A photographer, his camera, a backpack, two years, one country, 56 cultures, 1.3 billion people, 33 provinces and 56,000 kilometers.
Tom Carter has seen a whole lot of China. After two years traveling the country, taking over 10,000 portraits of people he encountered along the way, Tom recently published a 640-page book of 800 color photographs. His aim was to capture the spirit of China through images and dispel the stereotypes of the Chinese as a homogeneous single nationality.
Traveling by the cheapest modes of transport available and sleeping in RMB-15-a-night guesthouses, the American photographer lived side by side with the ordinary people of China. CHINA: Portrait of a People is the culmination of his hard work, his passion for travel, his eye for detail and his genuine curiosity.
Tom kindly took the time to answer my questions about what it's like to travel in China for two years. I just couldn't resist the "Jack Kerouac" question, the "disgusting food" question, the "what's in your bag" question and of course, the "why China" question. He humored me. Read on. It's been quite the journey....What style of traveler would you describe yourself? Why do you love to travel? Why China?
I identify with the backpacker set, but I drift around China more like a migrant peasant worker. Though “author” and “photojournalist” sounds romantic and glamorous, my lifestyle is clearly more indicative of a tramp than an armchair traveler. This isn’t intentional, mind you. I just happen to be perpetually insolvent, yet I refuse to let this stop me from seeing the world, so the final result is this kind of vagrant wanderlust. And my new book CHINA: Portrait of a People is a product of that result.
I blame my parents entirely for my nomadic tendencies, as they were both also wandering immigrants who met in the great American melting pot of San Francisco, then passed their émigré blood on to me. But I have come to truly love traveling, because I learned from growing up in a multicultural city that no civilization is entirely homogenous. It’s vital in this age to understand the global scene, for what occurs on one side of the world will ultimately impact the other side. I’m not endorsing globalism; I am endorsing awareness and respect. And I think backpacking leads to awareness more than any other kind of travel. It’s associated with the younger crowd, but I have met several elderly backpackers and backpacking families who sold the SUV so they could travel in China for several months, and I applaud them.
I am convinced that China is one of the world’s best nations to travel, as it provides a broad spectrum of cultures, geography and history that one would normally have to circumnavigate an entire continent for. And as it is still a developing country, the affordability of travel in China is unrivaled. Of course I didn’t know any of this when I first arrived in China as an English teacher in 2004. All my knowledge and travel advice is the culmination of almost half a decade of first-hand experiences across China.
What are some destinations in China, often overlooked on the usual travelers map, that were your favorites? What parts of China surprised you the most?
I was truly surprised to find that every Chinese province has distinct terrain and architecture as well as unique culture. China is like 33 siblings, sharing the same blood yet each with their own personalities and appearance. But it takes a discerning traveler to uncover this dissimilarity; if you just breeze through the usual tourist highlights, of course you’ll miss it.
I have an affinity for old Chinese villages, so I made it a point to pass through as many as I could. The slate rooftop vista of Lijiang in Yunnan or the antiquated watertowns of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province as well as Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu and Fenghuang in Hunan are “must-see” villages even for one-week vacationers. However, they are protected heritage sites that have been restored and commercialized; they are beautiful but they lack the dusty character that I personally appreciate. Plus the droves of red-hat wearing Chinese tour groups tend to get in the way of the view.
For a glimpse into ancient China minus the souvenir stands, go backpacking around the Miao-Dong Autonomous Region (Qiándōngnán Miáozú Dòngzúzìzhìzhōu, 黔东南苗族侗族自治州) in east Guizhou, the tulou Hakka earth buildings in southern Fujian, the Tibetan shanties of Langmusi in south Gansu, or the stunning Qing Dynasty villages that dot southern Anhui/northern Jiangxi provinces. It’s like a living, breathing scroll painting. You need to move fast, though; there’s an old Chinese saying I made up that goes “village China does not commercialize is village China will bulldoze.” Like 1,700 year-old Gongtan in Chongqing, submerged last year for a hydro power plant. Luckily, I got there just as everyone was moving out; you can see these heartbreaking photos in CHINA: Portrait of a People.
You’ve taken some stunning portraits of Chinese people. Tell us a bit about the challenges and delights of photographing strangers. Any tips on getting great photos of people?
The title of my photobook, CHINA: Portrait of a People, came after the fact; following my first trip around China I realized that a majority of my images were of people rather than places. This probably happened because I was spending most of my time people-watching and interacting with the locals, which is something I really love about China – the people are just so gosh-darned friendly. It was a rare day that I ever met a shy Chinese person or one who didn’t insist on inviting me inside for tea and chatting, even if we couldn’t understand each other. They were simply as curious about my appearance and lifestyle as I was of theirs.
I was originally going to title my book CHINA: Watching Me Watch Them because that’s exactly how I spent most of my time. To this end, the delights of photography in China far outweigh the challenges, which are minimal yet severe. The Chinese authorities are very protective, and they will not hesitate to confront a Westerner they catch taking pictures of “negative” things, such as poor people, demolition, police or political activity and even drying laundry.
My tips for photographing people are obvious yet effective: Make friends first, then your great people picture will come after. Language skills are not imperative; a warm smile can be understood universally. Also, don’t be bashful; I always wonder at the tourists who take a picture of someone’s back at ten feet away because they were too hesitant to approach the subject and ask them to pose.
Lastly, many peasants in rural China rarely if ever have the opportunity to see themselves on film. If you have a digital camera, take a moment to show them your snapshot; it will make their day! And even better, get their address and send them a printed copy later; I’ll bet you that photo gets framed and placed in the center of their living room wall.
You must have tasted a lot of odd foods in your travels throughout China. What is the most disgusting thing you have ever eaten?
I am self-exempted from this question because I have been a vegetarian for 20 years, so my knowledge of Chinese cuisine is admittedly limited. Truthfully, I regret not being able to sample all of China’s varied victuals, as I subsist primarily on tofu and vegetables, but for me seeing is often enough.
Take a stroll down Qingping Shichang market in Guangdong and the axiom “people from Guangzhou will eat anything from the sky or the earth” will be seared into your mind forever. Westerners need to keep in mind that the term “disgusting” is subjective; most Chinese think eating cheese is “disgusting” just as we think of fish eyeballs, which is in fact a delicacy in China. And whenever my Chinese girlfriend and I watch (pirated) DVDs together, she insists nibbling on pickled chicken feet and spicy duck neck; she doesn’t like popcorn!
What about danger? Were there moments when you felt unsafe? What were the greates dangers you encountered? What were some of your most trying moments?
It’s vital that tourists coming to China know that the P.R.C. is one of the safest countries in the entire world. Besides boasting one of the lowest crime rates, Chinese-on-foreigner violence rarely occurs. This is as a result of strict Communist law-enforcement, one of those policies that the West would do well to study. Unfortunately, the typical Chinese person’s attitude about crime is to turn a blind eye and let the police handle it. So thieves are rampant in China because they know nobody will say anything.
One day I saw a pickpocket trying to snatch a woman’s purse, and I half-nelsoned him while yelling for someone to call the cops. A crowd gathered around me wondering what the hell I was doing holding this man, and even the lady was so embarrassed she didn’t even thank me.
Another time in Beijing, I caught three guys trying to pickpocket me by boxing me in; I punched one of them clear out the door and followed after them to see if they wanted more, three against one. They were petrified that one of their marks was actually fighting back and ran off like dogs.
But I haven’t always been so lucky. One late night at a cheap hotel in Chongqing a group of drunk Chinese guys in the next room were being really obnoxious. I asked them to be quiet, but it turned into another 4-way fistfight. This time I lost, and found myself on the ground getting kicked in my head. The funny thing about that incident is as their shoes were smashing into my cheekbones, I remember glancing around for help, and I saw a two security guards just standing there watching, like television.
But such situations are few and far between; if a Western tourist doesn’t flaunt their wealth, minds their own business and keeps a tight grip on their bags, then really they should never have any problems. Even dark alleys after midnight are safe in China!
What are some unexpected circumstances that would found yourself in?
These stories really upset my mom, but I like to tell them anyway. My first year in China I caught encephalitis, which is a life-threatening viral infection that attacks the brain. It really hurts, and you die in like seven days from catching it. I felt like crap for two days before I knew something was seriously wrong, so that means I had less than a week to live.
Moments like this give you a new perspective on life. I’ll never know, but I think I caught the encephalitis from mosquitoes; it was entirely my fault because I couldn’t afford the vaccination before I left. No, scratch that, I blame the U.S. government for making vaccinations so expensive; they should be free! Anyhow, it must have been the most exciting thing to ever happen in that small town, because while I was hospitalized they sent in a reporter to take my picture and cover the story in the local state-run newspaper.
Other unexpected situations I found myself in China include the number of times I have been confronted by hostile local police for taking photos where I oughtn’t. One of the most intimidating times was when I accidentally stumbled upon a peasant riot in Hunan.
Any kind of political demonstration or uprising in China is illegal, and so is taking pictures of it. As a photojournalist I couldn’t resist however, but a little while later I was surrounded by undercover police demanding I turn over my photos lest I disappear in the Chinese penal system for an indefinite period of time. A few photos still exist (not saying how) and you can see them in CHINA: Portrait of a People.
And my most unexpected moment occurred while I and another backpacker were hiking around Changbaishan Mountain (Chángbái Shān, 长白山) in north China’s Jilin Province. It was the dead of winter and I was crossing the frozen crater lake at the top; there was absolutely nobody else on that mountain, or so we thought. The next moment two DPRK soldiers appeared out of the snow pointing their submachine guns at us. Apparently, we had accidentally crossed over the North Korean border. Showing them our American passports didn’t help matters any. It took a tin of communist-rolled Cuban cigars to persuade them to let us go back to China.
What are some tips you might give for a traveler who wants budget, long-haul travel around China?
Some of my ideas about budget travel in China might not be consistent with what the CNTA (China National Tourism Administration) prescribes. Chinese authorities prefer to keep a close eye on tourists and journalists, but I became a bit of a ghost while I was backpacking so I could navigate off the radar, which had its pros and cons. I’ll offer some suggestions, though I take no responsibility for their outcome.
First of all, China usually only grants one-to-three month visas, though staying in China for an extended period of time requires at least a one-year visa. Anything less and you're going to have the pressure of constantly making it back to the border on time, which gets expensive. The ways to skirt this are either arrive in China with a job contract that sponsors your one-year visa (such as teaching English), then quit. Or take advantage of one of the many unofficial Chinese visa services that advertise online; for a tidy sum they will use their guanxi (backroom relationships) to arrange a year-long visa with multiple re-entries.
Also, last-minute train tickets are hard to come by, especially during the Golden Week holidays. If you absolutely must get on that train, most foreigners are unaware that they can purchase a standing ticket (zhan piao), then sleep in the aisle or on the luggage racks or bathroom sink like I’ve witnessed many people do. The other alternative for long-distance travel are sleeper busses (coaches with beds); 99% of backpackers I’ve talked to were oblivious to this method of transportation. But I should say that some of these sleeper busses are real heaps, like the one I was stuck on for 3 days to get across west Tibet. It crawled at like 5 kilometers an hour (3 mph), it broke down in the middle of the night a couple times and all the other passengers on the bus were smoking for 72 solid hours; I was coughing up blood by the time I escaped.
And speaking of Tibet, flying into Lhasa or taking the new railway are secure ways of traveling in the T.A.R., but for a real adventure, and at a fraction of the cost, hitchhike in from northern Yunnan across the Kham region. This will also allow you to bypass the mythical “Tibet Tourist Visa” that so many travelers worry about. (Editor's note: Restrictions have gotten stricter since 2008 when this was first published. Check out our Tibet travel permit guide.)
What else… many national parks in China are terribly expensive, such as Zhangjiajie or Jiuzhaigou. But most have student discounts; a real student ID is best, though sometimes your driver’s license works just as well *wink wink*. Most food in China is affordable and abundant, but if you are really hurting for cash, then a steady diet of street food such as chuanr kabobs and malatang communal hotpot and will keep you alive for just a few RMB (it helps to have an iron stomach).
As for hotels, international youth hostels are becoming more popular across China, especially in the tourist cities, which save you an immense amount of money plus allow you to interact with other backpackers and get lots of travel information; be sure to sign up for the HI or YHA membership card first and you’ll get even more of a discount.
However in remote towns and out-of-the-way stops, I’m all about "flophouses" (lǚguǎn, 旅馆) that can be found orbiting train and bus stations. The walls are cardboard, the sheets are soiled and safety and security are iffy, but at RMB 15 per night, it’s a budget traveler’s best friend. The only problem is these are illegal for foreigners to stay in, so you have to be discreet about it.
And last but not least: everything in China is negotiable! You are expected to negotiate and fight about the price; if you don’t, you’ll lose face and won’t even know it. The golden rule is at least half the original price.
What are ten things in your backpack that you found most useful on the road?
The cool thing about traveling in China is not only that everything in the world is made here, but it only costs a fraction of what it does in the West. Clothes and accessories are abundant at every stop, so backpackers can travel light and literally pick up what they need along the way. However, some things should be permanent:
Books. I actually enjoy reading the brittle, classic English literature that lines the shelves of Xinhua, but sometimes I need a good dose of contemporary reading. A solid third of my backpack remains filled with books. Most Chinese bus drivers can’t lift my pack because it is so heavy.
iPod. I am an unabashed fan of Chinese pop music, and have over a gig’s worth on my iTunes. But what drives me insane is when a bus or train or restaurant in China puts one particular song on repeat the entire time—and blasts it at full volume. It’s at these times that I must insulate myself with my headphones.
Sarong. As feminine as this sounds, it really is an all-purpose item. It rolls up tight, and when unraveled one can use it as a beach blanket, a bath towel, keeping warm when the train aircon is stuck on high (which happens frequently), as a bed sheet in place of soiled lüguan linen, or on those nights when you have to sleep on bus-station floors or in a ditch.
Tissue packs and wet wipes. For anyone who has ever glimpsed a Chinese toilet; no need to go into detail.
Vitamins. Long-term traveling in a developing country takes a toll on one’s health. And as a vegetarian, I am especially vulnerable. So I keep a big Costco-size bottle of multi-vitamins in my pack.
Ear-plugs and sleeping eye-patch. Hotel guests in China tend to fall asleep with their televisions on full-blast, and the walls are thin. Or when taking an overnight train on the hard seat, the lights remain on. I depend on both of these things if I want to actually sleep.
Avon Skin So Soft. Another feminine product I have co-opted as essential travel gear. Ever since I caught encephalitis my first year in China, I have been quite mistrustful of mosquitoes. Skin So Soft repels mosquitoes as good as DEET, minus the toxic side-effects. Plus it keeps my skin supple and sensual *grin*.
Airplane pillow. Next time you catch a plane, swipe one of those mini-pillows from the over-head; your airfare covers the cost so it’s not really stealing! These pillows are light and compact and oh-so-much more preferable to those bean-bags they call pillows at Chinese hotels.
Bicycle cable lock. Can be purchased for just a few RMB at any Chinese bike stand, and quite practical when you want to stash your bag somewhere or crash out on the bus or train without worrying about your stuff getting lifted.
Matang (Xinjiang dessert). Nut-fruit-nougat cake, aka Muslim trail mix. A must-have for hiking up sacred mountains or long, inter-provincial bus rides. I always buy a brick-size portion of mátáng (麻糖) whenever I see Uyghur street vendors, and it has a shelf-life of at least a year so you can just keep it in your pack until your next trip. Be forewarned—it’s pricey, and the Uyghur drive a hard bargain!
Who is your favorite travel writer?
Two authors that without a doubt fuel my travels are Jack Kerouac, who wrote the seminal On The Road, a result of seven years of wandering during the 1950s. Even more inspirational to me is a less-celebrated historical-fiction author named Gary Jennings, whom I really admire as both a world explorer and storyteller. Jennings penned an epic, 800-page monster titled Aztec, about a young Aztec named Dark Cloud who spends his life exploring pre-conquest Mexico.
Jennings traveled around Mexico for over a decade to research Aztec. His second novel, the equally-long and ambitious The Journeyer, retraces Marco Polo’s adventures across Asia and into China. I read this book several times over while backpacking in China, and I am quite certain it had a profoundly subconscious effect on own odyssey.
How did you deal with loneliness while traveling for so long outside of your comfort zone in a very different culture from what you are accustomed?
Xiaojie hair-salon girls? Heh heh, just kidding. No, but seriously, it’s hard to feel lonely in a country of 1.3 billion people. In fact, one of the classic challenges for a foreigner traveling across China on the hard seat of a peasant train is getting all those curious, good-natured passengers to please stop talking to you or offering you smokes and baijiu so you can just chill out with a book. I delight interacting with people, and 90% of my traveling I am doing so, but I also value my “me” time.
So I welcome a little loneliness now and then. Nonetheless, I was backpacking alone in China for one year, but my second spin around my girlfriend accompanied me, and we were on the road together 24/7, also for year. One of the reasons I invited her to come with me is because, despite my independent tendencies, I concede that sometimes it’s nice to have someone to share your happiness with.
What photo would you have liked to have taken but couldn’t for whatever reason?
The camera I was using—an old-school digital point and shoot—had its limitations, so naturally I missed a lot of candid shots that required rapid shutter release, low-light abilities or a telephoto lens. But this just forced me to get up close and personal with my subjects (for the portraits I was as near to them as you see in the photo, just centimeters away), so CHINA: Portrait of a People ironically benefited from my limitations.
Conversely, some photos were simply impossible to capture. For example, to commemorate the 2007 lucky Year of the Pig-babies, I wanted to photograph a live birth. Some people will think that sounds demented, but as a photojournalist I felt it was a very important image to include in the book. I tried countless ways to access hospitals or make arrangements with pregnant families, but this being China, most were dead-set against my presence.
Instead I settled on photographing a pregnant woman, which itself was also quite difficult. The very-pregnant lady you see on page 417 (Hebei) I met accidentally while walking around, long after I had given up on the idea. I asked her to pose semi-nude Demi Moore style, but she—understandably—refused.
What would you say are the benefits of slow travel?
Vacationers who pass through entire countries in record time just so they can check it off on a list and say they “did it” are missing the whole point of travel. Slow travel really allows you to immerse yourself and live and breathe a new culture. It generally depends on one’s nationality, however.
For example, the British are instinctive world-travelers, and I really admire them for taking a year or two off after high school or college to see the world before jumping into a career. I also meet a lot of Israeli backpackers who spend extended periods of time backpacking around, and I’m sure this has something to do with the situation in their homeland. Conversely, Japanese and Americans are very nationalistic and insulated and prefer short bursts of luxury vacation, rather than down-and-dirty budget travel. And the Chinese themselves are infamous for preferring pre-packed holiday tours where everything has been decided for them.
Some people will complain that you need a lot of money to travel slowly, but I am living proof that this is a myth; you just need to be resourceful, and have a keen sense of frugality.
What are your future plans?
I’m preparing a Portrait of a People book project for a new country as we speak and am actively seeking a camera sponsor to do so. I’m also writing a couple fiction novels about China in my free time. China will always have a special place in my heart, and as my new adopted homeland I feel that it is a country I can always return to.
Photos © 2008 by Tom Carter