Jiansu: Dissembling Suzhou and the Persistence of Tongle

Suzhou station was just as big as the others. When we walked out the front we found we were in an underground tunnel with no way to walk out and had to take a bus which promptly headed out west. We then had to haul our bags a couple of miles in the late evening to get into the city hotel area and managed to find a Green Tree Hotel with rooms free for an acceptable price after being turned away by two or three.


Suzhou was in the throes of being transformed. The entire main thoroughfare Renmin Lu was being torn apart with all the buildings missing. The remains of the old canals we had seen in 2005 seemed to have been turned into concrete plazas with a tiny semblance of their former character. I climbed the pagoda (the tallest south of the Yangtse) and took some views over the city.

Panorama of Suzhou from the pagoda showing massive reconstruction of Renmin Lu.

But after getting lost in the mid-town reconstruction, we decided Suzhou had lost its charm and headed for the bus station almost as gigantic as the train station to catch a bus for Tongli one of he famous little classic canal towns we were intending to stay in. This bus ride also proved to be a devastating contradiction heading around the city on a huge motorway system replete with spaghetti junction flyovers. The entire landscape seemed to have been turned into expressways.


Gradually these thinned out over the supposed 18 kms that seemed more like 50 until we came to a bus station in Tongli town and then had to pull our trolleys for about half an hour to a bridge over the river where the old town began. We pulled our trolleys in a back alley at around 4.30 pm. I had in mind that they were supposed to stop charging 100 yuan each for entry tickets by 5.30.

Simultaneously a hotel tout tried to force us to go into a guesthouse to look at rooms and a policeman told us we had to buy tickets to get in. A standoff ensued where I told the policeman they were going to stop charging at five and he didn't want to stop the hotel tout getting a score. I could see the cops were beginning to pack up shop and within a couple of minutes, he waved us in and after a search around we got this charming room for 190 yuan at the Laojie Hotel, with internet and aircon with an ornately carved four-poster bed, so all the trials and tribulations of the day melted into another Shangri La " experience.

The view from our little hotel window

We wandered the canals at sunset, eating a dinner of scrambled egg and tomatoes with a second dish of slim potato fingers very lightly fried so they are crispy raw like apples with green peppers. The name of this dish is "Green pepper and pofato soil been silk" but if you would prefer you could have "Silverfish scrambled egg" or even "The palace explode the diced chicken"!


Strange as it may seem, these two dishes are standard Chinese fare, part of the multi-plate offering, which we have been served, from Yunnan to Jiangsu surrounding Shanghai. Had we known that we would come to China to eat tomato omelettes and almost raw shredded potato in butter up to three times a week we still wouldn't have believed it.

We will probably stay here three days before heading for the periphery of Shanghai where there is a little barely recognized canal town within shooting distance of Shanghai Pudong airport where we leave for Korea after trying out the Maglev train that reaches speeds over 400 kph.

garden1s.jpgThe Ming era mansions consist of an array of rooms scattered around a garden lake with walkways between

We stayed in Tongli for three days, enjoying the quiet ambience and the contradiction of living in a town more than a thousand years old that has been caught in the twists of time and preserved in aspic, perched on the edge of encroaching Suzhou, itself an old canal town grown obscenely bloated in urban expansion. Tongli used to be called "rich land" nearly a millenium and a half ago, but this was deemed too extravagent, so in the early years ot the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) the name was changed to "copper town" then Tongli, which is a play on the "copper town" theme.

Each of the mansion rooms open onto the gardens

These canals penetrate far across China. The Grand Canal used to stretch all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou south of Shanghai and the whole area around Shanghai is threaded with canals carrying massive barges carrying heavy loads like the bares of Europe.

Canal in Suzhou with commercial traffic

The third day we were in Tongli, we finally bit the bullet and paid the 100 yuan entry fee each because it gave us entry into nine manisions and gardens either dating back tot he Ming dynasty or built in the Ming style. Many of these have an intimate relationship between living spaces and garden areas made in the form of a series of pavillions arranged around a garden lak with covered walkways between with each room richly furnished but with one side opening almost completely onto nature.

Torrential rain in the stately gardens of Tongli

Ironically the day was teeming with rain which grew in waves into one of those tropical storms that appear without warning in the typhoon season filling the streets with water so we got wet through and people were wading up to the knees in the town square." 

Buddhist pavillion with Goddess on the islet

By the end of the day I had visited all the nine posted sights in some form or other including the little islet in Tongli lake itself being almost filled with a lake-like pond and amost engulfed by a large Buddhist temple. This picture from one of the pavillions round the islet's lake shows a Kanon goddess figure with heaps of gold Buddhas replacing the ancestors in Chinese Taoist and Confucian Temples. Actually the ancestors make far more sense than monclonal Buddha figures.

Tongli on the last evening at dinner time.