Wild China: The Water Village of Tongli

Now that Suzhou, once the "Venice of the East," has grown into a modern city, visitors searching for a more traditional Yangzi River delta water town should visit the Song dynasty town of Tongli, 20km (12 miles) southeast of Suzhou and 80km (49 miles) west of Shanghai. The entrance fee for all sights is ¥50; hours are from 8am to 5pm. (Zhou Zhuang, another delta town, has unfortunately evolved into a massive tourist trap.)

The main attraction in Tongli is Tuisi Yuan (Retreat and Reflection Garden), in the center of the old town. Built in 1886 by a dismissed court official, the garden contains the family's residences in the west, meeting and entertaining rooms in the center, and a small but cleverly designed landscaped garden in the east. The use of winding walkways with different-shaped windows, jutting pavilions, and a reflecting pond make the garden appear larger than it is.

West of the garden are two of the town's better-preserved traditional residences. Jiayin Tang, built in the 1910s as the residence of a famous local scholar, Liu Yazi, has high white walls and doorways fronted by upturned eaves. The highlight at Chongben Tang, also with four courtyards and three doorways, is the refined brick, stone, and wood carvings of propitious symbols such as cranes and vases. Connecting the two residences are three bridges: Taiping Qiao (Peace Bridge), Jili (Luck) Qiao, and Changqing (Glory) Qiao. It was the custom in the old days to carry a bride in her sedan chair over all three. Today, tourists can don proper wedding finery and also be carried across the bridges in an old-fashioned sedan chair.

Getting There -- From the bus station in the new part of town on Songbei Gong lu, buses run to Suzhou (hourly 7am-5pm; 35 min.; ¥8). In Shanghai, the Jinjiang Optional Tours Center at Changle Lu 191 (tel. 021/6466-2828) can organize a private tour with an English-speaking guide, air-conditioned car, and lunch for about ¥2,200 for one person and ¥1,200 each for two. Alternatively, a Tongli tourist bus (2 hr.; ¥110 round-trip) leaves from the Shanghai Stadium at 9am (returns at 4pm) and 10am (returns at 4:30pm). Check out the government-run site www.tongli.net for information on the city.

Where to Dine -- Several small restaurants along Mingqing Jie serve basic jiachang cai (Chinese home-style cooking) at reasonable prices; a meal for two averages about ¥30 to ¥50. Nanyuan Chashe, located in a restored Qing dynasty building, serves tea and local snacks. Local specialties include zhuangyuan ti (the Tongli version of braised pigs' trotters), xiao xunyu (small smoked fish), and min bing (a sweet glutinous rice pastry).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.