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One of many bridges in Tongli ancient water town, Jiangsu Province
I’ve taken advantage of the winter academic break to start exploring some of the ancient towns around Suzhou. One of these, Tongli, is about 45 minutes by bus to the southeast of the city, located in what is now a seemingly endless expanse of suburban development along China’s densely-populated east coast.
The day trip offered a tranquil opportunity on a warm, sunny day in January to escape somewhere different. To be absolutely honest, my main reason for making this the first of many “water towns” to explore was to visit the Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture. It was on all the tourist maps, yet after an hour of wandering around trying to find it, it wasn’t there. My discrete inquiries to local businesspeople resulted in nothing but mei you – it isn’t there. Only after returning home did I learn that, after its initial founding in Shanghai, the museum had moved to Tongli for 10 years, and only last year had been relocated to Hainan, off of China’s southeast coast. Pity. It would have been my first sex museum.
ancient lane – undisturbed quiet
What I liked about Tongli was that its ancient core hadn’t been completely tarted up for tourism or Disneyfied, as so many other Chinese ancient towns have. It is still a lived-in town, and if you want to escape the tourist crowds, a simple detour into a side street leads you into a quiet residential area with no shops, only tranquility and a pleasant opportunity to wander down narrow lanes.
busy shopping street
The town is arranged along canals – as is Suzhou – offering opportunities for boat rides, or sitting at outdoor tables of restaurants or tea houses. You can make the visit as touristy as you like, or ignore the historical attractions and just wander, which is pretty much what I did.
At the university, we have just finished marking final essay exams, and the new semester doesn’t start until March 2. I doubt that I will do nay extensive travel, but I do plan several more weekend excursions to nearby scenic or historic spots.
A warm Sunday afternoon in January, on an ancient canal in Suzhou
Yesterday, to celebrate the end of classes for the semester and the completion of a week of speaking exams, I spent Saturday in Shanghai, taking the 8:14 am train from Suzhou and returning the same evening. It makes a nice day trip; the express train only takes 25 minutes. The weather was cold, but the sun was out, but I still spent the whole day coughing from pollution. I just call it my “China cough.” When I returned to the USA last summer for 3 weeks, the cough disappeared after about 7 days.
I explored parts of the French Concession, a section of the city filled with old villas and many older buildings ranging in style from classical to art deco. I visited a French cafe and bakery, Farine, I’d just read about online. I had my first Kouign Amann, a Breton pastry, as well as a croque monsieur and a an espresso. The sunlight streaming through the front window took away the chill, as did the atmosphere and smells of the bakery. The breads looked tempting, but were quite expensive. Nearby was a Marseille wood-fired pizza restaurant that I’ll try next time I’m in town.
I next took the subway to the disappointing Tianzifang area, a traditional enclave of narrow alleys re-colonized by artists and craftspeople, but now tarted up as a tourist destination with upscale eateries, Hard Rock T-shirts, and quasi-artsy vibe. Then it was back to the central city, to walk along Fuzhou Road, one of my favorite areas, with bookstores, a shop specializing in Yixing teapots, and a pretty good foot massage place I frequent when I’ve been walking too much. Lunch was a Reuben sandwich at Tock’s Montreal smoked meat deli. The meat was delicious, but the sandwich couldn’t compare to my memory of Miller’s Pub on Wabash in Chicago. Now that was a Reuben. Oh yes, I visited V Coffee Roasters for a bag of almost-freshly-roasted beans. The coffee was a delicious way to start my day this morning.
Curls and shadows, Shanghai French Concession
Farine cafe and bakery, French Concession - home of authentic French baked goods. I read online that they import their flour from France. The espresso isn’t bad either.
Kouign Amann, Farine cafe and bakery, French Concession. Pastry was delightful but the caramelized sugar coating was a bit difficult to bite off.
fancyfruit, in a deco building
Normandie Apartments (Wukang Mansion), French Concession
jewelry display window
December strawberries, street market, Shanghai
“1927,” old buildings in central Shanghai
Steamed shrimp dumplings, Shanghai
Roasted meat sandwiches, Shanghai
Boating on the canal, Suzhou