Exploring the nooks and crannies of Tongli

Culture | by J. Zach Hollo
Posted: March 29th, 2012 | Updated: March 30th, 2012 | Comments
China Travel Blog It takes only half an hour from Suzhou and two hours from Shanghai to get to the ancient water town of Tongli. Boasting 1,000 years of proud history, Tongli sits on the east shore of Tai Hu in Jiangsu Province and gives tourists a glimpse into traditional Chinese culture. Some bridges date back to the Song Dynasty and much of the architecture was erected during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Famed for its beautiful bridges and waterways, Tongli is one of the locations in China referred to as "the Venice of the East." My tour group began by having lunch in a local restaurant, where delicious traditional Yangtze River dishes were served, although I can't say I enjoyed the braised pigs' knuckles. We then took a tour of the canals in a series of gondolas (or long boats) which cost RMB 60. During the ride I adored how jovial the old lady rowing on the back of our gondola was. It seemed as though every heaving motion of her back brought out a wider smile than the last. Read on for more about Tongli after the jump... Gondola driver The tour ended with a bizarre bird fishing display in which six cormorants were tethered to the sides of a boat. A grumpy man with a cigarette in his mouth manned the boat and released the large black birds two at a time. The birds immediately dove their heads into the water and emerged with fish in their mouths. But they could not swallow—each had a knot tied tightly around its neck, constricting its throat so that the fish did not fit through. The show was disturbing to say the least. Each bird would stretch its neck into the air, and jerk its head up and down in a hopeless struggle to try to eat the fish. They seemed to be choking on the fishes they could not get into their throats, suffocating, their writhing bodies becoming more and more violent.... The man with the cigarette reached out a pole with a lasso on the end and reeled each bird in. Once he got his hands on a bird, he grabbed it by the throat and shoved his hand into its mouth, snatching the fish and tossing it back into the water. Catch-and-release never seemed so brutal. Our ride ended and our rower looked so happy she could have just won the lottery, waiving in ecstasy as we got off. Traveling Tongli Next we walked over to the Garden of Retreat and Reflection, where the second floor of the main building offered the only view overlooking the whole garden. Ancient calligraphy and paintings hung on the walls. After walking around the garden for about half an hour, our tour group of NYU students broke apart. Most went to see the China Sex Museum—the only one in China. A friend and I decided to mosey into the narrow alleyways a step off the main tourist path instead. There was something intrinsically beautiful about the emptiness of the alleys. It seemed as if the homes' inhabitants had flocked to the tourist districts to work during the day. The walls were a mix of static dark gray and beat-up white bricks which shed to uncover gray beneath them. An aesthetic atmosphere of decay had given the abandoned paths a gritty hollowness. At one point, we stumbled upon a garden surrounded by housing that had been reduced to rubble. Skinny dirt paths weaved through the crops; garbage lay strewn in every direction. One transplanted here could only assume a tornado had chewed through the concrete buildings whose skeletons now stood naked. A clothes-line stretched from one side of the debris to another, and upon it hung a pink shirt, slightly transparent as it swayed in the wind. Traveling China

When we found our way back to the group of students, an old woman sat selling seeds that  mixed with tea are said to improve one's health. She told a Chinese girl in the group that one bag cost RMB 25. Shortly after I approached her and asked the same question. She smiled and replied RMB 30, then winked at the girl. Another elderly woman approached, this one selling large goose eggs the size of baseballs. She yelled to the group that three eggs cost RMB 10. I had RMB 3 in my back pocket, and asked her if I could just buy one. The old woman burst out laughing and began yelling to the crowd in Chinese. My Chinese friend translated, “She says there's no way you don't have money. You're so tall!”

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