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One of the loveliest water towns in the area, Tongli doesn’t suffer from the same volume of crowds as the others. However, the relocation of Shanghai’s Sex Culture Museum in 2004 raised its profile and its location just 18 kilometers (11.2 mi) from central Suzhou adds to its charms. It’s easily accessible directly from Shanghai too, with a bus leaving the sightseeing center at the Shanghai stadium every morning.
Tongli has a history reaching back over 1,000 years. It was originally called Fushi and prospered thanks to the trade that flowed through the region in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The modern town is home to around 50,000 people, but the old quarter has preserved its quaint, historic charms.
Built over seven islands, five lakes, and 15 rivers, it is famous for its 49 ancient bridges. Tongli old town is open to visitors daily 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; all attractions are open 8:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. There is an ¥80 fee to enter, which includes entry to all of the attractions except for the Sex Culture Museum.
Tongli’s Bridges and Halls
Tongli is known primarily for its bridges—49 in total—that span the rivers and canals. Three of the most important are Taiping (Peace), Jili (Luck), and Changqing (Celebration); the legend goes that if you cross all three in succession, you will be blessed with health, prosperity, and a long life.
Tongli’s great residential halls are also among its most important sights. Gengle Hall is the largest. It was the home of Ming Dynasty aristocrat Zhu Xiang and contains three courtyards, 41 rooms, and a large garden. Jiayin Hall is the newest of the halls. Built in 1912 in the Ming style, it was the residence of local scholar Liu Yazi. The third famous hall, Chongben, has four courtyards and three doorways, as well as some beautiful wood carvings from classical literature.
Sex Culture Museum
Tongli’s famous Sex Culture Museum charts 6,000 years of sex and sexuality in China. The museum relocated here from Shanghai’s Bund neighborhood in the early 2000s, making Tongli a prime destination for tourists. The museum contains over 3,500 artifacts that are arranged into categories like erotica, sexual health, the marriage system, and sexuality in religion. Of particular intrigue are the museum’s collection of chastity belts and jade toys. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the particularly well-endowed statue at the entrance.
Garden of Retreat and Reflection
The Garden of Retreat and Reflection (Tuisi) was built by a retired official called Ren Lanshang in 1887. It covers 700 square meters (7,535 sq. ft.) and includes traditional garden elements like a pavilion, terrace, tower, and porch appearing to “float” on a pond. Your ticket entitles you to a trip over to Luoxing Islet, on which you’ll find a selection of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian buildings. Home to a Buddhist temple since the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), the current buildings date from a renovation in the late 1990s.
Tongli has some great street-side food booths and snack vendors selling local Jiangsu fare like lotus root and grain pancakes. If you can get beyond the smell, try some chou doufu (stinky tofu). You’ll smell it before you see it, as this delicacy is aptly named. Tofu is marinated in a brine of fermented milk and vegetables before being deep-fried and eaten with chili sauce.
If you want to sit down and eat, try Nan Yuan Teahouse (86 Yuxing St.). The two-floor restaurant dates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and serves family-style food in a rustic, wood-beamed teahouse. Along with a wide variety of tea, Nan Yuan serves dim sum and local dishes on pretty porcelain plates.
The gorgeous 5-star Tongli Lakeview Hotel (8 Jiulihu Rd., 203/027-9779, ¥700) on Tongli Lake is a world away from the simple charms of the water village nearby. Opened in 2004 and shaped like a large semicircle, it has 247 guest rooms along with a swimming pool and a beautiful garden. The hotel was designed primarily as a business hotel, but it appeals to leisure travelers, too, thanks to its luxury facilities and high standards. The on-site Japanese restaurant runs a popular buffet and there are Western and Chinese options as well. Guest rooms overlook either the garden or the lake; a sauna, gym, and karaoke facility complete the picture.
Stay inside Tongli’s old quarter at the Zheng Fu Cao Tang Inn (Mingqing St., 512/632-0576, ¥400-1,300), an attractive 4-star hotel situated behind a traditional moon gate set into a wall. Guest rooms and suites are simply decorated with Chinese-style accents and are categorized as family rooms, “quaint” bedrooms, and “quaint” suites. Some have beautiful, wooden four-poster beds. The hotel is built around a courtyard that contains a pretty rock pool, watched over by a golden Buddha statue. The lounge looks like a traditional pavilion with its wooden ceiling beams and wall panels.
Getting to Tongli
A direct bus leaves Shanghai for Tongli every day at 8:30 a.m. and takes around two hours. It leaves from the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Staircase 5, Shanghai Stadium, 666 Tianyaoqiao Rd., 21/6426-5555) and same-day return tickets are ¥160, including entrance to Tongli, several halls, and the Garden of Retreat and Reflection (Tuisi). If you want to come back the next day, the ticket is slightly more expensive. The returning bus leaves Tongli to come back to Shanghai at 4 p.m.
Getting to Tongli from Suzhou by bus is relatively easy. Suzhou bus station is just across the bridge in front of the railway station. Ignore the scalpers that will try to sell you taxis and tickets. Head to the ticket booth down the first road on the right when you cross the bridge. A single ticket with entry to Tongli and the main attractions is ¥80. The return fare is ¥10. The bus ride takes just under an hour. Once you arrive, you will again be beset with touts offering to drive you in a taxi or a rickshaw to the old quarter. Once again, ignore them; the old city takes about five minutes on foot and is easy to find. Turn right out of the bus station and take the first right, and you’ll see the gate.
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition