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Tongli Water Town


Tongli (同里) as one of six most famous water towns in Jiangnan, is widely regarded as a substitute of Zhouzhuang ancient town. Located in Wujiang district (吴江区), Suzhou, and the east side of Grand Canal, Tongli was built in Song Dynasty. Up to today, it has a history over 1000 years. Though long outshined by Zhouzhuang, Tongli is a halcyon and idyllic spot. This well-preserved water town is only 18 kilometers away from downtown Suzhou, 80 kilometers away from downtown Shanghai. Tongli is the earliest town written into cultural heritage site of Jiangsu province in 1982. In 1995, it was inscribed on Jiangsu province’s first batch of historic and cultural towns list. In 2000, it was written into World Cultural Heritage Site due to Tuisi Classical Garden or called The Retreat & Reflection Garden.

The Night View of Tongli Water Town   The View of Retreat & Reflection Garden

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The Detailed Introduction of Tongli Water Town

Tongli is divided into seven islands intersected by 15 canals. Because of the landscape, almost all of the buildings in the town are along the waterfront. In front of the buildings, small stairs leading to the canals were built, which are convenient for residents to wash clothes and for traveling around the town by boat. Arched roofs, lofty gables, stone bridges and green willows lining the banks can be found almost everywhere in the town. They help create a poetic and romantic atmosphere, especially in early spring when trees are budding and refreshing drizzles are frequent. The landscape also makes Tongli a town of bridges. There are 49 stone bridges linking different sections of the town, each displaying a different style.

Probably the most notable are Taiping (Peace and Tranquility) Bridge, Jili (Luck) Bridge and Changqing (Lasting Celebration) Bridge. They are known collectively as Ternate Bridges, as they cross three rivers and form a natural ring road. The Ternate Bridges are fortunate symbols in the eyes of the local residents and they walk over them for good luck during weddings or birthday parties.

The oldest bridge in Tongli is Siben (Reflecting Origin) Bridge, which was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while the smallest bridge is called Dubu (Single Step) Bridge and is only one-and-a-half meters long and less than one meter wide.

Thanks to the lakes and waterways, Tongli stayed away from the numerous wars which swallowed many other beautiful towns in ancient times. Its former glory can be found in many well-preserved ancient residential and monastic buildings. In fact, the town is known as a "museum of ancient Chinese architecture," as about 40 percent of the houses and temples in the town date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. With their whitewashed walls, black tiled roofs, carved wooden windows and elegant wood structures, these buildings feature the harmonious combination of residential buildings and gardens.

Among them, Retreat & Reflection Garden(退思园) is the most famous, especially after it was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site UNESCO in 2000. This garden was built by a former royal official Ren Lansheng in 1886 during the Qing Dynasty, after he retired. "When in office, one should be loyal to the emperor; when away from office, one should meditate upon his previous faults." This was the motto of Chinese officials in imperial times and where the garden's name "Retreat and Meditation" came from.

The western part of the garden is the residential quarter, including a sitting hall, a tea hall and the main hall. The eastern part is the scenic area dotted by pavilions, terraces, winding causeways and rockeries. Covering an area of 6,600 square meters, the garden is shaded by lush trees and embroidered with various bonsais and flowers. Red carps swim in the ponds, and various birds chirp in the woods. One can feel a classical elegance and harmony.

But Tongli is more than just a town with old bridges, houses and gardens. It is a place where one can rest his heart and totally discard the cares of life for a while. One can stroll around the town along its stone-paved lane, see women washing clothes by the canals, elderly ladies doing morning exercise in groups, men playing cards in teahouses, and fishermen paddling through the waterways with their solemn cormorants perched on the boats. Spending little money, one can enjoy a fine array of local specialties. Teahouses can be found everywhere and one can drink the fresh green tea served in clay pots.

In the past 10 years, Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province was a popular choice for those who want to have a touch of nostalgia. Water, bridges, age-old buildings and unspoiled folk customs have earned it the title of "Oriental Venice." More and more people swarm here to seek peace and retreat, only to find that the tiny town bursting with visitors from all over the world. Fame has made it hard to spend a quiet and soothing holiday in Zhouzhuang. Thus, Tongli, a neighboring town, has become an alternative destination.

Best time to visit

Tongli features four distinct seasons, each worth experiencing. Time from April to July is the best season when the climate is the most pleasant and scenery is the most beautiful with sprouting plants. A winter visit can give people a different experience when the town blanketed by snow is like a traditional Chinese painting. Entrance tickets to the historical part of town are 50 Yuan. They are necessary to get into the various sites, which include old homes, a traditional garden, a temple sited on the small island in the nearby Lake Xiaodian and the China Sex Museum.


Tongli is only 18 kilometers away from Suzhou and 80 kilometers away from Shanghai. The express bus from Shanghai to Tongli departs from Shanghai Stadium at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. The journey takes two hours. There are shuttle buses from Suzhou Railway Station or Suzhou Bus Station to Tongli, with the journey ranging 35-50 minutes.

Take the Yanan elevated Expressway (延安高架) towards the western terminus. Take the last exit, Zhongchun Road (中春路). The off-ramp will be T-junction with Zhongchun Road. Turn right onto Zhongchun Road and at the first traffic light, turn left. This will put you westbound on the Huqingping Highway (沪青平公路), also known as highway 318. At about 14 miles down the highway, the road will fork. Take the left fork towards Pingwang (平望). There is a sign at this fork, and it is only in Chinese. About 30 miles down the Huqingping Highway (just past a tollgate and across the highway from a SINOPEC) is the turnoff to Zhouzhuang. Go past this turnoff for another 10 kilometers or so. You will reach the small town of Liming and at Liming, there is a turnoff to the right towards Tongli. From the turnoff, go bout another 22 kilometers. Just before you reach Tongli, you will see a Xiaodian Lake (肖淀湖) on the right hand, and the north side of the road. Jus ahead further, you will see a tall wooden tower that looks like being made out of Lincoln Logs. The road forks here. Take the right fork and it will lead you to Tongli. The parking area is on the right side of the road not far beyond the fork.


Never miss the chance to taste fresh aquatic plants and fish. Most of the food is sweet. Famous snacks include smoked fish, dried bean curd, cakes made of glutinous rice and spring rolls (fried stuffed rolls).

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Editor: Julius from Mildchina
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