I’m not sure many people have heard of a supposed Venice of the East, I surely hadn’t. In fact, I accidentally stumbled across it when I opened my Lonely Planet guide on the wrong page. Having only experienced high-rise buildings, thick smog and constant noise pollution since arriving in Beijing, I found it hard to believe that a tiny pocket of ancient China still exists just 6hrs south of the city. Suddenly I craved the water-flooded alleyways and the bike-free streets. I wanted to step back in time and get a feel for this counties heritage before modern architecture took over; and so I headed for the ancient water towns of Suzhou and Tongli.
Stepping from the metro station it was clear which way to head, purely from the mass of guided tours, idly waving their flags around to keep track of their sheep. It soon occured to me however, that although I was now playing a tourist role, all wide-eyed with a rucksack on my back, I was in fact still a minority. That is of course, of the western variety. Surrounding me were tourists from all over China and as a result the staring continued as I waddled around oblivious of what anyone was saying – a strange kind of comfort I have become used to these past months.
After walking the main streets where the usual souvenir phenomena could be found, I ducked down a twisting alleyway to escape the crowds. This is where I found what I had envisioned.
Local people went about their usual business – hanging washing in the street, napping on a bench, washing dishes in the canal – and as I strolled through, no one seemed to bat an eye. The houses stood crooked, paint flaking from the walls and some even without doors, but a certain charm radiated from every direction and I stood there for a moment enjoying the quiet, brushing my feet across the cobbled path.
Soon enough my movements brought me to the outskirts of the town and I found myself thrown back into the 21st Century. All that stood between the two was an erected archway and a small sign that welcomed visitors to Shantan, a seven mile long street that follows the canal, veering off in many directions. Facing one way, my vision was invaded by busy roads and apartment blocks that got lost in the sky. Turn around and wide cobbled streets, Chinese pagodas and ancient bridges enticed me forward; a surreal reality I found hard to grasp.
I spotted a Cat Cafe (something of a craze in Asia) and decided to use this as an excuse to wait out the remaining daylight hours. Inside I chose a spot amongst the lazy felines, most of which were taking their afternoon nap. I found myself watching the people more than the animals; their choice of entertainment – capturing selfies with sleeping cats – as coffee cups collected hair, was most amusing.
As night fell, I couldn’t resist re-walking the streets. Completely absorbed in the light and reflection of the water, I forgot about dinner and soon realised this was why the streets were so empty. Having met my three hostel room-mates and deciding pretty quickly that they spoke no English, I found a quiet restaurant on the water and sat watching passersby, enjoying time to myself in a part of China I feel I can finally relate to; the Venice of the East.