We visited our first Chinese water-town, after having been here over a year. Water-towns are old villages filled with canals, old style Chinese white-washed houses with black-tiled roofs, people living along the canals in the old-fashioned way. Suzhou was itself a water-town once upon a time, but most of the many canals have been filled in to make way for big buildings and development. It still is connected to the Grand Canal and has water-traffic, but it has lost its small-water-town charm.
There are a number of small water-towns around Suzhou, that still retain the small-town character. These water-towns, while touristy, in the Chinese tourist sense, still feel like you are stepping back in time. We went to the water-town, Tongli, about 18km south east of Suzhou.
Tongli is an old village, over a thousand years old. There are no cars in the old village. These water-towns are definitely for tourists-mostly Chinese tourists. You pay to enter the old part of town-80 RMB, about $11 US. There is live entertainment as part of the admission. We watched a Chinese music show with women in costume singing an opera-like story. It is all very entertaining for us Westerners too, even if we didn’t understand the words.
The women were followed by an old Chinese man also in full costume playing a 2-string Chinese guitar, with a small battery-powered amplifier. Chinese families had their kids pose with him for pictures.
Women vendors were selling what looked like green flower heads, the size of a large sunflower, with no petals left. These contained green pea or bean-like seeds that you would peel, and eat the white-seed-body found inside. We tried them and found out later that they were lotus seed-heads that are harvested after the lotus blooms.
Tongli is a great place for walking. There are cobblestone-lined walks along scenic canals, stone footbridges crossing the canals, wooden boats paddled by boatmen and boatwomen giving tourists rides.
Houses line the lanes and there are even smaller alleys leading back away from the canals to other residences. The houses have electricity, but no running water. They get their water from the canals, and they use wooden toilets (see last post). They use gas canisters for cooking.
The nice thing about water towns is you may wander most anywhere in the old town; along the canals, down lanes, into the many houses and gardens open for public view with your ticket. We visited a large house from the Ming Dynasty era, called the Gengle Tang (Hall). It had over 50 rooms, 5 courtyards, and a sprawling garden with pools of large goldfish.
Gengle Tang was filled with beautiful root carvings that were spectacular. These had all been carved by one artist from Hangzhou. He had only started carving in the 1980s and had already done over 1000 pieces.
We walked the shady tree-lined canals and ate a lunch of black rice in small hand-woven baskets, and cut up chilled watermelon. Both were delicious. The watermelon hit the spot as it was a hot day in the 90s and humid. We polished off half a melon as we sat on small benches at tables along the canal.
We saw many things in Tongli. One place we visited was the Chinese Sex Culture Museum, the only museum of its kind in all of China. Read about this place in the next blog entry. After a full day, we walked out of the Old Town, back to the bus station, and caught a bus back to Suzhou. We want to visit other water towns soon.