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Super reviews for new CHINA photography book!!!

Following are excerpts from the praise CHINA: Portrait of a People continues to receive from readers and media reviewers.

As Thomas Carter's new photobook CHINA: Portrait of a People makes its debut as the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author, literati and the press are unable to hold back their acclaim. Following are excerpts from the praise CHINA: Portrait of a People continues to receive from readers and media reviewers:

"The collection of 800 photos paints a beautiful, comprehensive portrait of China and its people in a way that words never could." - the Beijinger

"China: Portrait of a People is a snapshot of an entire country in a time of great change; a truthful and touching portrayal of the Chinese people in all their variety, charm and earthiness. As such, even if it does not turn out a best-seller, it will have lasting value as a social document. This isn't a coffee table book of the Great Wall or the quintessentially Chinese landscapes of Guilin. It isn't a travel book either, although it may well inspire many to come see China for themselves." - China.Org

"Instead of similar photo books, China: Portrait of a People (published by Blacksmith Books, 635 pages, 280 yuan) is a more portable volume. Rather than focus on geographic, landscape or sight-seeing photos, Carter focuses on the distinct features and lifestyles that define the nation’s 56 ethnic groups collected in 33 provinces." - Beijing Today

"CHINA: Portrait of a People is not to be dismissed as another light-hearted snapshot collection. But neither is it heavy socio-political commentary. Photojournalist-cum-travel writer Tom Carter has successfully struck a fine balance between the two, dividing the 600-plus pages of annotated photography into 33 chapters, a document of the two years he spent travelling in different Chinese provinces." - HK Magazine

"Tom Carter gets around. Thirty three provinces, 56 ethnic cultures, 10,000 portraits. The 35-year-old American spent two years on the road photographing people from every nook and cranny in China for his ambitious 640-page coffee-table book, CHINA: Portrait of a People. His stated mission: To dispel the stereotype of the Chinese as a homogeneous single nationality." - Urbanatomy Shanghai
"For those who read more in a twinkling eye or a lined brow than in a slate roof, (CHINA: Portrait of a People) is a revelation, providing a more honest picture of this turbulent land than a rack of China travel books pre-approved by the Ministry of Information." - China Expat

"Tom gives us an incredible insight to the people of China, from poor to wealthy, young to old. You can see he gets into their culture and delivers a fabulous insider view, capturing emotions through the lens. Each region has a selection of Tom's photos with brief, but informative captions. It's not a travel guide or a photography technique guide but it will keep you enthralled for hours at a time." - ePhotozine

"Travel photos taken by a stranger seldom fascinate. But 800 color images captured by Tom Carter as he spent two years on the road, traveling 56,000 kilometers through all of China's 33 provinces, make a dramatic exception... Carter's weighty book takes an effort to carry home from a store. But anyone interested in China should love owning it." - Cairns Media Magazine

Doing business in China is all about getting to know the Chinese people and their culture. Precisely what this stunning book by Tom Carter has to offer. Eye opener!" - China Success Stories

"The images veer between the light-hearted (laughing children playing on a sand dune in Gansu), titillating (a pair of female KTV hostesses in Shandong lean in for a kiss), appalling (a mentally ill girl lies in the middle of the road as cars just pass her by), and thought provoking (the worn and sunburned face of a destitute old Tibetan lady). But there is a constant - the peering visages of all ethnicities, of all China. Through Carter's journey of self-discovery, we end up discovering a little more about ourselves - and a land so vast, so disparate, that 638 pages of photos barely manage to scratch the surface. Still, Portrait of a People is a very good place to start peeling back the layers." - Time Out

"'Tom Carter is an extraordinary photographer whose powerful work captures the heart and soul of the Chinese people." - Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea and Empress Orchid

"Tom Carter's photo book is an honest and objective record of the Chinese and our way of life- his camera leads us through 33 wide-sweeping scenes of the real and the surreal." - Mian Mian, author of Candy

"It takes a great boldness of spirit to set out to capture the essence of so diverse a people as the Chinese in a single volume of photography. The thrill is to discover that Tom Carter has achieved just that." - Asia Literary Review

"As photojournalist Tom Carter discovered on his journey across China, to know the true spirit and culture of a place, you must look into the faces of its people." - MiNDFOOD magazine

"Tom Carter is a guerrilla hit-and-run photojournalist with a camera instead of a grenade launcher. To take the up-close and personal pictures in Portrait of a People, Carter risked jail; almost froze on the way to Tibet; faced exhaustion and hunger; was beaten by drunks; plagued by viral infections; and risked being shot by North Korean border guards. The hundreds of photos in Portrait are priceless. I doubt if there will ever be another book about China like this one." - Lloyd Lofthouse, author of My Splendid Concubine

Posted by tomcarter 22:48 Archived in China Tagged armchair_travel Comments (0)

Interview With China Photojournalist Tom Carter

CHINA: Portrait of a People author and photographer Tom Carter expounds on Chinese censorship, peasant riots and how insolvency helped inspire his new book in this first exclusive interview.

An Interview With China Photojournalist Tom Carter

American photo-journalist Tom Carter has spent the past four years in the People’s Republic of China, traversing all 33 provinces and autonomous regions not just once but twice. The San Francisco native’s hardback book, a definitive 800-image volume aptly entitled CHINA: Portrait of a People, is due out this winter from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books. Tom took a day off from travelling to discuss the challenges of taking pictures in China, how he evaded censorship in the tightly-controlled republic, and to share a few insider tips on visiting what is to become the world’s largest tourism market.

Your upcoming book focuses heavily on photographs of people, from peasants to punk rockers, ethnic groups to entrepreneurs. As a lone foreigner in a faraway country, how did you approach so many strangers, let alone become intimate enough with them to take their portraits?

Most of my photos came about as a natural result of my curiosity and interaction with Chinese people during my travels. It wasn't until the end of my trip that I thought about compiling them into a book. This is a tribute to all the people I met along the way.
For the portraits, it just takes a sincere interest in your subjects to get that close. I don't believe in hiding behind a zoom lens; I was actually as near to all those people as you see in the pictures, sometimes just inches away. The candid life shots, which comprise a good third of the book, were actually more of a challenge. As a foreigner walking down the street in China, all activity stops the moment you are seen, so it’s tricky to photograph life before life stops to stare at you.
I don’t believe any book can capture the true spirit of a country with only pictures of places. Sure, a photo of a sunset over the Great Wall is nice, but what do you really learn from it? I wanted to show the people, and dispel the stereotype of the Chinese as a homogeneous single nationality.

You must speak the language pretty well.

That's the very first question I always get from other expats I meet in China! It humbles me to admit that my Putonghua borders on offensively poor. I taught English when I first arrived in China, which left me no time to formally study Mandarin. I picked up my entire vocabulary while travelling. I call it Survival Chinese. I can communicate, but I'm usually left out of the gossiping granny circles. A friendly smile works well when all else fails. I might add, though, that Chinese dialects vary widely by province, so even most nationals have trouble understanding other Chinese outside their own hometowns.

You say you came to China as an English teacher, but four years later you’re a published photojournalist and author. Did you plan this career move?

Never, but that’s China for you, a real land of opportunity. Teaching was just a means to an end, which was travelling. Out of that first long year on the road sprung my collection of photos, which resulted in a book contract and travel assignments from various periodicals, which brought me full circle back to my second spin around China. I believe I stand apart from my contemporaries in that I'm not sitting around a cushy foreign correspondents’ club “networking” [makes mock quotes with his fingers] and waiting for my next assignment; I'm out on the road finding my own. But maybe that’s why Reuters still hasn’t called me.

You’ve had a few run-ins with Chinese censorship of your images and articles. Care to share?
The concept of Freedom of the Press, something the west takes for granted, is still entirely alien in Communist China. The media is state-run and every single word and image that comes in and out of the country needs to be approved by the Ministry of Information. Crazy, huh? But since I’m an independent freelancer without the backing of any news agency, I lack official journalist credentials. Most of my images I've had to get the hard way, which has often resulted in confrontations with local authorities who view foreign correspondents as a threat.
For example, for the three single frames of coal miners with soot-covered faces that appear in this book, I and my Chinese travelling companion had to spend several days in the mountains of South Shanxi before we were able to sneak into a coal mine, grab a few shots then get the hell out before being caught. Mining is one of the most dangerous and controversial occupations in China, and is entirely off limits to journalists. Some of my best photos are hit-and-run like that.

There’s one incident in particular I want to hear about: a peasant riot that you photographed and which almost got you arrested. Tell us about that.

To be caught up in a proletarian uprising – something both foreign and Chinese reporters in China rarely even hear about, due to rapid suppression of information, let alone eye-witness – was extremely frightening but probably one of the book’s most powerful images. I was subsequently “implored” by the local police to hand over all my photos, under penalty of incarceration, but a couple have managed to slip into the book [winks mischievously]. I'm still in China and would like to be able to leave without a trip to the clink, so it’s not something I can talk about in further detail, nor can we make the photo public until the book is on the shelves.

Guerilla-style documentary photography is something you are obviously proud of. Someone said you have “turned mundane daily life in China into a work of art” but one reviewer wrote that your photographs are “an assault on ordinary people who should be left alone.” What's your take on such extreme responses?

Which one was the criticism? [Laughs] Actually, I prefer the term ‘street photography’, because that's exactly what I do. I'm out pounding the pavement from 6am to 6pm every day, learning about the culture through observation and interaction. Many photojournalists cover their assignments as quickly as possible so they can remove themselves from the elements, but I revel in the elements. I don’t have any technical or artistic preconceptions to my photos. The whole idea of spending an hour setting up a shot and then photoshopping it to death afterwards is not what I'm about. I just capture life as it is, then move on. If the picture turns out crooked, so what! Life is crooked!
I have no desire to make something palatable, even if it means not getting on Getty. On the other hand, any of my photos that are considered beautiful I credit entirely to my subjects. They are the ones who deserve the compliments.

China really is a vast country to explore, and you have been to every corner of it – 33 provinces and over 200 cities and villages. Travelling for a living sounds like a life of leisure, but what’s the reality?

You know, for all the tourism I’ve promoted for China with my photos and travel articles, you’d think the CNTA [China National Tourism Administration] could at least have comped my hotels. But the truth is I’ve never received a cent in financial backing. During the two years I spent travelling across China, I slept in 15 RMB [2 USD] flophouses with particleboard walls – which are illegal for foreigners to stay in – with the occasional youth hostel or night on a bus station floor. I taught English for two straight years beforehand so I could save up to travel, and I really had to pinch my pennies to make it last. The upside is that my insolvency resulted in experiences that staying at the Sheraton could never produce.

All travellers are running away from something. What's your excuse?

I come from a long line of nomads – my mother a Danish immigrant of good Viking stock and my father a hybrid Panamanian-Cuban-Italian – so drifting is in my blood. It’s my dream to travel the world, take pictures and write about it. I have no intention of succumbing to that thirtysomething syndrome of settling down. The world is my home.

So what day-to-day difficulties did you encounter during your marathon journey across China?

You mean hour-to-hour difficulties. My photos might excite a lot of potential tourists, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the reality of actually travelling in China. The consensus among backpackers is that China is probably the single most challenging country in the world to navigate. Aside from the obvious language barriers, you have 5,000-year old customs and extreme cultural differences that can be quite vexing for the typical westerner. Most of these nuances are not something that you can catch on film; travellers have to discover them for themselves, and that’s part of the fun.

What keeps you going?

I delight in the challenges that a country like China poses to westerners. Sure, I occasionally catch myself pounding the wall in frustration, but the thing about the PRC is that every turn is a new adventure. For me there’s nothing worse than being bored, and boredom is just not possible in China. See these lines on my face? They weren’t there before.

How did you plan your routes?

I haven’t planned a single route since I arrived in China four years ago. I just point myself in a direction, then let life carry me on its current. Not only does every Chinese person you ask where to go have an excitedly different opinion – even about which way is north – but there are so many undiscovered villages that are off the charts. Not to mention that the time it takes to get to these places is often days longer than how it appears on a map, making an itinerary kind of pointless.

Tell us more about surprises along the way, and any dangerous situations you’ve been in.

Surprises are the rule, not the exception. In addition to clashes with the authorities over my pictures, I’ve had everything from a near-lethal bout of encephalitis during my first year in China, to getting shanghaied by crooked English schools, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. One of my favourites is the time I found myself at the business end of a North Korean machine gun when I accidentally crossed into the DPRK at Changbaishan. These are all stories I can laugh about now, though my mother doesn't think so.

It’s said that China is now undergoing the most prolonged period of sustained change in history. How has it changed since you have lived there, and how will it change in the near future?

I think China's most dramatic changes have been brought on by itself and that the now-clichéd term “New China” was something methodically planned out in their boardrooms. The Chinese government is addicted to what I call hyper-urbanization. You’ve got historic cities like Beijing, where they are bulldozing these ancient hutongs by the hour so they can build office towers, or the 2,000-year-old village of Gongtan in Chongqing that is going to be levelled this summer for a new power plant. I wrote an article about Gongtan for a local magazine but it was quickly quashed because the censorship bureau said “We don’t want to bring any attention to that place.” These contrasts in architecture appear in my book because I feel it is imperative to capture this last glimpse of China’s old slate rooftops before the skyline becomes pure steel and glass. CHINA: Portrait of a People will probably become a history book, something Chinese people will look at twenty years from now and say “Ah yes, I remember.”

It seems like everyone wants to know more about China these days. Do you see more people planning on visiting the country?

China will become the world’s largest tourism destination of the next decade, no doubt about it. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010 are expected to attract between 50 to 100 million tourists annually. China’s doors were closed for so long that it’s only natural the world is curious about what’s behind them. What the pictures in Portrait of a People are doing is fuelling this curiosity by offering an intimate glimpse of humanity in China, and scenes of daily life that even publications like National Geographic overlook.

You’re something of an authority now on Chinese travel. Can you offer any tips for travellers?

Well, what China wants tourists to see is often at variance with what is actually marvellous about the country. You’ve got these highly-sheltered tour group packages that cover the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Shaanxi, a boat ride on the Yangtze and shopping in Shanghai [makes yawning noise]. Or you can remove yourself from the souvenir shops and luxury hotels, get a local street map and travel on word-of-mouth. Lonely Planet would go bankrupt if people actually took my travel advice, but you definitely see more of the real China my way.

Finally, what's next for someone who’s been everywhere in China?

My publisher and I have been talking about taking the "Portrait of a People" concept to other countries in the region. I would jump at the chance. So I have no idea where I’ll be this time next year.

Tom Carter’s travel articles and pictures have appeared in every major English-language periodical in China. He is available for interview by phone or email. Sample photos from CHINA: Portrait of a People can be viewed at TOM CARTER (Flash plugin required). High-resolution images for media use are available for immediate download at http://www.blacksmithbooks.com/China_portrait_preview.htm.
Further Information: Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books – (+852) 2877 7899 – pete@blacksmithbooks.com

Posted by tomcarter 07:50 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

China To Bulldoze 1,700 Year-Old Gongtan

Ancient Tujia village along Chongqing's Wu River to meet watery grave

China To Bulldoze 1,700 Year-Old Gongtan
Ancient Tujia village along Chongqing's Wu River to meet watery grave
Photojournalist TOM CARTER reports

In four months or less, a 1,700-year-old village, and the mountain life it preserves, will see water seep through the ancient wood homes, rising higher and higher, until it is completely submerged beneath the jade shoals of the Wu River.

Gongtan of the Youyang Tujia-Miao Autonomous County in southeast Chongqing will unfortunately meet the same fate as countless other unprotected historical sites across China being leveled in the name of innovation.

In its place, the Pengshui Hydro Power Plant will be resurrected, not exactly an attractive replacement for the antiquated beauty of Gongtan, but nonetheless a much-needed jolt for a municipality suffering from regular power outages.

Controversial waterworks are nothing new to Chongqing, the largest inland river port in West China. The Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze, one of China's crucial transportation arteries linking the country's interior with coastal provinces, is essential to the region's freight and power industries, but as a result saw numerous small towns and nature reserves sacrificed to the river gods.

Now, one of the Yangtze's chief tributaries, the Wu River, has also been targeted for its hydro-electrical attributes, sparing neither nature nor culture to ensure that all of Chongqing's neon lights continue to glow brightly.

Ironically, Gongtan has never known neon and was only recently introduced to electricity. For centuries accessible only by boat, Gongtan is home to the Tujia people, one of China's more isolated ethnic minorities who hale from the surrounding Wuling Mountains.

Founded in 200 A.D., the rustic village is a living museum that might seem more destined as a World Heritage Site than a construction site. Designed entirely out of stone and wood in the diaojiaolou-style stilt architecture, the Ming dynasty-era homes are perched against the sloping gorge, facing the sheer, misty palisades which flank the Wu rapids.

Steep, mossy steps lead up from the rocky banks and a single, black flagstone path, polished from centuries of footsteps, traces the 2 kilometer length of the quiet village, a veritable portrait of mountain life as it has been for almost 2,000 years. The slat-wood buildings progress vertically, each offering an increasingly attractive panoramic vista of slate rooftops, the hallmark site of this ancient village.

Unfortunately, the intricately carved work of art that is Gongtan will soon be thrown together in a fateful pyre as the Tujia populous move several kilometers upriver to a white-tiled eyesore already suffering from the noise, pollution and congestion indicative of so many new side-of-the-road Chinese communities.

The land expropriation was in fact opposed by Gongtan residents, who successfully petitioned the central government in Beijing over the property confiscation and were awarded financial compensation for their centuries-old homes. Nonetheless, many Gongtan villagers still refuse to evacuate the aged neighborhood, thus delaying power plant construction until at least the fall of 2007.

This last-ditch effort to damn the dam is of course no match for the bulldozers, but it at least leaves an extended window of opportunity for travelers with an affinity for Chinese history to catch one last glimpse of the real deal before Gongtan is inevitably sent to its watery grave.

Travel Tips Getting there: From Chongqing, catch a morning coach from the east bus station to Pengshui (six hours, ¥90), then a taxi to the local ferry terminal for an upriver boat to Gongtan (five hours, ¥20).

Where to stay: There are several family-run guesthouses directly overlooking the Wu River with simple, creaky wood rooms wallpapered with old newspaper (¥30 per bed).

China photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, 888 snapshots of life and humanity from the 33 provinces of the People's Republic of China, due out this winter from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books.

This article was originally published in a July 2007 edition of City Weekend magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 07:48 Archived in China Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

The Pilgrims of Langmusi

Portrait of a Sichuanese-Tibetan Family

The Pilgrims of Langmusi
Portrait of a Sichuanese-Tibetan Family
by Tom Carter

Murmuring an unbroken stream of prayers, and focused intently on a scarlet and silver monastery bathed in morning light and incense smoke, four Tibetan women fell to their hands and knees in succession. They laid face down before standing up to clasp their hands in prayer for their three hundredth prostrate atop the snow-dusted hilltop on the Sichuan side of Langmusi.

But the solemn chants of these devout Buddhists soon dissolved into the self-conscious giggles of young girls upon sensing the presence of a foreigner. Using the moment as an entertaining respite from their prayers, they beckoned to see the pictures I had just taken of them, the site of themselves on my digital camera bringing even louder laughter.

Located at an altitude of some 3,000 meters in the mountains of western China, and literally straddling the Gansu-Sichuan border, the rustic, plank-rooftop settlement of Langmusi, and the two glittering Buddhist temples of which the town architecturally and spiritually orbits, is one of those places that can best be described as heavenly.

Gansu itself is one of China's most dramatically varying regions both topographically and culturally, extending in a long, narrow arch from the mountain-sized sand dunes of Dunhuang in the northern Hexi corridor to the verdant Ganjia grasslands in the provincial interior.

South of the Muslim metropolises of Langzhou and Lingxia, gleaming mosques become sub-bleached stupas and the white-capped Hui people relinquish the landscape to prismatic Tibetans spinning prayer wheels beneath the surreal blue sky, living up to its provincial sobriquet, "Little Lhasa."

Following their morning prayers, the three pretty sisters and their mother, each regally draped in heavy, black cloaks and adorned with layers of florescent orange coral necklaces and hefty belts of silver, invited me back to their home.

It wasn't their real home, they explained, but temporary living quarters. Like so many of the Sichuanese-Tibetans who comprise the town's nomadic population, they were completing their pilgrimage to the Langmusi and Labuleng monasteries in nearby Xiahe before making their way back home to northern Sichuan.

Nestled within a small community of shanties, their humble clay dwelling was no larger than the sleeper cabin of a train and housed this family of six. Keeping the fire burning, preparing lunch and babysitting his baby granddaughter when we arrived, was the patriarch of the family.

His own three daughters ranged in age from 16 to 25 and received only basic schooling, preferring to raise families and follow their parents on their spiritual pilgrimages. Income, most which was spent on such journeys, is earned by the father and the elder sister's husband, who breed horses in the Sichuan highlands.

I asked the father and mother to which Tibetan ethnolinguistic category they belonged (i.e. Aba, Chabao-Jiarong, Zhugqu), but the father admitted he didn't know; he was, he said, simply Tibetan. Indeed, such classifications are made by a government on the other side of the country, not Tibetans themselves.

For Tibetans, family and faith, not politics and ethnic divisions, are the most important aspects of their lives. Unfortunately, only the family's father and mother have made the arduous and expensive pilgrimage to the holy capital city of Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a journey that takes many Sichuanese- Tibetans years to save for, lest they must beg on the streets for alms to make their way west. But the three sisters are saving their jiao and listened in awe as I told of my own extensive travels the previous year across Tibet.

Promising to send them the family portraits I took, we professed our mutual thanks and respect and parted ways, they to spend the second half of their day making 400 koras (spiritual walking circuits) around Langmusi and me to watch, though now with a better understanding of who I was watching.

Travel Tips / How to get there: From the capital city of Langzhou in Gansu, buses for Hezuo leave the south bus station every half hour and take approximately five hours. An overnight stay in Hezuo is necessary as there is only one bus per day to Langmusi, departing at 7 a.m.

Where to stay: There are a growing number of inns and hotels on Langmusi's only thoroughfare, from ¥20 to ¥150 per night.

What to eat: Leisha's is a favorite with backpackers, boasting massive yak burgers and homemade apple pie.

Where to play: Pilgrim watching around the Sezhi Monastery on the Sichuan side or the Geerdeng Monastery on the Gansu side is always fun, along with a scenic walking trail and fairy caves to explore around the Namo Gorge.

China photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, 888 snapshots of life and humanity from the 33 provinces of the People's Republic of China, due out this winter from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books.

This article was originally published in a June 2007 edition of City Weekend magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 07:45 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Photojournalist Tom Carter Signs Book Deal

Epic trip lacross China ands contract with Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books


Epic trip lands book deal with Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books
Beijing, China – American photojournalist Tom Carter today announced the completion of a groundbreaking journey throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions, and took his place amongst the few living Westerners able to make the claim.

With limited Chinese language skills and an even more limited budget, Carter backpacked alone across the vast 9.6 million sq. km. Middle Kingdom, visiting over 200 cities and villages.

“I’m exhausted and broke, but it feels good to join the elite ranks of the few in history who have had the ambition and the energy to see China in its entirety – Marco, Mao and Tom!” said the jubilant San Francisco native.

Commencing in early 2004, Carter’s expedition included some of the most remote locations in the country: from the steaming jungles of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan to the frozen banks of the Amur River in Manchuria; from the sun-baked deserts of Xinjiang to the kungfu kingdom of Shaolin; from the Yellow Sea to the Himalayas. En route, he discovered and photographed immense geographic and ethnic diversity.

Carter’s epic trip highlights what is to become the world’s largest tourism market of the next decade. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010 are expected to attract between 50-100 million inbound tourists annually to the People’s Republic.

A freelance photojournalist by trade, Carter also announced a book contract with Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books, who will release the author’s stunning photos in a compact souvenir-sized volume entitled CHINA: Portrait of a People. Remarked publisher Pete Spurrier: “Living and travelling in China can be a challenge for foreigners, and yet Tom has single-handedly and strikingly photographed almost every aspect of humanity in the PRC. This book is a must-have for tourists, expats, photo enthusiasts and anyone with an interest in what today’s China is really like.”

“Some would like to present an air-brushed version of China to the outside world,” Spurrier added. “Tom’s pictures show China like it really is – and the natural warmth of the Chinese people shines through in every frame.”

Notes for Editors

Tom Carter’s travel articles and pictures have appeared in every major English-language periodical in China. He is available for interview by phone or email.

Sample photos from CHINA: Portrait of a People can be viewed at http://www.tomcarter.org (Flash plugin required). High-resolution images for media use are available for immediate download at http://www.blacksmithbooks.com/China_portrait_preview.htm.

Blacksmith Books will be previewing CHINA: Portrait of a People at the Hong Kong Book Fair in July.

Book Details

Title: CHINA: Portrait of a People
ISBN-13: 978-988-99799-4-2
Format: Hardback, full colour, 800 pages
Publication date: Winter 2007
Cover price: TBC
Purchase link: www.blacksmithbooks.com/9789889979942.htm
Cover price includes free international delivery.

Further Information
Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books: tel. (+852) 2877 7899 – pete@blacksmithbooks.com

Posted by tomcarter 07:39 Archived in China Tagged photography Comments (0)

Shaolin, the Kingdom of Kung Fu by Tom Carter

Inside China’s Legendary Martial Arts Schools

Shaolin, the Kingdom of Kung Fu by Tom Carter
Inside China’s Legendary Martial Arts Schools
By Tom Carter

“Let's see your Tiger-Crane style match my Eagle’s Claw!”

Ah, the immortal words of dueling Shaolin warriors. Though dialog like this is mainly the stuff of low-budget Hong Kong movies, there is in fact a place where such challenges are still uttered. Not to the death, of course, but between students at Shaolin Si, China’s most famous Kung Fu temple.

Located atop the western peak of the sacred Song Shan Mountain in northern Henan province, 800 year-old Shaolin Si has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again, weathering attacks by emperors, warlords, cultural revolutions, and now its most reoccurring invaders – the modern tour group.

In fact, not until the advent of the 1970s Kung Fu movie craze and the popular 1982 film “Shaolin Temple,” did annual tourism perform a CGI-like leap from 200,000 to 2 million, prompting the Chinese government to list the temple as a protected heritage site.

But while the venerable temple gates see an almost endless stream of tourists wishing to get a glimpse of a real-life Shaolin monk and take in a demonstration performance, a more permanent residence of Kung Fu enthusiasts exists in the outlying hillsides.

These are the sons and daughters of Shaolin, young students who have given up secular life for a strict regimen and forsaken conventional curriculum for physical conditioning. At Shaolin Si, the sword is truly mightier than the pen.


Kung Fu (Gungfu in Mandarin) was originally a Chan Buddhist practice with the dual purpose of purifying the soul and building strength through Zen spiritual doctrine and martial arts.

Shaolin priests complimented their monastic ways by harnessing their life force with meditation and releasing this energy, or Qi, through practical offense and defense maneuvers, something traditionalists complain has been diluted over the centuries for the thrill of competition and the vanity of exhibition.

Opening up the temple to outsiders began in the mid-16th century, whence military officers of the Ming Dynasty court attended Shaolin to study the monks’ unique fighting techniques. Resultingly, today’s Kung Fu schools have become big business.

The oldest and perhaps most visible school, the Wushu Institute at Tagou, is at the front entrance of Shaolin Si itself. One mountain may have no space for two tigers, says the old Chinese proverb, but the privately-run Tagou boasts over ten thousand! The courtyard is at any given moment a killer-bee swarm of students of all ages deftly demonstrating the fluid movement of forms, gravity-defying aerial assaults, an arsenal of weapons techniques and the brute force of striking and grappling.

As it does not seem likely that the People’s Republic will have future need to employ martial monks to defend the country from Wokou raiders as it did in the old days, Kung Fu students of the new millennium will eventually end up common businessmen (with a hell of a roundhouse), some will become police officers, and the bottom percentile relegated to rent-a-cop.

But in all their fearless eyes is that youthfully high hope; the desire to become the next Jet Li, China’s “national treasure” who attended a Kung Fu training school from age 8 and went on to become a five-time Wushu champion and silver screen sensation.

But is real life at a Kung Fu school as glamorous as its on-screen personification?


A few kilometers away from Shaolin Si against the placid waters of Song Shan reservoir, the 11 year-old Shuiku Martial Arts School, with only 200 students, may be dwarfed in both size and reputation by its estimable red-suited rival, but the daily drill is virtually the same.

Whilst the rest of the working world operates on a 9-5 schedule, life at Shaolin Shuiku is literally backwards, from 5am to 9pm. In the blue light of dawn, barking instructors rouse their respective teams for a run in the brisk morning mountain air as Chinese patriot songs echo into the surrounding mountain range.

Stretching, sprinting, fist pushups and other exertive exercises to forge their young bodies into steel take place beneath the rising sun, the packed-earth schoolyard a veritable army of green-uniformed students lined up in formation. A quick cafeteria breakfast is followed by two hours of requisite textbook classes including Chinese, Math and perfunctory English.

Before lunch and then into the evening is the fun stuff – basics, forms, applications and weapons – components of the external (Shaolin) and Wudang, or internal, styles of Kung Fu training. Most can be rudimentarily learned in a matter of years, but take a lifetime to perfect.

Forms, which are actual fighting techniques with the appearance of a choreographed dance, are the most elegant. The animal styles, for example, involve strength, speed and psychology; the Tiger for external force and a strong attack, the softer Crane style for patience and concentration, and so on down the animal kingdom.

For the less graceful student, competitive Sanda sparring more resembles street fighting than poise, whereby the biggest and bravest don protective gear and launch into each other with fists of fury under the corrective eye of their shifu.

Led not by a wizened Master Po, a cruel Pei Mei or any such mythical elder with long white eyebrows, today’s Shaolin shifu (master) are young, burly and surly, some fresh out of Kung Fu school and quick to take a bamboo cane to the backsides of their junior trainees.


In the dark chill of night, the spent students finally retire to their dorm rooms for a semi-normal albeit brief adolescent life – reading comics, watching movies, or, most precious, sleep. The boys share up to ten bunks per room, which look, and smell, accordingly.

Conversely, there are only 7 girls at Shuiku, though none admit feeling uncomfortable around the pubescent testosterone of so many “brothers.” With narrow eyes and long, silky black hair, Feng Jing Jing of Shanxi has been a Shaolin student for one year and plans at least another four.

Despite her quiet demeanor, the 17 year-old novice shares a tempered conceit with the rest of her male and female classmates, disdaining an ordinary teenage life of classrooms and tests. “Kung Fu is much easier than English,” Feng Jing Jing asserts while slashing a broadsword in the air with lethal precision.

And what of the parents who are paying for these classes? For them, Kung Fu is an alternative investment into their child’s future. And the earlier they begin, the larger the payoff – they hope.

Cao Xu, 7, who likes doing cartwheels instead of walking, doesn’t seem to mind being away from his mother and father back in Shanghai. Nevertheless, their adult ambitions have obviously been instilled in this little grasshopper’s mind: “I want to be a hero…and earn lots of money!”


Demonstrated by its box-office strength in the western world, the Shaolin lifestyle isn’t only popular with Chinese. 20 year-old Felix Klemisch studied martial arts in his native Germany for four years before hopping on a China-bound plane to pursue his affinity for Kung Fu.

And towering over every other student and trainer at Shuiku is the 190cm Stephan Beck, the school’s foreign veteran with a combined 9 months between two Shaolin schools (he quit the first school after making him stare into the sun for ten minutes a day “to build up [his] Qi”). Also 20 and from Germany, Stephan defies height, gravity and conventions, often training alone while the Chinese students are in group formation.

The two young Europeans confide that communication is a bigger obstacle than the physical ones, and were practically forced to learn rudimentary Chinese to understand their trainers. “We had no choice,” says blonde Felix in heavily accented English. “It was either grasp basic Mandarin or get left behind.”

Neither is sure of what they want to do when they go home and admit the possibility of drifting their way back to Shaolin. In the meantime, shaved-headed Stephan is looking forward to getting away from Song Shan for an upcoming respite in Beijing.

So which will he do first, a climb on the Great Wall? Shopping at Silk Market? “Find a Chinese girlfriend,” he decrees with Shaolin bombast. “I’ve been on top of this mountain too long!”

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Tom Carter of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in an April 2007 edition of Escape magazine.

Shuttle busses to Shaolin Si depart hourly from Zhengzhou City in Henan, 2 hours, 10RMB. You might have to change busses in Dengfeng City depending on the route. Entrance tickets into the temple cost 40 RMB, including a half-hour Kung Fu stage performance.

There are over 100 privately run Kung Fu schools of varying standards and prices in the county. Tuition at Shuiku Martial Arts School, including training, room and board, costs 2000RMB per year for Chinese nationals or 2000RMB per month for foreigners. www.slkf.net, shaolinlhl@163.com, 0371-6287-8171

Posted by tomcarter 07:28 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Teaching English In China by Tom Carter

Teaching English In China by Tom Carter

Teaching English in China: One Expat's Experience
The Wall Street Journal Career Journal
By Tom Carter
February 2007

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.

-- Mr. Carter is a business English trainer in Beijing.

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a February 2007 edition of The Wall Street Journal Career Journal.

Posted by tomcarter 08:34 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

The Chinese Internet Crash of 2007 by Tom Carter

The Chinese Internet Crash of 2007 by Tom Carter

The Chinese Internet Crash of 2007 - Calamity or Capitalism?
Calamity or Capitalism?
By Tom Carter

In late December of last year, a 7.1 earthquake off the coast of Taiwan severely damaged Asia’s undersea fiber-optic cables, disrupting telecommunication circuits across the continent.

China and Southeast Asia saw their communications capacity fall to between 2 and 10 percent, and though a portion of service has since been rerouted to alternative fixed lines and suicidally slow satellite transmissions, the P.R.C. has yet to fully recover from the technological aftershocks, what Mainlanders are now referring to as the “World Wide Wait.

Repair status is conflicting, with Chinese telecom officials publicly alternating between evasive (“the work is slow because of complicated conditions”), blameful (“the repairs are done by other companies we commissioned”) and unrealistically optimistic (“a few more days”), as quoted in the state-run media.

International news sources cite a more likely and longer completion date of early-March for a return to full capacity, perhaps due to what global news service AFP disturbingly reports as China “relying on 19th century technology to fix a 21st century problem.

In an effort to downplay the crisis, China precipitately announced that it expects to become the world’s largest Internet user, overtaking the United States with an estimated 137 million users. That’s quite a bullish forecast for a country that has suffered nationwide telecommunications outages since the new year.

In fact, internet blackouts are nothing new to foreigners residing in the People’s Republic, who are accustomed to limited access to overseas sites that have been blocked by the central government’s web monitoring entity, commonly referred to as The Great Firewall of China.

But the newest online paralysis resulting from the recent natural and technological calamity has most certainly affected international businesses in Mainland China, many whom rely on consistent online communications and B2B transactions to stay above international water. Even multinational conglomerates Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, who are already struggling in the Asian market, are now regularly met with “cannot display” time-out errors.

Conversely, China’s e-commerce giants just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. China News Service reports that amidst the first several weeks of Internet outages, Chinese-based ISPs boasted a 99 percent uptime as the country’s largest web corporations including Sina, Baidu, Alibaba, Tom and Tencent saw their site traffic, and earnings, multiply.

But for China’s Internet-deprived expat community from Beijing to the Bund, hope is literally on the Verizon. A consortium of international telecom providers including China Telecom, CNC and U.S. carrier Verizon have jointly invested $500 million in the construction of a new Trans-Pacific Express (TPE) Cable Network connecting Mainland China directly with the United States.

The next-generation submarine optical cable system, expected to be completed in 2008, will span the Asia-Pacific at 60 times the present capacity, rendering obsolete the damaged FNAL cables beneath the Taiwan Strait.

Indubitably, China’s easily-crippled telecommunications infrastructure and the prolonged aftermath can be blamed on poor foresight and co-dependent technology and is both a devastating episode for foreign companies in China and a chin check for a nation striving to compete as a 21st century world player.

But if the completion of a bigger and better trans-Pacific cable network has anything to do with the cause for the delay, then foreign and Chinese companies alike will just have to wait that much longer to resume to normal operating speeds.

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Tom Carter of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared on NowPublic.Com

Posted by tomcarter 08:33 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

Hao Bizarre, How Bazaar by Tom Carter

Hao Bizarre, How Bazaar by Tom Carter

A Bazaar Crossroads
From dusk ‘til dawn in Xinjiang’s teeming Muslim markets you’ll be immersed in an ancient mix of Eastern and Western cultures
Story and Photography by Tom Carter
Escape Magazine

Perhaps the foremost reason why so few travelers make the journey to northwest China’s Xinjiang province is quite simply its vastness. Aside from being located on the exact opposite side of the country from Beijing, which itself is a long journey even by plane, the arid autonomous region is the largest territory in China, spanning over one-sixth of the second largest continent in the world. It’s also a long journey in terms of the cultural shift the traveler will experience especially when one spends a whole day in its street markets. And conversely, considering its proximity to central Asia, sharing borders with an astonishing eight other nations, one wouldn’t believe that Xinjiang is the People’s Republic’s least touristed province. But it is this solitude in fact that makes the provincial desert a distinct oasis in Asia.

Not far from the scalding sands of the Tarim Basin is the region’s political and commercial center, Kashgar. What Marco Polo called Cascar and the Han now refer to as Kashi the Asian outpost has fashioned itself over the centuries into one of the Silk Road’s most vital international crossroads linking China with northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan by way of the Karakorum Highway. As such, Kashgar more closely resembles the Mid-East than the Han culture we are familiar with; the city is a veritable tapestry of central Asian cultures, as reflected in its massive weekly bazaar. Located in the Kona Sheher old town, the famous Sunday market is, like all things Xinjiang, China’s largest.

Approaching the market district, one is immediately beset by a commingled scent of smoke and fruit. If China is famous for its cuisine, then Xinjiang is responsible for half of its success. Lamb kabob roasted throughout the day over sizzling coals against an undulating landscape of spicy lamian noodles topped with peppers, tomatoes and garlic, goat’s head soup, deep-fried fish and yellow mountains of pilaf rice, all washed down with boiling vats of satiating cinnamon tea.
There may not be as much bread in the whole of China as there is in Kashgar and one is oft tempted by stacks of lightly seasoned nan or pyramids of sesame seed bagels fresh out of the oven. Scarlet slices of watermelon, Xinjiang’s most abundant fruit and pink peaches blushing like a child’s cheeks are the perfect desert dessert, with market patrons walking away with comically dripping chins.

If China is famous for its cuisine, then Xinjiang is responsible for half its success

Gorged on the regional fare, one must then dodge the merchant calls of "kilinglar!" (Turkish for "come!") while browsing the endless displays of useful household wares, useless souvenirs (genie lamp anyone?), outdated electronics, knockoff clothing and eye-catching textiles, the latter being the most popular among the women of Kashgar. It’s quite a sight to see a Muslim lady shrouded in an hijab headscarf burrowing through hills of shimmering silk and other fine fabrics to further veil herself in.

Xinjiang’s predominant nationality, the Uyghurs, flavor the region with both their unique Turkish-influenced culture and devout religious faith. With more then twelve million Muslims in China, Xinjiang naturally accounts for over half the national total. Kashar’s Id Kah is the largest mosque in the People’s Republic; the city literally comes to a halt five times a day when the faithful respond to the calling of the adhan and rush to mosque for a congregational series of Mecca-facing prostrations and Islamic prayer. Half an hour later, the city is again screaming with activity and commerce.

Despite the traditional lifestyle of the Uyghurs, Kashgar has developed itself over the years into a white-tiled mercantile metropolis, where even the famed weekly bazaar is now held in a modernized indoor facility of thousands of identical stalls. Though still quite a spectacular site, this refinement has left many enthusiasts desiring something a bit more...authentic. Not to be discouraged, the answer to anyone dissatisfied by the comparatively tamer and more contemporary Kashgar is Xinjiang’s lesser known, yet arguably more impressive souk in Hetian, a day’s scenic drive south along the lethally hot Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world. The shaded, tree-lined respite is renowned throughout China for its jade, silk and carpets – the three treasures of Hotan (as the Uyghurs spell it), which translates into "place that abounds in jade".

Beyond the medieval blacksmiths pounding on their anvils asphalt turns to dust

Hetian- A souk beyond

Indeed the first site anyone will happen upon at the Hetian marketplace is an entire street of jade dealers, either from storefronts, on blankets spread out on the ground, in the trunks of cars, or out of their pant pockets. The rabid riots of precious stone peddlers and prospective buyers haggling in their Turkish tongue over every size and color of jade imaginable add to the chaos that is only the beginning of Hetian’s bazaar. Extending countless kilometers in all four directions, the traffic-stopping market literally takes over the city streets; ass-drawn carriages contending with big bad buses and motorcycle taxis navigating through scores of preoccupied people. An entire boulevard of fragrant fruits and prismatic vegetables intersects an avenue lush with carpets and rugs, which is then separated by the canals of the Hotan River.

Beyond the medieval blacksmiths pounding on their anvils asphalt soon turns to dust. Livestock both alive and freshly slaughtered trample the dirt or turn it into crimson mud, and baying horses, camels, mules and bulls excrete freely onto the ground while being industriously inspected by interested human parties. To a pulsating background score of 200 beat per minute Arabic tabla drums and the two-stringed dutar, the bizarre bazaar dramatically segues into heaps of faux jewelry, henna hair dye and cheap cosmetics ravaged by young, olive-skinned women wearing heavy black eyeliner who prefer neck and arm-revealing (gasp!) western fashion to their more conservatively concealed counterparts. Meanwhile the local men get a shave and their head scalped by an outdoor barber or go browsing for a new knife or an embroidered dopi cap.

The blazing desert climate begins to cool at sunset, which in the summer months is about 11pm, and the mad market in Hetian winds down. Beggars seek those last few alms, exhausted vendors relax with a few chapters of the Qur’an, and the rest of us return home to look through our treasures.

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a February 2007 edition of Escape magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:32 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

NOW WE ARE IN XANADU!!! by Tom Carter

NOW WE ARE IN XANADU!!! by Tom Carter

November 3, 2006
Tom Carter travels to the winter wonderland of Inner Mongolia
HK magazine

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, beyong 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!”

Tom Carter, a freelance writer and photographer from San Francisco, has lived in P.R.China the past two and a half years. He is currently backpacking through all 32 Chinese provinces.

Getting there

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 bordertown 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.

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a November edition of HK Magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:32 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Jiuzhaigou by Tom Carter

Jiuzhaigou by Tom Carter

September 28th-October 11th, 2006
Ditch the Tour
Buy a two day pass and get lost in Jiuzhaigou as leaves turn from green to blazing reds and oranges
Text and Photos by Tom Carter
City Weekend

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.

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Tom Carter of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in an October edition of City Weekend magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:31 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)



December 12. 2006
Beijing Talk

Inside Beijing’s Largest Antiques Fair
Text & Photo 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.

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

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a December 2006 edition of Beijing Talk magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:30 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Down and Out in Hong Kong by Tom Carter

Down and Out in Hong Kong by Tom Carter

Down & Out in HK
A poor man's epiphany in wealthy Asian metropolis.
Written by Tom Carter
Friday, 01 December 2006
That's PRD

Having spent over two-and-a-half straight years in the Chinese mainland without leave, it was with both anticipation and apprehension that I recently crossed the southern border into Asia’s wealthiest city.

Despite its one-stop-shopping popularity with Mainland expats needing new clothes and a new visa, I truly had no idea what to expect in the former crown colony that supposedly makes even rich men feel poor. Rather terrified of exacting reverse culture shock, I hence saved English-speaking Hong Kong and its “One Country, Two Systems” self for the tail end of my journey across the 32 Chinese provinces.

And it is here I report that all my preconceptions and fears about Hong Kong were... true. To quote the under-appreciated American writer Thomas A. Carter (me!) upon his brief sojourn in the legendary Chinese city, “I’ve never felt more poor than when I was in Hong Kong... I’ve never felt more ugly than when I was in Hong Kong.”

DAY 1: Cross the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border at Louhu and catch the immaculate KCR railway, immediately impressed that nobody is staring, shoving or spitting. Arrive in Kowloon’s southern peninsula and emerge from the underground into the land of lights – Tsim Sha Tsui. Blinded with excitement, I have to ask a resplendent group of Indian women draped in saris where the Mirador Mansion is. They point their gold-ringed fingers straight up. A towering, rust-stained concrete block, and one of Hong Kong’s only affordable accommodations. I check in to a claustrophobic dorm room (three times the price of a Mainland dorm and three times as small), then hit Nathan Road. Peering up into the neon lights, tripping in the crush of the crowds, I feel just like a migrant worker back in Beijing.

DAY 2: Awoken at 6am by one of my bunkmates stumbling in after a long night. His name is Pat, a young American backpacker with long red hair whose introduction is immediately followed by a long-winded narrative about his two-week romps in Hong Kong, including scoring with the mythical “Asian girls who LOOOVE foreign guys.” When I counter that I never had any such luck, the fast-talking but likeable Pat proffers some off-the-cuff advise (“Dude, lose the beard”) before launching into more useful information. “It’s Sunday, okay, and there’s gonna be, like, 120,000 Filipino nannies and maids on their only day off – and looking for boyfriends!” I’m a little dubious of Pat’s generalizations, but sure enough his mobile rings continuously with calls from adoring cleaning ladies he met the Sunday before. An afternoon stroll around Statue Square indeed reveals a literal blanket of thousands of picnicking South Asian women (Hong Kong’s largest migrant communities) whose collective chatter sounds just like a large flock of seagulls. When I attempt to candidly photograph one attractive young Filipino, she shouts “Hey! I klick jor ass!” So much for getting a date.

DAY 3: Fieldtrip to Shek O beach on Hong Kong Island’s south side, savoring the soft sand and splashing in the subtropical South China Sea. Supposedly this place is packed out on the weekend, but that’s what weekdays are for, no? It’s one of those moments when I enjoy being unemployed. Chase my fun in the sun with a tram ride up Victoria Peak for a breathtaking evening vista of skyscrapers, which appear to be constructed entirely out of lights. Dafnit, an Israeli girl clearly in awe of the Hong Kong skyline, remarks, “We have no tall buildings in Israel. Oh wait... we have one!”

DAY 4: Spend the day traversing Kowloon, the fashion billboards of TST turning into seedy massage parlor billboards as I descend northwest down the Nathan Road side streets, the sun lost behind precipices of neon signs stretching horizontally over the streets. The markets of Mong Kok are mobbed with uniformed students on lunch break: long-haired boys with untucked white shirts and loosened ties, and made-up girls in little outfits out of a Japanese kogal/hentai fantasy: knee-high black stockings, short skirts and a Louis Vuitton bag to carry their pencils and books. They have tattoos, tongue piercings and smoke cigarettes. After commenting that they are the hippest students in China I’ve seen, one 15-year-old boy replies in perfect English, “Yes, so cool, but so young.”

DAY 5: I want to see how the other half lives and spend the day in Central, Hong Kong Island’s microcosm of capitalism. Cross Victoria Harbor by the centuries-old Star Ferry through a morning miasma of pollution and follow white-collared crowds of businessmen contending with cell phones, briefcases and lattés into their respective skyscrapers. Later observe as many women shopping in designer department stores – these must be the wives. I notice that they all clutch their purses as I walk by, then realize why as I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflective fa?ade of the Bank of China tower. My head cast down in self-consciousness, I almost get rolled over by a Rolls (driving on the wrong side of the road, damn Brits!), then almost again by a double-decker cable car. Everyone in Central must be against me. My insecurities are firmed up that evening in Lan Kwai Fong, a gentrified neighborhood of upscale restaurants and bars on the Island’s northern escarpment. The steep streets are congested with young, well-to-do westpats toasting yet another successful day of money -making. I can’t believe there are so many white people in China who aren’t English teachers! They are all smartly dressed and have well-groomed hair; I am wearing cutoff army pants, low-top fake Converse, an eight year old t-shirt that I bought used, nor have I shaved or cut my locks in the eight months I’ve been on the road. I want to belong, but I don’t. It’s one of those moments when I regret being unemployed.

DAY 6: I give the Island another chance and take the night ferry across the harbor to the north end’s older and seedier nightspot, the infamous Wan Chai. Recall it is where Richard Mason penned his 1950’s tale of forbidden love, “The World Of Suzie Wong,” though a lot has changed since he wrote “take a minute’s stroll from the center and you won’t see a European.” The pick-up bars still line the road, yum-yum girls luring passersby into their neon-lit dens, but these are the illegitimate daughters of Suzie Wong, not of Chinese but Thai dissent, wearing not elegant silk cheongsams but cheap miniskirts raised to immodest heights. And unlike the kindly ladies of the Nam Kok Hotel, these modern-day working girls are vicious, mercenary, cold. When a group of obviously disappointed white boys emerge from one venue exclaiming, “In Thailand they take off ALL their clothes,” the brown-skinned door girl in plastic go-go boots is quick to shout back, “Then go to Thailand!” Further down Lockhart I follow a couple of older Europeans primed with drink and flirting heavily with a lovely bouquet of girls looking for generous company. After making their arrangements, one of the men leans on me and confides, “Wy mife, I mean my wife, thinks I’m *HICCUP* at a conference.” The remaining girls give this poor writer a cursory glance then quickly cross the street away from me.

DAY 7: I wake up feeling dejected and classless; the expatriates of Central don’t want me, nor do the waterfront girls of Wan Chai. Take a stroll around TST, passing by friendly knots of third-world hustlers hanging out in front of the Chungking Mansions, the immigrant ghetto of Kowloon that serves as temporary living quarters for Hong Kong’s financially insolvent émigrés. A street corner tout from Kashmir says to me “The Mansions is where anyone not wearing pastel shorts or a suit stay.” I realize this mad cauldron of multiculturalism is the only place I truly feel at home in Hong Kong. The Africans on the never-quiet front steps always high-five me, the Pakistanis all think I’m Muslim (must be the beard), and the Indians bat their eyelashes at me. The Chungking Mansions are the international haunt for anyone who is no one, and I am one of them. It is a peasant’s epiphany – in Hong Kong, I am the ‘nongmin.’

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a December 2006 edition of That's PRD magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:29 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Backpackers Behaving Badly by Tom Carter

Backpackers Behaving Badly by Tom Carter

Hostel Intentions
A sojourn into the heart of Chengdu's backpacker planet.
Written by Tom Carter
Monday, 02 October 2006
That's PRD

As a veteran backpacker of both hemispheres currently traveling extensively throughout all 32 provinces of the People’s Republic of China, this writer has come to depend heavily on hostels. Without them I could not financially (or emotionally) last the 10 months I’m expected to be on the road. As such, I’ve brooded on the etymology of the word.

Hostel: a term that has become synonymous with world travel. From the Medieval Latin hospitium, it has been co-opted by over 80 different countries, beginning in 1912 Germany whence originated the idea of the modern youth hostel. Yet in spite of its global popularity, hostelling has continued to remain a relatively underground experience.
Budget backpackers, considered at once hipsters and hobos, rely on hostels for their comparatively affordable accommodations. But youth hostels are also a retreat from the road; a refugee camp for foreigners journeying abroad.
China might have opened its doors to westerners, but we are still strongly urged by the national tourism bureau to check in to pricey hotels while economical boardinghouses, luguan, are for locals only.

Hot destinations, however, like Beijing, Yangshuo and Dali are renowned for their selection of lively hostels. I’ve been to them all, and I’ve seen it all (there ought to be a reality TV series called ‘Backpackers Behaving Badly). There is one hostel I shall especially never forget, where the vibe was so deliciously laid back that my intended two-day stopover turned into seven.

DAY 1: Arrive 8pm in Chengdu, Sichuan’s sweltering capital city, and check into the ‘Stir-Fry’ hostel. The attractive Chinese front-desk staff in short shorts confirms what I’ve heard about Sichuan girls. Get a bed in a 6-bunk dorm and immediately crash out. Woken at 2am by five inebriated Australians returning from a disco vociferously complaining that Chinese girls spend all day playing online dancing games at internet cafés, but at a nightclub they just stand against the wall.

DAY 2: Browse the three-story hostel premises, drying laundry whipping in the wind like the flag of the backpacker. Take a stroll around Chengdu then return to find my previous bunkmates replaced by a guy named Pickle from Hawaii who road a motorbike across Sichuan. Pickle’s first words to me are “Mind if I smoke a bowl?” At 5am a drunk Dutch girl falls into her bunk and passes out in nothing but her g-string. The next morning she tells us “I dreenk haalf day un sleep other haalf. I need to sleep less so I caan dreenk more.” I would be stupid not to stay another day.

DAY 3: New guy in our room, a University of Oregon grad named Sven (who looks nothing like a Sven). Pickle wakes up at 2pm and suggests our little American clique have lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant across town. I feel guilty not eating Sichuan hot pot like I’m supposed to, but my conscience is quickly lost in a world of melted cheese and refried beans. Nighttime at the Stir-Fry is hopping, the open-air courtyard crowded with people from every country imaginable sitting around drinking and chatting, their accented conversations invariably beginning with “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you going?” Happy laughter is a constant. Our world leaders would do well to study life in a hostel. A British bloke wearing a polo shirt with an upturned collar alternates between hitting on the Chinese front-desk girls (now uniformly wearing size-too-small summer skirts) and asking everyone “Are you going out tonight?” Me, Pickle and Sven opt for watching the Quentin Tarantino blood-and-breasts fest “Hostel” on the lounge DVD player. It’s almost like the Stir-Fry…except everyone gets killed.

DAY 4: Said British bloke, his collar now only half-upturned, is passed out drunk on the lobby couch till late afternoon. He was supposed to have caught an early-morning flight back to the UK, the receptionist tells us, but they couldn’t wake him. Evening at the Stir-Fry once again turns out to be quite the social scene. A French guy with tribal tattoos and a Vanilla Ice haircut queues up a jungle drum & bass mix on the lobby sound system and everyone at once stops what they are doing to dance and bob their heads, like a scene out of some musical. A blonde girl with a nose ring unabashedly drinking backwash out of beer bottles littered around the courtyard convinces Pickle to go with her to a local café named the Pot Palace. I shouldn’t be surprised that such an establishment exists in a province where weed grows wild as a weed. Pickle returns at 4am floating. The last he saw of the drunk nose-ring girl she was fighting with a Chinese taxi driver before running out of the cab without paying.

Day 5: It’stoo humid outside so I beeline to the air-conditioned lounge, where we watch seven pirated DVDs (technically only four because they kept skipping). During this time we visit Africa, various regions of Europe, Los Angeles and prison; it’s almost like traveling! An Italian girl comments, “I shoulda be outsidea meeting Chinesea people anda doinga Chinesea things,” but then settles back in the sofa when the next movie begins. At night I chat with a pair of Israeli girls who confide, “We come China to experience culture, but here have too many Israeli backpacker; we can’t escape ourselves!” And meet a young American beatnik double fisting bottles of Snow and Tsingtao (“Dude, they’re both, like, water!”) trying to round up a group to go to the Pot Palace. It dawns on me that while all these kids are literally blazing through the world looking for a good time, I’ve somehow remained the consummate professional. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m ten years older than the average backpacker. At midnight Sven comes in jovially exclaiming that he found the local pink-light district up by the train station. I’ve wondered where he’s been disappearing too lately.

Day 6: Tex-Mex again for lunch (fifth day in a row!), followed by the Japanese classic ‘Battle Royal.’ A German guy who hasn’t left the DVD room in ten days says that the lazy hostel life is sucking him in. I realize myself that as I still have 12 more provinces to go, I need to either get back on the road or establish permanent residence at the Stir-Fry. It’s a hard choice, but I ultimately opt for the former. Pickle is having his own dilemma. He had been trying to sell his motorcycle, but the local buyers he lined up cut their offer in half at the last minute. “I’ll be damned if I give in to those thieving b*st*rds. I’d rather drive my bike into the Chengdu River!” he shouts as he revs off down the street. I don’t know if he’s serious, but we never see the motorbike again. At 11pm I watch a baijiu drinking game between one of the Chinese front-desk girls and two Brits who have been living at the Stir-Fry for half a year while working as English teachers.

Day 7: Blearily wake up at 6am for the first time in a week and go downstairs to check out. No receptionist to be found, I look around and find the three multinational baijiu drinkers from the night before on the hallway floor. I shake them awake, one Brit crawling off to puke while I turn in my key. Stepping out of the Stir-Fry for the last time I look back to see the still-drunk front-desk girl and the other English lad checking doorknobs for an empty room, then stumble in arm in arm. Manchester – Goooooaaaaal!


10RMB (with YHA membership) for a dorm bed.
Near the train station. 23 XingHuiXi Lu at RenJiaWan, 028-83222271, http://www.mixhostel.com/.
Only a couple years old but already a backpacker’s favorite, complete with pristine dorm rooms, 24-hour hot showers, free wireless internet, restaurant/bar, maps & extensive travel information, complimentary train-station pickup.

50RMB for a dorm bed
Next to the Rongcheng Hotel. 130 Shanxi Jie, 028-6099022, http://www.samtour.com.cn/
One of Chengdu’s longest-running hostels, Sam offers simple rooms attractively set in a tradition Chinese garden (though the noisy Chinese hotel next door is cause for complaint). Basic services include a restaurant, laundry, bikes for rent, internet and tour booking.

20RMB for a dorm bed
Near the Wuhouci Temple. 26 Wuhouci Daljie, 028-85548131, http://www.hollyhostel.com
Sam’s sister or wife or daughter or something, this family-run establishment boasts 90 beds in 26 air-conditioned rooms, kitchen, free internet, tour service and complimentary pickup from the train station.

15RMB for a dorm bed
Near the Mao statue. 27 KuanXiangZi Lu, 028-86648408, http://www.dragontown.com.cn/
Located in a dilapidated hutong, this antiquated courtyard looks intriguing at first, however the dark, hot, cobwebbed attic that serves as a dorm room just can’t compare with more modern facilities.

15RMB for a dorm bed
Next to the WenShu Monastery. 42Xizhushi Lu, 028-86914422,
Set in a preserved 100-year old Sichuan-style residence, Sim’s is an ideal location to relax, with several patio lounges, a bar and entertainment area (including Ping-Pong and a movie room) and 24-hour hot showers.

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in an October 2006 edition of That's PRD magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:28 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Is China Safe To Travel? by Tom Carter

Is China Safe To Travel? by Tom Carter

Keeping A Lid on Crime
Beijing Review

Perhaps the single most reassuring fact about travel in the People's Republic of China is its remarkably low crime rate.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the principal authority of domestic criminal procedures, earlier this year announced a 15 percent decline in violent crime (4.5 million reported cases for 2005), while common property infringement incidents such as theft, fraud and robbery, which account for 80 percent of all cases, rose by only 1 percent.

Cosmopolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which annually attract tens of millions of overseas visitors on business or holiday, applaud themselves for providing public order and relatively safe city streets where one can walk at just about any hour in relative safety.

But all is not necessarily quiet on the home front. In an uncharacteristically candid public admission, the MPS has reported a pandemic of illicit drug trafficking in China led by an increasing number of foreign crime syndicates, reportedly from the African regimes of Nigeria and Liberia and triads from neighboring Asian countries.

Moreover, violent crime on the southern shore is notoriously rampant in Guangdong, making it the only province in China's mainland to arm police with guns.

Nor is this to say that Westerners are entirely exempt from either being the victim of, or committing, more serious crimes.

I have found myself in several situations while traveling extensively throughout China. I fondly remember the street gang who confronted me in a darkened alley in Inner Mongolia, or facing off with a pickpocket in crowded Qianmen hutong in Beijing with a baying crowd of onlookers taking great delight in watching a 196cm waiguoren vigilante.

Then there was that time in Chongqing. Not exactly heralded as a top tourist destination, the interior municipality of Chongqing, located on the rusty banks of the Yangtz River, uncannily resembles a lawless early-century port-of-call of maritime merchants, hardened dock laborers and waterfront brothels.

An overnight stay in a small hotel on the outskirts of China's largest, and hottest, city, turned into a midnight brawl after a polite request on my part to ask three obviously drunk men loitering in the hallway to settle down, was met with a hostile response.

A push on their part led to a not gentle shove on mine, sending one of the menflying back into his two friends. The next few moments were a feral blur, and for a short time I laudably held my own. But six bare fists can infallibly do more damage than two. The tough guys retreated into the night, leaving me breathless and battered.

The police arrived thereafter and took me to the Public Security Bureau to get a statement. It was determined that the hotel security guards failed to serve their purpose, and it was also found that the hotel did not follow strict municipal protocol in copying the three perpetrators' identification cards before accommodating them, which would have assisted the police in their investigation.

This meant that it was my right under Chinese law to demand an immediate financial settlement from the hotel proprietor—for my troubles, you see—though it hardly made up for the bang up job those inebriated gentlemen did on me.

To be sure, the aforementioned incident is an isolated one, with a great majority of expatriates being lucky, or not, to see so much action during their stay in China ("I was overcharged!" seems to be the leading complaint).

With only one police officer for every thousand residents in a population of 1.3 billion, and more than 40 percent of mainland precincts having fewer than five officers, compounded with a general lack of funding, resources or state-of-the-art technology, China's police ought to be commended for maintaining an impressively low national crime rate.

Let there be no mistake: Xinhua News Agency has reported that there were twice as many reported criminal cases in 2005 than in 1990, and six times that of 1980. But compared to hyper-violent icons of the wild West such as Los Angeles and New York, it is no wonder that China is witnessing an increasing number of foreigners residing in its gleaming municipalities. China remains one of the statistically safest countries to visit, and the rest of the world would do well to take notice.

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Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in a November edition of Beijing Review magazine.

Posted by tomcarter 08:27 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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