qing Dynasty by an imperial official, Tuisi Garden is one of the nine gardens listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The garden is not difficult to navigate. Its a few yards away from the main gate of the village – a few meters after crossing the main bridge adjacent the Zhaopai.
Tuisi Garden is also called the Tianshui Garden because the buildings and rockeries are laid out around the pool at the center of the garden, highlighting the pool’s imposing surface. As a matter of fact, I was very impressed that the landscape uniquely blended with the water, providing a sort of illusion that the entire garden was floating above the water. No wonder, the garden is colloquially called the Retreat and Reflection Garden.
At the end of our “water” adventure in Tongli, we headed back to Shanghai.
It rained once again on the way back to Shanghai. Despite rain, it was still an amazing cultural experience.