Friday, November 8, 2013

Exploring Suzhou - Tongli Water Village

It seemed like a good idea at the time to write separate posts about all our different activities during Golden Week! More than a month later, and I'm only about halfway done! Meeting deadlines and perseverance have never been my strengths, but even for me, this dragging off feet is almost a record! Well, what can I say - except, better late than never - I'm seriously considering making this my motto! Anyway, here goes - Tongli Water Village!

Suzhou is often known as the 'Venice of the East' - numerous canals criss-cross across old Suzhou, quite beautiful with weeping willows planted on either side, and picturesque little bridges! Today, I don't think these canals are of much use other than being tourist attractions - but once upon a time, life in Suzhou revolved around these canals. To get a better idea of exactly how a water town functions, a short 18km drive away is Tongli, a perfectly preserved water village! Tongli is a very popular tourist destination - another must-see for visitors to Suzhou!

I was a bit surprised to find out that there actually was an entrance fee of 100 RMB to get into the ancient town - just appeared to be more commercial than what I was expecting! We did manage to get a good information booklet about the sights in Tongli - in English, upon request - but still, an entrance fee? It's like charging people to go to Sadashiv Peth in Pune!! Not a very good start!

One of the water canals
The canals form the first impression of Tongli - granted the grayish-green murky waters are a far cry from the Venetian canals - but, nevertheless, it is definitely a 'water' town! A short walk along this canal will bring you to the 3 most famous bridges in Tongli - Taiping, Jili and Changqing. Crossing these bridges is said to bestow blessings and good luck! I'm usually not superstitious - but in instances where there is no harm done, I like to cover my bases! So all 3 bridges were duly crossed! There are over 55 bridges in Tongli - no, I did not count, got that little nugget from wikipedia - so it's a good thing that only 3 of them are special!

I don't know if it was because of the vacation - but as we walked further, Tongli was starting to look like nothing more than a huge fairground! People thronged the narrow walkways, and restaurants lined the entire length of the canal! With the numerous souvenir and handicraft stores and street vendors, this was not exactly what I had been hoping to see! I was looking forward to a boat ride in the canals - but once again, the crowds had me turning away. For one, making the most of the busy day, the ferries had an additional cost. Secondly, there were so many boats in the water - it was clear that the ride would be as relaxing as being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on a Shanghai expressway!

There are a couple of ancient structures in the village - Chongben Hall, Jiayin Hall, Gengle Hall - these are all in the Chinese style of architecture - courtyards following other courtyards with displays of wood carvings and scrolls. What sounded most promising was the Pearl Tower - following the often confusing map, we found our way here - no tower, just the residence of Censor Chen. A Chinese guide was expostulating at length to a group of tourists, so I know we were missing something! Our information booklet had a terse line - 'The Pearl Tower was the place where the story Pearl Tower taken place' - now that makes absolute sense, thank you! I looked this up on wikipedia - and more surprises - there exists a model tower made of pearls, but we never got to see that either! Oh well!

As we walked further, we ran into an actual fairground - absolutely not kidding here! Complete with candy floss and fairground games, this place did bring a smile to Manasi's face! She did try her hand at a couple of games, and ended up winning a couple of stuffed toys - enough to keep her happy for the rest of the day!

We were looking for the Tuisi Retreat and Reflection Garden - makes me relax to just hear the name - when, unbelievably, we lost our way. Well, not lost per se - we just stepped off the tourist track for a bit - and stumbled onto the most interesting part of this village - the actual village! The cobblestone alleys, narrow doorways, old houses - all real with real people! Women sitting by the water - cleaning vegetables and fish for lunch, children playing little street game, older people enjoying the sunshine - a wonderful glimpse into the simple life, just minutes away from the overly touristy side of the village! The best part of the day was walking past a tiny, cramped little hole of a room - what's so special about that? - well, a mahjong game was in progress!! I was so happy, I almost asked if I could join in!!

When we finally found the Tuisi Garden - and this is the one place that would make me want to come back to Tongli - absolutely beautiful! A classical garden, it consists of many lakes, and the buildings appear to almost float on the water. Even with the large number of people, there was a serene quality to the garden, the trees and bridges reflected in the rippling waters, goldfish playing in the shadows. A place to sit quietly, to collect your thoughts, to rest the senses. Totally worth the admission price, I would say!

This post would be incomplete without a word about the delicacy of the day - fried crab on a stick! Hairy crab is traditionally eaten during Golden Week, and almost everyone at Tongli was eating this snack - three entire crabs skewered and deep fried! I'm wondering how long I have to stay in China before I stop getting surprised by these 'delicacies'! Goes without saying, none of us were adventurous enough to try this - especially with an egg curry lunch waiting at home! I wouldn't rate Tongli as must-see, but I have to admit that the huge crowds didn't exactly add to the appeal. I found it a tad too commercial for my taste - catering almost exclusively to tourists. I would like to go back during off-season, maybe that will be a better experience!

That's it then - a day at Tongli! With this, I have just one more post left about our October staycation - and won't I be glad when I'm done! Signing off, for now!

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