Tongli, Jiangsu Province, China （中国江苏省同里）
Photo Travel Guide
Main photographic interest: Jiangnan-style architecture, culture and cultural relics
Tongli (同里) is one of the six major water towns in Jiangnan area. Jiangnan (江南) refers to the southern part of the lowest reaches of the Yangtze River and encompasses the Shanghai municipality, the southern part of Jiangsu Province and the northern part of Zhejiang Province. Intellectual life of Jiangnan has been highly regarded throughout Chinese history and greatly influenced Chinese culture. On top of that, abundant lakes, canals and ponds of the region have shaped distinctive townscapes. All of this makes Jiangnan a very attractive destination for cultural photography.
Established in the Song Dynasty and having a history of over 1,000 years, Tongli is known as the "Venice of the Orient". It boasts antique black-and-white houses that line the canals, 49 ancient bridges, unique halls and traditional gardens. Tongli is the largest settlement among the numerous water-towns in the region.
Located eighty kilometers from Shanghai and only eighteen kilometers from Suzhou, Tongli is easily accessible and overall traveling expenses are very low. The place is only an hour and a half from Shanghai by bus. Buses (reasonably clean and comfortable) leave at 9:00 a.m. from Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Staircase 5, Gate 12, Shanghai Stadium, No. 666 Tianyaoqiao Road; 天钥桥路666号上海体育场12号门5号扶梯下上海旅游集散中心; tel.: +86 (0) 21 6426 5555). Return buses depart from Tongli at 4:00 p.m. The price is RMB120 (inclusive of return bus ride as well as entrance to Tongli, several halls and Tuisi Garden) if you return to Shanghai on the same day; if you choose to stay overnight, the price is RMB140 (inclusive of the same items; accommodation has to be arranged and paid for separately).
Accommodation and where/what to eat
If you would like to stay overnight (for the reasons outlined below) there are quite a few guesthouses (reasonably clean and comfortable) available and prices range from RMB50 to RMB100 per night; hotels are available, too. As anywhere else in China, there are many relatively cheap restaurants. I recommend trying Zhuangyuan Pig's Upper Leg (状元蹄), which is a local specialty and tastes great. Gao li xia ren (糕里虾仁), San si yu quan (三丝鱼卷) and Xiang you shan hu(响油鳝糊) are often named as main specialties, too.
On your first trip I suggest initially taking a walk around to familiarise yourself with the place. Tongli is quite small and it will take approximately half an hour. After that you can concentrate on photographing the subjects and locations that you find of most interest. Note that Tongli is famous for "one garden, two halls and three bridges" - namely, Tuisi Garden (退思远), Chongben and Jiayin Halls (崇本堂和嘉荫堂) and Taiping, Jili and Changqing Bridges (太平、吉利、长庆三桥). Do not forget to pay attention to the direction and quality of ambient light as it changes through the day and adjust shooting angles accordingly.
In late autumn, winter and early spring the sun is not so harsh at midday and one can photograph during the entire (albeit somewhat short) day. Due to this, a one day trip is suggested during these seasons.
If you visit in summer, however, I recommend undertaking a two-day expedition. Most importantly, the contrast is too high to take pictures in the hours around noontime and the best idea is to photograph for about three hours before sunset on the first day and then for about three hours after sunrise on the second day. The two-day approach will also allow you to avoid crowds of tourists and commercial activities that one inevitably runs into between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you think the last point is important, you should then consider the two-day approach in seasons other than summer, too.
Best time of the year to visit
Generally, any time of the year is suitable and the main difference is going to be in the quality of ambient light and the hours most suitable for photography. I suggest choosing the time of your visit(s) depending on whether you travel to Shanghai to specifically see all the places of interest in its vicinity or if you live in the city. If you are based in Shanghai then you can travel to the water towns whenever you see fit choosing one or two day approach depending on whether you go in summer or winter. Otherwise, however, you probably will not have the luxury of being able to spend two days in every water town and spending one full day in each or some of them would be a more reasonable tactic. In case of the latter visiting in winter is certainly preferable as ambient light is more suitable to photograph throughout the day.
Sunset and sunrise
I could not find any interesting locations to photograph at sunrise and sunset. The time when the sun is near the horizon is primarily precious for the softer ambient light.
Photo and other gear recommendations
This is a very personal issue. Tongli, however, is a fairly cramped town and you are likely to need a wide-angle lens (zoom or fixed focal length). This being said, you might want to try different approaches to push your creativity as I did in this and this essay. A panoramic camera (or technique) might prove very useful, too. Tripod is a must as in many situations you will be shooting at small apertures to maximize depth of field, which will require using slower shutter speeds.
Issues to be aware of
Tongli is a popular tourist destination; it gets quite crowded (not to mention more expensive) on weekends and literally packed during public holidays. It is highly recommended to visit during weekdays; avoid going during public holidays at all costs.
The six major water towns in Jiangnan area are Xitang (西塘), Zhouzhuang (周庄), Wuzhen (乌镇), Tongli (同理), Nanxun (南浔) and Luzhi (甪直). They are quite similar yet very different and, if possible, I recommend visiting all of them. If, however, time is a factor then I suggest visiting as many as you can/wish in the above sequence (which happens to be my personal ranking of them).