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Tongli’s Champion Trotters 状元蹄

 I’m floating down a narrow canal on a broad, flat wooden boat, a gondolier standing behind me using a sturdy single oar to guide along the waterways. The water is a deep dark green, reflecting the weeping willows and cherry trees blossoming along the banks as we pass under ancient stone bridges. 
I’m back in the quiet, relaxing canal town of Tongli, having a post-lunch boat ride down some of Tongli’s tree-lined waterways. My younger sister and her family are visiting China for a couple of weeks, and Tongli seemed like the perfect short break – an hour and a half from Shanghai and you feel like you’ve entered an ancient world of cobblestone lanes and life more simply lived.

For me, the other major attraction of a visit to Tongli is the zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄 or “champion trotter” – Tongli’s main attraction for food-lovers. I appreciate any food that’s been given the name of “champion”although I would probably call it something more poetic, like “five-spice braised pork shank”, just to avoid confusion and whet your appetite.
A whole pork shank, skin on, is gently braised until it is as tender as butter, then served up in a large bowl with a generous ladle of the sweet aromatic soy and star anise sauce. The meat, being cooked on the bone, is intensely flavoured and rich, but falls away at the slightest touch. 
The best way to eat a champion trotter is sitting by the water in one of the many tiny open-air restaurants lining the two main canals. Don’t worry about which one is best – they are all essentially identical with their indigo blue tablecloths, old wicker chairs, and a menu of local specialty dishes including crispy fried river fish, and cucumber with garlic. The best accompaniment to a whole trotter is cold beer and a big appetite.
As you eat the boats ply up and down and the gondoliers occasionally break into song, with a rendition of old favourite “Moli Hua” or a “Welcome to Tongli” song. 

After lunch, wander through the town’s many small lanes or beautiful gardens and buy yourself a little something – it’s a food tourist’s kind of place, and all the souvenirs you can buy are of the edible kind – a box of home-made sesame brittle toffees, a basket of local goose eggs, or another couple of champion trotters, vacuum sealed, ready to eat.
Tongli is best reached by private car (one and a half hours from Shanghai), although a bus leaves several times daily from Shanghai Indoor Stadium.
We have stayed more than a dozen times now at the Gufeng Yuan Guest House (Gufeng Yuan Kezhan 古风园客栈) which is clean, quiet and looks onto a beautiful garden courtyard. It has lovely old furniture in the rooms and starts at 100 yuan/night ($16/night) for an ensuite room. 
Tongli Champion Trotters (zhuàngyuan tí 状元蹄) start at 48 – 58 yuan each for takeaway, expect to pay 60-70 yuan in local restaurants.

The Basket Maker

I find it impossible to resist anything that has been made by hand, particularly if it involves an unusual skill, like shoemaking, or constructing wooden birdcages; or if I can sit and watch someone at work, seeing something unfold piece by piece before my eyes.

Every time I visit Tongli I stand and watch this clever basket-maker. He is about sixty years old, with a little grey hair coming in, but with the hands of a much younger man – fast, deft, and unwavering. He takes a long quiver of split bamboo, and starting at the base he folds and weaves a hexagonal pattern that brings each basket into existence. They are simple household objects, yet true things of beauty – all over Tongli I see his handiwork, holding goose eggs, filled to the brim with vegetables straight from the garden, or overflowing with washing.

Of course I buy several. I take two flat woven bamboo mats, for placing in the tray of my steamer, a basket in which to keep my collection of small Chinese hand-made shoes, and two large, flat woven six-sided trays about a metre across. These are used for drying and preserving vegetables, or drying tea, and they have a 6-pointed bamboo star on their underside as reinforcing. There won’t be a lot of vegetable drying going on in my house in Shanghai, but I buy them anyway. Too beautiful to pass up, the locals think it hilarious that a foreigner has burdened herself with these large unwieldy bamboo trays, as I struggle with them back to the car. I wonder I could make my own dried vegetable pickles….?

This is one of many posts about the water town of Tongli outside Shanghai.
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Take-Away Chicken, Tongli

Gives a new meaning to plastic-wrapped chicken, doesn’t it? What amazes me is that the chicken seemed quite unbothered by the indignity of being trussed up in a green plastic bag on a scooter. I guess half an hour after this photo was taken it would pale into insignificance compared with the indignity of having your head chopped off. Chicken hot-pot anyone?

Tongli Farm House Food

One side effect of Shanghai Expo is that I’m having loads of visitors from home. Usually, once they realise what a behemoth the Expo actually is, they decide not to attend and are left with a one-day hole in their itinerary. 

How to fill it? You could go shopping, but often, exhausted by constant, heart-stopping, life-changing shopping, they need a breather and request somewhere quiet and a bit, well, cultured. They often want to visit a water-town, and I have found that Tongli never disappoints. It is small, quaint and quiet, has beautiful scenery and canals, a few small museums (including the famous museum of Sex Culture), wonderful food and is only an hour and a half from Shanghai.

So yesterday I was back in Tongli, where the locals are beginning to wonder if I’m some sort of covert tour guide. They eye me suspiciously as I follow a now well-worn path from the Pearl Pagoda to the Garden of Seclusion and Meditation, on to the Gengle Hall, then straight to my favourite canal-side restauarant, Farm House Food. That’s the proprietor above, watching over proceedings from a comfortable chair. To be honest most of the canal restaurants are almost identical, but Farm House Food has three important things that set it apart from the others.

Firstly, the location is prime – it sits alongside the junction of two canals so all the pleasure boats pass by right next to your table, with blue nankeen coated boat-women on board rhythmically pulling at the single oar.
Secondly, the food is pretty delicious. They of course serve up Tongli’s famous special dish, Wan san pork – a softer-than-pate slow-braised pork shank everyone on the planet, even vegetarians, should have a chance to try, and a favourite only those with a taste for adventure should try – the whole fried small fish. Their cute little eyes stare at you as you bite off their delicious heads, and their salty, crunchy bones go well with a long cold beer.
Lastly, this lovely lady will serenade you with Chinese folk songs as you eat, for the princely sum of 10 kuai. Many would pay more than that to have her go away and let them eat in peace, but I love her warbling vice, her heart-felt rendition of Moli Hua, and her towel. 

Haircut, Tongli Style

As if in direct contrast to my recent haircut in a swanky Chinese salon in Shanghai, Matt decided to go to a canal-side street barber while we were in Tongli. He was a very kindly fellow with a fancy comb-over, and he only charged 30 yuan ($5) for a wash, cut and blow-dry. First of all he took great care washing Matt’s head over an enamel basin using a small scrubbing brush and a cake of soap, then after blowing his 4mm long hair dry, cut and clippered it with great speed, care and precision.

Despite the worrying arrangement of piggy-backed powerpoints and cords going everywhere, no electrocutions occurred during clippering, and Matt walked away with hair exactly 2mm shorter than before, and a head smelling like carbolic. 

Tongli Water Town

We escaped Shanghai this weekend for Tongli – a beautiful water town just an hour and a half away. Everyone who visits Shanghai for more than a few days wants to see a water town and they are all equally charming as a day trip. But the real beauty of Tongli lies in the fact that it is just a little further from Shanghai than the others, so it attracts slightly fewer visitors, and after the day-trippers go home in the afternoon you can have the place to yourself.  

The ancient village of Tongli was built around a maze of small canals, and connected with the Grand Canal linking Hangzhou and Beijing. Everyday life centres around the canals now just as it did then, with clothes being washed, fish being caught and ducks being plucked and gutted by the water’s edge.

In the afternoon’s soft sunlight you can wander lazily along the many canals, drink some oolong tea then stop for a delicious dinner at any of the outdoor restaurants lining the canals. By the light of a red lantern you can appreciate the local specialty – Wansan pork. I am embarrassed to say I ate it three times in less than thirty-six hours. It’s a pork shank cooked slowly in a sweet aromatic soy braise until the meat is ready to fall off the bone, and it is best savoured whilst also enjoying an ice-cold tsingtao beer as the stars come out and the oars of the pleasure boats dip quietly in and out of the water.

Tongli Washday

Saturday is washday in Tongli, the same as every other place in China. The difference in Tongli is that instead of a tub in the kitchen, you just take your tub down to the water’s edge in the canal. Despite the murky water the clothes come out looking surprisingly clean, from a distance. Then, hang your washing up on the path outside your house, using a string strung between any two adjacent uprights – trees, poles, scaffolding etc. I guess you shouldn’t be too embarrassed about the neighbours seeing your daggy baggy undies, and that bra with the hole in it….because you can see theirs.

Braised Tongli Pork…..Dribbling Yet?

Never, ever visit Tongli without trying their version of Wansan pork. You will regret it for the rest of your days. This slow-cooked, sweet, meltingly tender bit of pig’s leg can be carved with a spoon, or a single chopstick, depending on your preference. It’s that tender. If you want to relive the experience at home, back in your poky Shanghai kitchen, you can buy a take-away leg or three from one of the many vendors lining the last street in Tongli before you leave. Try not to open the foil bag and eat it on the way home………….

Tongli Wedding

We just spent a weekend in Tongli – it’s a small town west of Shanghai with a maze of small canals and old stone houses. Despite the bitter cold a happy wedding group set off to the ear-splitting sound of hundreds of confetti fire-crackers, followed by an entourage of friends and family as they walked beside the canal on their way to good food and a day of celebration.

Now, in Tongli there are 49 stone bridges criss-crossing the canals, but three are particularly famous – the Taiping (peace) bridge, the Jili (luck) bridge and the Changqing (celebration) bridge. Newlyweds should walk over all three to guarantee a long and harmonious marriage filled with good fortune.