Tom Carter's Blog: Travel Photographer Tom Carter | On the CHINA Road - Posts Tagged "backpacking"

The Skinny on Teaching English in China
By Tom Carter

Having little luck finding an attractive job offer in the U.S. in 2004, I decided to take my skills where they were wanted — abroad.

Enticed by the “Teach English in China — No Experience Necessary” ads saturating the online classifieds, I emailed my resume with one hand and packed my bags with the other. I had no idea what to expect, but then, the great unknown can be what makes a job like teaching English in the People’s Republic so appealing.

As the world’s largest economy opens to foreign investment, education has become one of China’s thriving sectors. Confucius probably wouldn’t stand for it, but he wasn’t wearing pinstripe suits and driving a shiny black sedan. The country may be Communist in theory, but the renminbi — Chinese currency — is emperor.

A Chinese adage says that the best advice is often born from the most challenging experiences. After three years helping the sons and daughters of Han learn English, I’ve had my share. Westerners looking to teach in China may want to consider the following before packing their bags.

Some foreign English teachers may be shanghaied at least once during their time in China. Baiting unsuspecting Westerners to China with false promises of a high salary, deluxe apartment, airfare reimbursement, visa or other incentives is a common online scam. Blame it on temptation. Often Chinese laws are too fluid and relationships (”guanxi” in Mandarin) with authorities too intimate, leaving some foreigners with little protection against scams.

The moment I arrived in the Middle Kingdom I had what some seasoned expatriates call “the complete Chinese experience.” The “school” that had accepted my application turned out to be a nickel-and-dime operation run out of an apartment by a guy in his bathrobe. I’d come half way around the world for a job and found myself out of work.

I was literally lost in translation. Despair and a desire to return home to Mom set in. But I quickly learned that, commensurate with its sizeable population, China has a profusion of kindergarten, primary, middle and high schools and universities in even the most remote cities. In short order, I wound up with a position and salary more attractive than the one I had originally accepted.

Chinese parents may work night and day to pay for pricey English lessons so that their child can get a head start in this competitive society of 1.3 billion. Unfortunately, academics are not an issue to many of China’s new educational entrepreneurs who put profit before curriculum and quality. Classroom experience and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification is nice, but in many cases a Western face is all a native English speaker needs to land a teaching job in China.

In more reputable schools, most prospective English teachers don’t have it so easy. I endured a weeklong interview process, including a series of teaching demonstrations before 300 stern-looking parents, all while I was still jetlagged and suffering from culture shock. I must have done something right, because I was chosen to teach at a top school in the province.

Being rice-wined and dined by my prospective employer over 30-course banquet dinners did not distract me from negotiating a fair salary. Many foreigners (”laowai”) prefer to live in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing or Shanghai than a small town such as the one I had chosen, and I was able to use this preference as leverage during contract discussions. All deals in China, like the price of fruit at the marketplace, can be negotiated.

Most English teachers in China needn’t speak Mandarin in the classroom. Instead, we instruct students through a process of language immersion and simulation, which in time invariably leads to proficiency. Diligence and a little creativity are all that are really needed, but like performing on stage five times a day, it takes its toll.

Over the next few years, I would meet a number of disappointed young Westerners who came overseas as English teachers expecting to party all night and spend their free time pursuing adventures in the countryside. That, I would tell them, is a lifestyle for tourists, exchange students and embassy brats, not the hardworking teacher.

As a foreign expert English instructor, I’m scheduled for up to 30 classes a week and spend most of my free time planning lessons. I’m up at dawn with the older folks practicing their Tai Chi and not back home until after 10 p.m., about when the migrant construction workers also are getting off work.

I never thought I’d be an educator. I didn’t like most of my teachers when I was a kid. Teachers the world over are typically low paid, overworked and underappreciated. But the fatigue and the hit on my income — compared to what I might earn in the U.S. — are what I pay for being part of a rapidly-changing China. As it turned out, I’m not so bad in front of the chalkboard — I actually like it.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
Longji Titian - the Dragon's Backbone
by Tom Carter

It is hard to imagine anywhere in the People's Republic untouched by civil engineers, the levelers of history. But truly nowhere else in China has life remained perfectly intact - culturally and naturally - as on the Dragon's Backbone in the rural villages of Longsheng county is southwest China.

While Guangxi Autonomous Region's one-two punch of geological wonders are provincial sites that should not be missed - Guilin for the red hat-wearing Chinese tour groups and Yangshuo for Western backpackers - Longji Titian is an ideal place for those who cherish rural tranquility and solitude.

Indeed, to get to the Dragon's Backbone one must ascend dizzying heights (the highest in southern China), and enter a mystical fog that removes everything travelers know about modern China, placing you in a time when people were one with the good earth.

No white tile buildings in sight, the pastoral villages, namely Dazai and Ping'an, are constructed entirely of two and three story wood cabins hugging the vertical mountainside, with spring water coursing through the town's canals. It is here travelers will find accommodations at the simple family-run inns that make up the two settlements.

While one may consider Dazai and Ping'an, located respectively at the northern and southern ends of the peak, as lodging paradises, they are but mere entrances to the wonders ahead. Most visitors are content with the designated "viewpoints" around the towns' terraced fields, but for the nimble hiker, continue on into the lush hillside. Follow a narrow path of mud and stone through a misty forest of venerable trees, dewy ferns and, yes, bubbling brooks.

The rice terraces, with sloping grades reaching 50 degrees, have been sculpted by generations of farmers beginning in the Yuan dynasty to shape the hillsides into grand agricultural pyramids not unlike those found in Guatemala or Mexico. The slopes are infinite in scope and, at an altitude of 1,100 meters, seem to have no bottom or peak. It is simply breathtaking.

The hillsides that have been left uncultivated are threaded with trickling water, channeled from nearby springs to saturate the plots below, and are dotted with tombs of generations upon generations of agrarians, like those you'll see still working on the terraces.

Among them are the dark-skinned Zhaung, Bai and Yao minorities who, not unlike the Mayan Indians of Guatemala, are identifiable by the resplendence of their hand-woven traditional attire. While their men trudge through the muddy terraces sowing rice, the small women roam the paths like little florescent pink armies selling crafts and textiles kept in wicker baskets strapped on their backs. Their pierced earlobes hang with hoops of silver, and their hair, grown long since birth, is kept swathed on their heads. For a small sum though, they will happily undo their knot to show their hair cascading to the soil.

About 10 kilometers between Ping'an and Dazai is Zhongliu, a rustic village of arched stone bridges, dilapidated stables and stilted cottages symmetrically enclosed by terraces, crags and waterfalls. Hikers are approached by cheerful natives who do not hesitate to stop their plowing and ask "Chifan ma?" Their persistence to dine in their homes notwithstanding, what could be more refreshing after an exhausting morning navigating the mountain terrain than a spread of scented sticky rice baked in bamboo over an open fire, greens, salted meat and Longji tea or watery rice wine?

The undulating path continues on, with each bend revealing agricultural grandeurs and vistas of incomparable beauty. Late in the day, when the golden light of dusk illuminates the ribbon-like terraces, travelers encounter Longji's rush hour traffic; farmers descending into the outlying villages with bushels of reeds and firewood slung over their shoulders, alongside the occasional oxen grazing in the path. That's life on the misty mountaintop, where time has stood still for the past 700 hundred years.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
24 Hours in Qiannianyaozhai
by Tom Carter

Eclipsed by the neon blaze of Guangzhou and lost in the limestone peaks of northern Guangdong is 1,000 year-old Qiannianyaozhai, the oldest Yao minority village in China. Over 7,000 Yao people once occupied the mountain community; however poverty and generational differences have dramatically thinned the ethnic population, leaving Qiannianyaozhai in its present perfectly preserved state.

6am: Rise and shine in Liannan County for a long day of exploring bucolic North Guangdong. Unlike steel-and-glass PRD, the north is a poem-inspiring swath of farmland and karst summits.

7am: Ask several locals for directions, but either their regional dialect is unintelligible or they each point in a different direction. These are the joys of traveling in rural China.

8am: Well-informed bengbeng taxi takes us twenty kilometers southwest up a lush mountainside to "Nangang Thousand Year Yao Zu Village." Crowning the 800-meter crest we behold our destination: the mystical Qiannianyaozhai.

12am: Spend several hours wandering this living museum. The only sounds to be heard are the whispering wind and an occasional farmer's hoe against soil. Clustering against the amphitheater-like gradient are approximately 400 stone-and-slate homes, standing majestic and unscathed since their Song Dynasty construction.

1pm: This is reportedly the largest Yao village in China, but with less than 200 current residents we veritably have the entire 159-mu grounds to ourselves. Tilling the terraces are barefooted, red-turbaned Yao farmers, regally draped in dark blue robes and scarlet sashes, ancestors of an ancient agrarian society and the last generation of Qiannianyaozhai.

2pm: Invited for tea in the home of the yaowang village chief of the Pai Yao clan. The simple dwelling is warmed by a wood-burning stove and accentuated with hand-wrought farming tools, whicker baskets and other antediluvian household goods. No modern appliances in site. While Mother mends clothing, Granddaughter chats with us. She must walk four hours every day to attend primary school at the bottom of the mountain.

4pm: Capitalize on the clean air with a long stroll back down the mountain, peeking into other nearby villages and stopping to chat with locals. Everyone is so unbelievably kind it's a bit shocking; definitely no relation to the Cantonese.

5pm: Spot a woman with a satchel that glows like a rainbow - the Pai Yao's signature accessory. Females will spend up to three months hand-embroidering their own bags, each with a unique, blindingly-bright design. I attempt a purchase, but she drives a hard bargain. Apparently some retail high-rollers have already passed through here and set the standard, which is too much for my backpacker budget.

7pm: Dinner at a riverfront restaurant for fresh caoyu grass carp and locally-grown greens, then retire to our luguan boardinghouse for some much-need sleep.

12am: Awoken by a riotous KTV parlor next door, Mandopop blaring from a pink-glowing room full of high-heeled, mini-skirted xiaojie. I guess no matter how far you stray from the big city, in China some things just don't change.


Getting there and away:

Qiannianyaozhai is well off the beaten path. From Guangzhou City bus terminal, catch the ___am bus to Liannan County, ___ hours, ____ RMB. From Liannan, best to hire a taxi directly to Qiannianyaozhai, 20 RMB, 30 minutes.

Tickets into Qiannianyaozhai are 30 RMB per person and contribute to the preservation of this rapidly-vanishing minority culture.

Liannan's main, and only, drag is comprised of several guesthouses (20 RMB per bed) and one three-star hotel (100 RMB). Xiaojie cost extra.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
Planet Panjiayuan
by Tom Carter

Perhaps not by coincidence, the Greek word Pangaea, meaning "all lands," is the name historians have given to planet Earth before its continental drift 200 millions years ago, when the world was one.

Similarly named Panjiayuan, Beijing's largest antiques fair, can likewise be described as a place where every province in the People's Republic have come together to form their own supercontinent-like market place. Indeed, one might spend years journeying across China to uncover the same treasures that can be had in a day at Panjiayuan.

Here, spanning landscapes of antiquated wares, art, precious stones and revolutionary memorabilia meet precipitous mountains of books, furniture, ceremonial dress and sundry jewelry. One must finally traverse vast seas of dynastic china, heirlooms, national regalia and old coins before emerging dusty, exhausted and burdened with your finds.

Along the way you'll have encountered traditional Han, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and the nomadic Drokpas of Tibet, all selling their goods side by side with about fifty other ethnic minorities; the splendors of West China contrasting nicely with vestiges of Beijing.

Scores of international visitors from the Orient to the Americas to Europe peruse the eclectic bazaar to purchase relics that truly cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But the market is also teaming with spectators. Beijing elders who, not unlike moons orbiting a planet, crowd around every negotiation taking place, finding much amusement in watching waiguoren paying forty times more for a faux antique then what a local might pay for the real deal.

Such is life on planet Panjiayuan.


Getting there and away:

Panjiayuan is located in Chongwen District off of Dongsanhuan Nanlu. Open Monday-Friday 8:30am - 6pm, and Saturday-Sunday 4:30am - 6:30pm.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
Autumn is perhaps China’s most precious season, a respite between sweltering summers and fatal winters. But it is only in the northern Sichuan highlands of Jiuzhaigou, China’s natural wonderland, where fall can be witnessed in blazing splendor.

Approaching Nine Villages Gully near the Gansu border, one may at first be daunted by the chaos of tour groups and ceaseless convoys of busses not unlike diesel prisons bullying their way through the crowds with deafening blasts of the horn. Be reassured, however, that anyone in a red hat following a flag and megaphone most certainly does not have the same itinerary as a more independent-minded visitor.

While Jiuzhaigou is a massive 720 square meters, you can feel the full force of the nature reserve on a two-day pass. Keep a keen eye out for the seldom-used paths veiled in vegetation located on the opposing side of the main thoroughfare in Zaru gully near the park’s entrance.

With the growl of the tour busses segueing into a score of birdsong and black exhaust becoming crisp breathable air, the nature reserve quietly proceeds into a Y-shaped canyon of virgin woodland that would make a ChongQing girl blush. Not unlike vertical forests, the verdant broadleaf palisades dripping with lichen and turning a muted crimson and gold for the coming fall ultimately dissolve into the heavens as one is led deeper into the forest.

Drinking in the damp sweetness, the dense woods of the Nuorilang gully are suddenly pierced by the region’s star attraction: prismatic lakes ranging in size from small to dragon-sized pools and covering a color spectrum of ice blue to fall apple green. Formed by glacial erosion and fed by underground springs, the phosphorescent phenomena is attributed to algae and mineral concentration, though a poet laureate might otherwise be inspired to write of the mint-blue waters as the mouthwash of the gods.

As dusk approaches, the park is promptly evacuated of all visitors. While most will return to the neon-lit tourist circus outside the entrance, the assiduous traveler can skirt the rules (and security guards) by staying the night with friendly locals living on the grounds. Home to the Qiang and Aba Tibetan minorities, the autonomous villages of Zechawa and Schuzheng in the park center, and the smaller Rexi and Heijia villages to the north, are themselves a cultural draw.

Dawn before the crowds is rather like an epiphany, gentle winds whispering through the lakeside reeds as revelations from nature herself. Readers with an affinity for tranquility may especially appreciate the walkways behind the seldom-traversed Swan and Grass lakes in Zangmalonghe gully, though the tranquil beauty of the area is in fact no secret at all; Jet Li’s ‘Hero’ was filmed at Arrow Bamboo Lake.

The teal twilight of the water then disappears into placid marshland before dramatically debuting into pearly shoals cascading in a series of multi-level falls so dazzling that any passerby might exclaim wosei! without even realizing.

The resonance of the cascade becomes a murmur as the voyeur descends from the rushing waters into vivid pastures of lavender, purple and yellow wildflower. Moving from Rize gully for the park’s exit gate, take a last breathe of JiuZhaiGou’s pristine autumn air.


How to get there:
Connecting flights from Beijing/Shanghai-Chengdu-JiuZhaiGou airports for RMB 2420-3220
Where to stay:
The Sheraton is located 1.5km from the park entrance (from RMB 600-1,700 per night).
Where to eat:
Eat with the friendly locals living in Jiuzhaigou – Tibetan yak meat is a must try.
Where to play:
The nature reserve, of course! Two-day park passes cost RMB 220.


At once subtropical and temperate, there are over 2000 endemic varieties of flora, including the stunningly obvious blue-green algae, vibrant rhododendron and orchid. Species of pine, maple, spruce and birch are especially spectacular in the autumn. JiuZhaiGou’s altitudinal range and rich vegetation directly contribute to the region’s unique animal life, with 140 species of birds and mammals such as deer, the elusive golden snub-nosed monkey and Ailuropoda Melanoleuca, known to most as the giant panda. An innately isolated creature requiring an undisturbed habitat, spotting a wild giant panda feeding in the park’s bamboo groves is difficult but not impossible for anyone choosing to walk instead of taking a tour bus.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
In the summer it is a scalding expanse of desert, in the spring verdant grassland; but in the winter, Inner Mongolia is a white kingdom few travelers, beyond the occasional Mongol nomad, brave to enter.

Indeed, the traditionally nomadic lifestyle of the native Mongolian reflects the region’s unforgiving climate. To quote the usually intrepid Lonely Planet guidebook chapter on Inner Mongolia, “…from December to March – forget it!”

Occupying 12% of China’s landmass in a majestic arching slope of over one million kilometers, Inner Mongolia borders 8 other Chinese provinces in addition to the colossal countries of Mongolia and Russia to the north.

Today, Mongolians make up only 17% of the provincial population. And while leather-skinned warriors on armored horseback may no longer pose a threat to the Chinese, the mainland is now seeing a second Mongolian invasion, this time in the form of sand.

The vast Gobi Desert, which already consumes Inner Mongolia’s northwestern border, is dramatically expanding at a rate of 10,000 square kilometers per year and is calculated to turn 40% of the People’s Republic into a veritable wasteland, evinced by the apocalyptic sandstorms from the north that assault Beijing during the summer months

But vacationers to Inner Mongolia (Nei Menggu in Putonghua) need not concern themselves with such things as environmental catastrophes, for in winter the gold sands of the Gobi slowly give way to white as frost slowly veils first the north and then the entire province.

Arriving in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot (pronounced Ho huh ha ta), one finds that it truly is a “Blue City,” as its Mongolian name implies, but with a comparatively modern ambiance nonetheless.

The urban skyline falls behind the horizon as our journey via steam train progresses across the frozen plateau to the more rustic northeast. Following electrical lines from village to village, the train’s ice-trimmed windows reveal an otherwise barren countryside dotted with red brick homes stacked with chimneys continuously exhaling their coal smoke.

This is the pastoral life of Mongolian miners, farmers and shepherds hibernating for the winter, nary a sole outside save the occasional caravan of camels led through the snowy waste by men as furry and indistinguishable as their charge.

The flatlands give way to hills of white birch and sinuous rivers of blue ice. Veering north, the train then burrows into the Greater Khingan mountain range, which forms a natural provincial border separating Inner Mongolia from the plains of Manchuria to the east.

Passing frozen Hulan Hu, China’s fifth largest lake, and the Hulunbuir grasslands (now blanketed in snow), it comes as a pleasant shock to discover that the busiest land port of entry in the mainland is located here in the far reaches of Inner Mongolia. The Manzhouli crossroads, situated directly on the borders of China, Mongolia and Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, is a fascinating fusion of northeastern cultures.

Shops, hotels and restaurants are of distinct Russian personality and advertise in both Chinese and Russian script while the streets teem with rugged import-exporters and big blonde Russian tourists extravagantly attired in plush fur coats, pelt scarves and omnipresent ushanka hats.

But the final and most remote destination comes during the return trip south through tundra as vast as the sky above, the snowscape spotted with resilient brush, wind-swept fences and adobe villages of ice-glazed rooftops until…Xanadu, Kublai Khan’s summer palace.

While the name Xanadu invokes an air of mystery to those who have never been, there is in fact no “snow-white mares with sacred milk, rich and beautiful meadows” as observed by Marco Polo, nor Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s oft-cited “stately pleasure dome.”

Xanadu, otherwise known as Yuanshangdu, today is less an eternal world than a set of dilapidated stone walls and towers buried in centuries of dirt and weeds, leaving the fantasies of a romantic Mongolian city to be written by the opium-addled. China’s tourism bureau has all but deserted the ancient area for (literally) greener pastures, and, according to locals, it is a rare day when even one visitor can be found walking the venerable grounds during the winter months.

But the sheer desolation of Xanadu is exactly its attraction. Walking among 11th-century ruins mantled in dazzling whiteness, one is left completely alone to enjoy an untouched history and uncorrupted serenity that is otherwise not found in today’s China.

In the immortal words of disco queen Olivia Newton John, “Now we are in Xanadu!”


Getting there and away:

Daily flights from Hong Kong to Hohhot (connecting in Beijing), via Air China, Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air, 6 hours, 7000 HKD, round trip.

Daily trains from Hong Kong to Beijing, 24 hours, 800 HKD. From Beijing to Hohhot, 12 hours, 300 HKD

To reach the border-town of Manzhouli, daily trains from Hohhot to Hailaer, approx 40 hours, 270 HKD for a sleeper. From Halaer to Manzhouli, via shuttle bus or express train, 3 hours.

There are no official tours or direct routes to Xanadu. From Hohhot or Hailaer, get off at Sangandali, and then take a shuttle bus to Zhenglanqi (simply called Lanqi by the locals). From Lanqi, a private taxi can be retained for approx. 100 HKD for a round trip to Yuanshangdu, 30 minutes away.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
In these over-publicized times of China’s new railroad to Tibet, one might be better off avoiding the tourist circus than running away with it. Indeed, unless the reader has a certain fondness for overbooked hotels and intrusive, red hat-wearing tour groups, Lhasa is hardly the Tibetan delight that travel agencies continue to bill it as.

Fortunately, lesser-traveled Gansu province in northwest China offers the cultural charm of Tibet without the crowds. Sharing borders with six other provinces except Tibet, it is physically unobvious that Gansu would be home to any kind of Tibetan population. This, coupled with the great shadows cast by the ever-popular neighboring Sichuan and Shaanxi, results in Gansu being one of China’s well-kept travel secrets. The narrowly arching province makes it somewhat inconvenient to traverse, yet it is due to this shapely fact that the northern and southern regions offer dramatically different topography, climate and culture, lending to Gansu’s uniquely varying harm.

Situated adjacent to both Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces, the small city of Dunhuang in Gansu’s Hexi corridor is famed for its mountain-sized sand dunes and ancient Buddhist grotto cave art. A tree-trimmed oasis hemmed by a limitless expanse of sand, Dunhuang, once an important outpost along the Silk Road, is now a travel destination as hot as the outlying deserts.

On the theoretically and geographically opposite end of the province, the mountainous terrain of Xiahe provides a cool, quiet respite from both the sweltering sands and disorderly tour groups of Dunhuang. After threading through verdant grasslands grazing with yak, golden fields of wheat and undulating hills of the contiguous Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, Xiahe suddenly appears beneath the surreal blue sky like a monastic vision.

Of the Gannon Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Xiahe is in fact no more than a simple slat-wood settlement along the Daxia River physically and socially orbiting the impressive Labuleng, mainland China’s largest Tibetan monastery. Hugged up against the surrounding mountainside, the picturesque state known also as the Labrang Lamma monastery was built in 1710 and accommodates six Buddhist seminaries and over 500 monks of the Yellow Hat sect.

Buddhists from across the region come to worship at Labuleng, contributing to the colorful activity that gives Xiahe its attractive allure. A three-kilometer kora (spiritual walking circuit) halos the area and is heavy with foot traffic from dawn to dusk, whereby crimson-robed monks and natively dressed Amdo pilgrims spinning hand-held mani wheels orbit the monastery while breathlessly prostrating themselves and chanting.

In between turning 1,200 vibrantly painted wooden prayer wheels, the resplendently ornamented nomads rest beneath stupas to chat and sip yak butter tea, a veritable portrait of Tibetan culture.

Visiting the holy capital city of Lhasa on the roof of the world may sound thrilling, but increasing occupation and rampant tourism has rapidly diluted it from the serene getaway it once was. Xiahe, known as Little Lhasa, in the Gansu highlands is a more intimate, and conveniently closer, alternative for those desiring a secluded retreat of unadulterated Tibetan culture.


Getting there and away:

1. Flights from Beijing to Dunhuang Airport, daily at 7:30am (3 hours, 1,880 yuan)

2. From Langzhou to Xiahe, busses leave the North Bus Station at 7am, 8:30am and 2pm (5 hours, 25 yuan).


1. In Dunhuang, the Feitian Binguan located on Mingshan Lu directly across the street from the bus terminal is a popular backpacker hangout, offering dorm rooms and hot-water showers for only 20 yuan.

2. There are a number small inns of varying standards along Renmin Jie in Xiahe, though the Tara and Overseas youth hostels on the west end of town seem to be the preferred choice (25 yuan for a dorm bed).

Regional cuisine

Hand-pulled noodles and thinner beef-noodle soup (saozi lamian) are provincial favorites. Hui-Muslim influences to the north include heavily seasoned mutton/lamb kabob (yangrou chuan), fresh baked bread (nang) and bushels of fragrant peaches and watermelon. Tibetan fare is simpler, including the notorious yak butter tea (po cha), a pungent, thick, salty beverage that Tibetans consume habitually, and Tsampa, a nomadic staple of barley flour kneaded with butter tea to form an edible, nourishing dough.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
It is interesting to note that while the island of Hainan in southwest China is the country’s number two holiday ravel destination (in between Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan and Yunnan’s Lijiang), most foreign tourists and expats living in the People’s Republic have never even heard of Hainan Dao, let alone been there I used to be one of the guilty parties. Despite residing in China for an extended period of time, it was not until I began my epic travels across the country that I was introduced to what is in fact its smallest yet most exotic province.

Hainan’s most popular season is, of course, Spring Festival, when legions of mainlanders shuddering from sub-zero winter temperatures spend Chinese New Year on the invitingly temperate beaches of the tropical island.

Conversely, sweltering summers turn Hainan into a veritable Hades (reclusive sun worshipers take note: you will literally have the beach to yourselves). It is not surprising, then, that Hang Dynasty exiles were once banished to ‘The Edge of the Earth’ as fatal punishment, Hainan island has made significant progress over the centuries, from remote settlement to popular tourist attraction by way of repeatedly falling in and out of control of neighboring provinces until at last being granted provincial status in 1988 (disputably along with some 200 surrounding South China Sea islands) and declared a Special Economic Zone to spur investment.

Resultingly, the colonial capital city of Haikou on the north end of the island has become its commercial center, brimming with transportation hubs, department stores and enough hotels to accommodate all of China (which it literally does during the holidays).

Those wishing to remove themselves from the urban commotion will find rustic serenity on the central coastline around Xiangshui Bay, the only traffic being farmers in coned hats and grazing cattle. There, crystal waters lap at the shores of a brilliant expanse of sugary sand, where one may sip on coconuts, feast on fresh seafood and lay undisturbed beneath the whispering palm trees.

For a more cultural experience, the lush Limuling mountain range in interior Hainan is home to the island’s reclusive indigenous peoples, most notably the Miao and the majority Li minority, a colorful ethnicity whose proud elders continue to embrace their traditional customs, native dress and intricate body and facial tattooing.

But it is Sanya, ‘the Hawaii of the Orient,’ that is the island’s headlining attraction. Developed along Hainan’s southern periphery, the bustling port city is framed by attractive beaches, a lively city center teaming with tourists gaudily attired in matching florescent beach wear, and a harbor congested with fishing vessels, the docks a blur of tangled netting, malodorous hauls of fish and salty dogs preparing for their next seafaring voyage.

Beyond the Sanya peninsula, Yalong Bay is a remarkable 7km stretch of white beach edged by a citadel of luxury hotels glowing in varying shades of pastel, their well-tended guests lounging poolside to the soothing sounds of Kenny G (on repeat), cocktail in hand.

No matter what your tastes - ridiculously overpriced or beach bum 1.5 billion people agree, Hainan Dao is the tropical escape everyone should treat themselves to at least once during their stay in China.


Flights from Beijing to Haikou Airport, four times daily (four hours, 1,800 yuan)


The Treasure Island Hotel chain in Haikou, Xinglong and Sanya are popular with budget travelers desiring resort-style comfort at economy prices (Prices for a double range from 200 yuan in the off-season, up to 1,000 yuan during Spring Festival)

Regional cuisine:

Seafood on Hainan is plentiful, so prices are some of China’s cheapest. roves of street vendors come out at dusk to grill a bounty of fresh fare, including various species of fish, clam, lobster, crab, squid and kelp. For desert, locals enjoy gnawing on sugarcane stalks or any of the abundant fruit. And, of course, coconut milk is an islander’s beverage of choice, chopped and chilled for only one yuan.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
While China’s northeastern parts such as Beijing and Shandong may represent the historical heart of the People’s Republic, it’s in the west where we find a unique cultural diversity that is so attractive to travelers.

Nowhere else in the country might one uncover the splendor of China’s varied minority population than ’south of the clouds,’ Yunnan. Situated on the southwestern corner of four other provinces, Yunnan also shares borders with three countries (not quite including Thailand and India), its proximity resulting in the highest concentration of ethnic groups in all of China.

However, with the northern Naxi city of Lijiang having become China’s hottest holiday destination for tour groups, nearby Dali a laidback retreat for younger backpackers, and Zhongdian a jumping off point for Tibet, south Yunnan remains a relatively unspoiled region.

From the concrete jungle of the provincial capital city of Kunming into the rain forests of Xishuangbanna, this writer bypassed the more popular route towards Laos and Vietnam for the less-explored areas around the Burma perimeter. My timing was perfect, as I arrived in the village of Menghun just before its Sunday market.

A quiet community accented with stilted wooden homes and a hilltop monastery overlooking the surrounding rice fields, the day’s drizzly weather served to enhance the village’s reticence. But through the gray I caught glimpses of color that revealed them to be the region’s multiple ethnic minorities. By mid-morning, Menghun’s relatively small marketplace, abounding with freshly slaughtered pig heads, brilliant fruits and vegetables, plugs of tobacco and a rainbow of textiles, became a veritable kaleidoscope of culture unlike any I have every witnessed. I was first met by the silky glory of Xishuangbanna’s majority population, the Dai, a 2000 year-old culture that fuses Hinayana Buddhism with elements of Thai. The Dai dress attractively in shimmering attire, but it is the younger Dai girls in their formfitting pastel sarongs who catch one’s eye before teasingly running away like nymphs.

Further illuminating the otherwise dark day were the Akha people, known as the Hani. Like a resplendent yet elusive jungle bird, the Akha appear from the deep lush hills only on market day, whence they adorn themselves in heavy layers of black brilliantly highlighted with intricately embroidered patterns. Descendants of the nomadic Qiang from Tibet, each Hani subgroup wear a different colored headdress to signify their tribe, not unlike the plumage of a proud bird, and lavishly accessorize in silver-studded bracelets and leggings, patchwork satchels and antiqued coins stretching out their earlobes. Tumpline baskets around their heads and teeth stained red with betel nut are commonplace.

Especially weary of outsiders, they timidly skirted all my advancements, however friendly persistence coupled with a sincere interest in their lifestyle soon granted me access to a tight knit Akha clan. They spoke very little Mandarin, and of course no English, so we relied simply on gestures and smiles in an attempt to learn about each other.

By noon the market had cleared along with the rain, the streets now lined with vivid knots of indigenous folk awaiting tractors to take them back to their respective outlying villages.

My continued journey through Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture would take me deeper into the surrounding tropical jungles, including a 50km trek from Bulongshan to Damenglong. But those are stories for another time. For now I will reminisce over that small yet colorful town of Menghun, for nowhere else have I ever witnessed such a definitive representation of China’s beautifully proud ethnic minorities.


1) From Kunming’s main bus station on Beijing Lu, express sleeper busses to Jinghong, capital of Xinshuangbanna, daily at 6:30pm (150yuan, 15 hours).

2) Shuttles from Jinghong to Menghun leave the No.2 Bus Station every 20 minutes between 7am and 6pm (15yuan, 2 hours).


In Mengun there are several small boardinghouses, luguan, located on the main street near the bus stop (20 yuan each). A backpacker’s favorite is Baita Fandian (White Tower Hotel, 10 yua for a bed) on the outskirts of town and overlooking a lily pond teaming with fish and frogs. Directions are complicated so it’s best to ask locals to point you there

Regional Cuisine:

Rice is the staple diet of the Dai people, who were the first in the history of the world to cultivate rice as a food. Sticky rice baked in fragrant bamboo is a specialty. Xishuangbanna locals also enjoy nibbling on grilled pigtail from street vendors, and perpetually chewing on betel nut (binglang) mixed with lime, which gives off a light narcotic effect while staining the mouth red.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
"He's from Pakistan."
"No, no! He’s Japanese."

A lively group of Uyghurs orbiting around me at the Hotan marketplace in southern Xinjiang were vociferously debating the nationality of the 196cm foreigner standing before them.

I am in fact a first-generation American of a hybrid Scandinavian-Mediterranean-Hispanic lineage, my dark brown features and unkempt travel whiskers often causing confusion amongst Asians who can’t quite place my nationality. Ironically, Han Chinese often mistook me for a Weiwuerzu, someone from Xinjiang.

If there is one province unlike any other in the People’s Republic, it would have to be Xinjiang. Categorically different from the rest of the country in every conceivable way, the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang in the distant northwest is at once China’s most intriguing and intimidating travel destination.

Xinjiang Autonomous Region is China’s largest, sharing international borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asian countries. This geographical proximity resultingly accounts for over half of China’s 12 million Muslims, perhaps Xinjiang’s most obvious characteristic Muslim followers of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, are a devout people who believe in the oneness of God, called Allah in Arabic, as opposed to the Christian doctrine of a holy trinity. Muslim adherents can be seen throughout Xinjiang carrying venerated copies of the Qur’an (Islamic holy scripture) and faithfully dashing off to he mosque five times a day for a congregational series of Mecca-facing prostrations and prayer.

Xinjiang’s predominant nationality is the Uygur, a vibrant and outgoing culture of Central Asian descent whom this writer affectionately likes to refer to as The Desert People. The Turkic-speaking Uyghurs traditionally attire themselves in simple, loose-fitting robes to accommodate the harsh climate, with the men wearing either plain white or brilliantly embroidered dopi skull caps and the women veiling themselves in a hijab headscarf. A shaved head and long beard further distinguishes the Uyghur men while the ladies take pride and pleasure in dyeing their hands red with henna.

Geographically, Xinjiang offers starkly different topography and climate throughout the vast region, ranging from the cool alpine mountains of the northern Altay region to the arid southern sands of the Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world. And while Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, is a gleaming northern metropolis of skyscrapers and department stores, the remote cities bordering the south-western Tarim Basin, including the famed Silk Road oasis of Kashgar, are known for their more traditional way of Muslim life.


Situated directly on the borders of Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan, the spectacularly sapphire-blue Hanasi Hu Lake in the mountainous region of northern Xinjiang is a popular tour group destination. To the south, the massive Sunday markets in Kashgar and Hotan are not to be missed, though the latter is arguably more authentic.


1. From Beijing to Urumqi, 10 flights daily between 8am and 9pm (four hours, 2,410 yuan)

2. To Hanasi Hu, a group tour arranged by any Urumqi travel agency is often suggested for its feasibility, however a majority of time is spent in transit (four days, 500 yuan, including accommodations and entrance tickets)

3. To Kashgar, overnight trains leaving daily from Urumqi at 1pm and 5pm are the most convenient and comfortable way to travel (30 hours, 170 yuan).

4. From Kashgar to Hetian, busses depart from Renmin Donglu almost hourly between 7am and 6pm (eight hours, 50 yuan).


Xinjiang disappointingly offers very little as far as budget accommodations or youth hostels, and due to immigration from neighboring nations, smaller boardinghouses are strict to only allow Chinese nationals. In Kashgar, the Uyghur-run Noor Bish Hotel near the famous Id Kah Mosque is a backpacker’s favorite (30 yuan for a dorm bed).

Regional cuisine:

If China is famous for its cuisine, then Xinjiang is responsible for half its success. Heavily seasoned lamb kebab (yangrou chuan), spicy lamian noodles topped with peppers, tomatoes and garlic, deep-fried fresh fish (how did they get fish in the desert?), goat’s head soup, golden pilaf rice and fragrant peaches and watermelon, all washed down with refreshing cinnamon tea. There may not be as much bread (nang) in the whole of China as in Kashgar, with lightly seasoned loaves and sesame seed bagels being pulled hot out the oven by the minute.


Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

Tom  Carter

Thank you for supporting CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter

Travel Photographer Tom Carter | On the CHINA Road

Tom  Carter
Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People.
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