18km (11 miles) SE of Suzhou, 80km (50 miles) W of Shanghai
Surrounded by five lakes and crisscrossed by a skein of canals, the Song Dynasty town of Tongli is more built up and commercialized than Nanxun, but it's still a pleasant enough water village, with several impressive residences and gardens, and China's first sex museum. It's not as if this picturesque town a half-hour east of Suzhou needs any more publicity, having been a magnet for television and film crews since 1983. Try to visit on a weekday when you won't be overrun by the masses, though you just may find yourself in the midst of a film set.
Visitor Information -- Entrance to Tongli's old town is free, but there is a ¥80 fee to visit all the major sights listed below except for the sex museum. Visiting hours are daily 7:30am to 5:30pm. There are introductory captions in English at the sights, but if you want greater detail, the Tongli Tourist Information Center (tel. 0512/6333-1145) southwest of Tuisi Yuan can sometimes offer English-speaking guides for a fee, though they prefer that you call ahead to book.
Getting There -- Only a half-hour away from Suzhou, Tongli can just as easily be visited from there, especially if you decide to overnight in Suzhou. Your hotel tour desk in Shanghai or Suzhou can organize a day trip out here, as can any of the major travel agencies, but it's equally easy to do the trip on your own. From Shanghai, there are Tongli buses (2 hr., ¥130 round-trip, includes ¥80 entrance fee) that leave the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Gate 25 of the Shanghai Stadium/Shanghai Tiyuguan) daily at 8:30am. Departure times may change, so call ahead (tel. 021/6426-5555) to confirm. From Tongli, buses return to Shanghai around 4pm. Tongli's public bus station (qichezhan) is in the south in the new part of town on Songbei Gonglu. From here, buses run to Suzhou (40-50 min.; ¥8) every hour between 7am and 5pm.
Buffeted in the south by new, ugly concrete buildings, Tongli's picturesque old town, located north of the Shangyuan Canal (Shangyuan Gang), is actually made up of seven islets connected to each other by more than 40 arched stone bridges and fed by a network of some 15 canals. The town dates to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), though many of its surviving mansions are of later Ming and Qing origin. As recently as 2 years ago, residents were still blithely going about their lives along the canals (it was not uncommon to see children bathing and women washing clothes in the streams), but all that messy living has now been largely cleaned up for tourists. The most common sight in the canals these days is a flotilla of tourist gondolas (and, of course, the inevitable trash that still results from hordes of visitors). You, too, can soak up the watery atmosphere by renting a gondola (¥70 per boat for 30 min.) from various piers scattered along the canals.
Waterways aside, the rest of the old town is easily traversed on foot. The busiest street is Mingqing Jie, a winding lane flanked with Ming and Qing dynasty-style wooden houses that have mostly been converted to shops and restaurants. The north end of this street leads to the old town's main attraction, Tuisi Yuan (Retreat and Reflection Garden). Built in 1886 by a dismissed court official, this World Heritage garden is laid out from west to east in three sections, with 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.
East of the garden is the former Lize Girls' School and the current home of the Zhoghua Xing Wenhua Bowuguan (Chinese Sex Museum) (tel. 0512/6332-2973; www.chinasexmuseum.com). Relocated here from its two previous sites in Shanghai (see the "China's sex Museum" box), the museum showcases the private collection of more than 1,200 sex artifacts amassed through the years by Professor Liu Dalin of Shanghai University. Displays are divided into sections covering themes from sex and evolution to the sexual oppression of women, and sex in literature and the arts. The wide array of sexual relics includes ancient tomb paintings, statuary, and erotic devices, including a pottery penis with a woman's head dated 2000 B.C. There are also exhibits devoted to foot-binding, furniture designed to enhance lovemaking, and "trunk bottoms" (explicit china figures placed at the bottom of dowry trunks by parents to instruct prospective brides). The museum is open daily from 8:30am to 5pm; admission is ¥20.
West of Tuisi Yuan are three of the town's better-preserved traditional residences. The westernmost, Gengle Hall (Gengle Tang), which belonged to the Ming Dynasty nobleman Zhu Xiang, is also the largest of the residences, with three major courtyards encompassing 41 rooms and a sprawling yard in the back. Jiayin Hall (Jiayin Tang), built in 1922 as the residence of famous local scholar Liu Yazi, has high white walls and doorways fronted by upturned eaves -- a style more reminiscent of the Southern Anhui Huizhou architecture. Here, the garden is in the center of the residence. The highlight at the 1912 Chongben Hall (Chongben Tang), with its four courtyards and three doorways, is the refined brick, stone, and wood carvings of scenes from Chinese literary classics, as well as of various propitious symbols such as cranes and vases (the Chinese word for vase, ping, is also a homonym for peace). Each row of buildings here is stepped increasingly higher than the previous, symbolizing the owner's wish that each subsequent generation in his family would attain greater success than the last.
The last two residences are connected by three bridges, Taiping Qiao (Peace Bridge), Jili Qiao (Luck Bridge), and Changqing Qiao (Glory Bridge). It was the custom in the old days to carry a bride in her sedan chair over all three bridges. Today, that custom has been resurrected for tourists who can don the proper red Chinese wedding finery and be carried in an old-fashioned sedan chair accompanied by a wailing lusheng (wind musical instrument) and beating drums.
Also included in the price of the entrance ticket is Luoxing Zhou (Luoxing Islet), located in the middle of Tongli Hu (Tongli Lake). Although there's been a temple here since the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), today's buildings are a strictly new (1996) mishmash of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian influences. The boat ride over makes for a pleasant enough trip if you've exhausted the rest of the town's attractions.
China's Sex Museum -- When it first opened in 1999 on the eighth floor of the Old Sincere Building on Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, China's first official sex museum was welcomed by some as an indication of an increasingly progressive attitude in a puritanical empire where the sale of pornography is still ostensibly punishable by death. The creation of Professor Liu Dalin of Shanghai University, this pioneering Chinese Sex Museum (Zhoghua Xing Wenhua Bowuguan) displayed most of his private collection of over 1,200 sex artifacts, many of them proof that China's putative Puritanism is really no more than a 60-year-old yoke. Unfortunately, exorbitant rents in 2004 forced the museum to move to the town of Tongli 80km (50 miles) away. The museum's eviction received some press attention and Tongli, not surprisingly, has also received more visitors.
Where to Dine
As the official restaurant catering to foreign tour groups, Xiangge Jiulou (Shanger Restaurant) on Mingqing Jie (Mingqing St.; tel. 0512/6333-6988; daily 8:30am-8pm) has a handy English menu and serves local specialties and generic foreigner-friendly Chinese food. There are also many nondescript small restaurants along the same Mingqing Jie that serve basic jiachang cai (Chinese home-style cooking) at reasonable prices, with a meal for two averaging ¥30 to ¥50. The Nanyuan Chashe (Nanyuan Teahouse) at the intersection of Dongkang Lu and Nankang Lu in the southern part of the old town is a restored Qing Dynasty building where you can sip tea and nosh on local snacks as you look out over the canals from the second floor. Local specialties include the Tongli version of braised pig's trotters, zhuangyuan ti; xiao xunyu (small smoked fish); and min bing (a sweet glutinous rice pastry). Also look for the roasted chestnuts on sale in the streets.
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.