Most tourists travel by jet or bus and spend nights in four or five star hotels sleeping on plush beds. They eat at the best restaurants. Only a few visit countries like Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous nineteenth century explorer and adventurer. Tom Carter is one of those few.
Imagine backpacking for two years and walking 35,000 miles to capture the 'heart and soul of a nation', which is how Anchee Min, the noted author of 'Red Azalea', 'Becoming Madame Mao', 'Empress Orchid', and T'he Last Empress', describes Carter's book, 'China: Portrait of a People'.
The consensus among backpackers is that China is probably the single most challenging country in the world to visit on foot. That by itself says a lot.
There are more than 1.3 billion people in China. Besides the majority Han Chinese, the population includes fifty-six ethnic groups numbering over one hundred million. Carter saw it all from the teenage girl living in Chengdu dressed like an American punk rocker to the soot covered coal miner in Southern Shanxi. Carter’s camera lens captured the complexity and diversity of China from Inner Mongolian nomads to newlyweds in Hong Kong.
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. There is an old saying that a picture is equal to a thousand words. Great pictures tell stories.
In ‘China: Portrait of a People’, each picture is worth ten thousand words or maybe more. Carter’s photojournalist study of China stands alone in its genre as it focuses expressly on the Chinese people. Carter backpacked to remote areas to visit China’s minorities like the thousand year old Phoenix Village perched over the Tuo Jiang River or the seventy-five year old Pai Yao minority farmer in his red turban.
To reach some locations, Carter had to travel on foot into some seriously rugged terrain. To get an idea what I’m talking about, consider that China, almost the size of the United States, has only sixteen percent of its land for growing crops. The rest is either mountains or deserts.
Between the covers of ‘Portrait’, you will see what happens when a modern day Sir Richard Francis Burton spends two years backpacking through China’s thirty-three provinces and autonomous regions, not once but twice. During this odyssey, Carter discovered that the Chinese are a friendly, open hearted people.
If you plan to visit China, buy this book before you go. On the other hand, if you are an armchair tourist that never strays far from home, Carter’s Rembrandt ‘Portrait’ of China will not disappoint. You will chuckle when you see the young, twin boys walking out of the river after a swim or watch the eight year old acrobat student at Wuqiao bending herself like a folded sheet of paper.
Between the covers of ‘Portrait’, you will start a vicarious journey visiting China like few have done even among the Chinese. You will travel on this 35,000 mile journey without leaving your house, bus or passenger jet.
There is no way that this review can do justice for 'China: Portrait of a People’. To try would require millions of words. Seeing is believing. What are you waiting for? Take that first step. 'Portrait' is not available yet at Amazon and B&N.com, but the book may be purchased directly from the Hong Kong publisher. Links may be found at Tom Carter's Website.