Did Tom Carter really travel 35,000 miles across China?

Greetings from China. I just got back from the first weekend of the Shanghai Literary Festival and was introduced to a lot of great books about China, where I am currently working as an English teacher.

I found it not a little ironic, however, that most of the authors at a Chinese book festival were westerners as opposed to Chinese. I’m not sure if this has to do with the language barrier, political censorship/repression, or if just that the sponsors of the fair feel that books written by caucasians have a greater appeal to other caucasians.

One of the most fascinating new books I heard about while at the festival was CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter. Mr. Carter, a travel photographer, has received alot of publicity for supposedly being “one of the only foreigners in the history of China to have traveled across all 33 provinces in China.”

This big, fat book of photos is proof that, yes, he has actually been to every province in China, but as I am an avid backpacker myself, I could not help but question the *logistics *of his geographical bragging rights. The book specifies that Mr. Carter spent “2 years backpacking 56,000 kilometers and visiting over 200 cities and villages across China.” Considering that China is 9.6 million square kilometers, 160 cities and countless smaller townships and villages, how is it at all possible that Mr. Carter was able to navigate this much landmass within such a short time frame? It took Mao Zedong and the retreating Communist Army over 370 days just to get through a mere 8,000 miles in southwestern China during their “Long March.”

Furthermore, Mr. Carter claims that he only traveled by railway, bus, walking, hitch-hiking and the occasional 4x4 expedition. He supposedly did not ever travel by plane after arriving in China, which makes his claims even more unfathomable. I’ve been on busses and trains in China, and believe me, just getting from one city to the next takes a hair-pulling amount of time.

Lastly, even if Mr. Carter has in fact seen as much of China as he claims, is he truly the only foreigner to have ever done so? Marco Polo knew Asia better than most, and according to Polo’s book, he saw plenty of China as well, but is it really possible that even the great Polo was bested by Tom Carter?

My thinking is that if Mr. Carter really has seen this much of China, he’d have been headhunted by National Geographic by now, or at least sponsored by the China National Tourism Administration as the posterboy of inbound tourism, not living in poverty and obscurity in some rural Chinese village (or so goes the rumors about him).

Sorry, I know this is a protracted question, and I don’t suppose there’s many Straight Dope experts on China, one of the most mysterious and mind-baffling countries in the world. I am not at all discounting Mr. Carter’s book or his stunning photographs; as a geography nut, I’m just trying to determine if his claims are logistically possible, because I can’t seem to wrap my head around it :smack:

Why wouldn’t it be possible?

35,000 miles (56,000km) is an average of just under 50 miles (just under 80 km) per day over 2 years. The guy says that he did a lot of his travel by rail, bus, hitch-hiking etc., so it seems eminently possible to me. If he had claimed to walk the whole thing, that would be different, but if he traveled by motorized vehicle, that’s not an especially long way. It’s fairly typical in places like the United States for people to travel 12,000-15,000 miles (~20,000 - 25,000 km) per year by car, just doing their regular daily commute, shopping, etc.

As for the “rumors” about his living conditions, where are you getting those from? According to his own website, he is “presently traveling across the 35 territories of India to photograph his next book.”

And do you realize how many prominent photographers have never been “headhunted by National Geographic”? The magazine doesn’t simply grab every photographer who happens to take some good pictures and put them on the payroll. Here’s the NG Photographers page. To work for the magazine, you not only have to be able to produce great images, but do so as part of a specific assignment, and presumably on a deadline as well.

Call me cynical, but this looks like an elaborate - and much-cleverer-than-most - piece of promotional posting. It contains all the points required to intrigue an audience to sell the book, but couches them in mild skepticism. Bravo!

Yeah, i did wonder about that. I considered not replying for precisely that reason, especially since the OP seems to have joined the Boards only to post a question about this particular book. I decided to give him/her the benefit of the doubt, but it does seem a bit like spam.

Additionally, on only two month-long trips to China, I personally traveled maybe 6,000 miles overland. So if he were there for two years and determined to move about, he could have covered 35,000 miles without even breaking into a sweat - it’s not even a stretch to imagine, and not much of a source of controversy. Hence my skepticism. That and the first-post thing.

Your publisher has a good PR agency, Tom, but they’re not the best.

I could easily have visited all the provinces of China had that been my personal goal. It wasn’t. I went just about every where in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi that was open to foreigners and a lot of places that were not. I wrote the seminal guidebook to Southwest China. I also covered some ground in Hianan and Guangdong. I travelled between 6-10 months a year in China in the 1985-1989.

I’ve been to a lot more areas since then but those were my big travel days. I’m sure I’ve got Tom Carter beat in mileage and certainly I knew/know SW China much better than he does.

What was his time frame? I’m guessing he was a photographer and wanted to be able to claim every province. Hence, his hyperbolic claim to be the most traveled foreigner in China, blah blah blah. I’m sure he was not the first in post Revolutionary China to have traveled to all the Provinces, nor is he the most traveled or expert. He did do something cool though.

Yeah, I’m agreeing with the “this is probably PR” thing. I made it to probably around 15 provinces in my two years in China, and that was just casual travel during school breaks. Anyone with any dedication to it could easily hit all of them and I’m sure plenty have. China is an exceptionally easy place to travel, and has plenty of night trains that allow you to cover large expanses easily.

Many years ago I read Paul Theroux’s book “Riding the Iron Rooster”, where he “lost” his Chinese tour guide and spent a year riding all over China on the railroads, IIRC back in the 80’s. There were not too many restrictions, he never mentioned being hassled by curious police or anything. Also, China has a massive rail network - so it would not be a surprise if someone put in 2 years and 35,000 miles if their goal was to see all of China. I found Theroux’s book fascinating to read, even without any pictures.

Yeah, you have to wonder if this OP was a astro-turf effort… but who knows?

Does the well traveled photographer have a brother named John? I hear some of his travel stories are out of this world.

Reread the OP. Carter was a “backpack traveller” and did not actually “backpack” to all the different provinces of China. Eg, his luggage was a backpack as opposed to a suitcase and being on a guided tour.

Heck, it would only take maybe 2 - 3 weeks to travel by slow train to all the different provinces back in the 1980’s. I remember it took about 72 hours to get from Guangzhou (Canton) to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province) and I did this trip many many times. 3 days from Chengdu to Beijing. I didn’t do it but IIRC it was about 5 days from Tianjin to Xinjiang, which is from the east coast to the westernmost province.

There were also long distance bus services way back then that would go across multiple provinces. For example, I remember an overnight bus from Guangzhou (Guangdong Province) to Liuzhou (Guangxi Province). From some godforsaken train stop in southern Sichuan to Lijiang (Yunnan).

Thanks to everyone for your input. You guys are so cute when you get all conspiritorial. I can assure you I am not a PR agency, I’m just an English teacher in China with a penchant for books and travel.

China Guy, what is the title of your “seminal” guidebook to Southwest China and where in Shanghai can I buy it? I am planning on traveling to those very provinces you mentioned this summer and it would be refreshing to read something which deviates from Lonely Planet’s well-trodden path.

Southwest China Off the Beaten Track published in 1987 and long out of print. Although you used to be able to get it in the Peace Hotel. I just did a vanity search and found quite a number of hits and including citations. :slight_smile: http://www.bing.com/search?q="southwest+china+off+the+beaten+track"&form=QBLH&qs=n&sk=

One of these days, I’ll scan in the whole book so it’s available.

This site is probably along the lines for more current information. http://www.passplanet.com/China/ The webmaster seemed pretty cool and I traded emails with him probably 2 or 3 years ago.

If you have any specific areas in SW China or specific interests, you can ping me and I might be able to point you in the right direction. One of the drawbacks of guidebook writing, is that to do it right, you have to go everywhere yourself (this is a major failing for most of the Lonely Planet books). So, spend a lot of time in crappy places in the bumfuck China and sometimes overly rushed in the cool places. Altogether I spent about 3 years in SW China and Tibet.

Man, it’s been 9 months and I do miss Shanghai after living there for 12 years.

French photographer Marc Riboud has some amazing photos from China in the 1950’s. I’m sure he didn’t go to all of the Provinces but he was well travelled for the time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Riboud

You can also find travelogues from the 1800’s where adventurers went all over the freaking place. I have some reprints that you used to be able to get in Taiwan in the 1980s buried away at my brothers house. Here’s a great resource for free books on Asia/China and there are many travelogues: http://e-asia.uoregon.edu/

Herman Wong (How-man Wong) certainly has Tom Carter beat. Herman was the national geopraghic photographer and writer in the early 1980’s. He had a jeep and used to drive from Hong Kong to Kunming and other places. We shared the same publisher. He was pretty full of himself but with the National Geographic name and budget did a lot of amazing things. I’m sure he visited every province just to say he did close to 30 years ago.

I learned about Tom Carter because I do a lot of photography in India and he went there for a few months.

Yes, he obsessively promotes himself on the internet and it’s very clear that this is another one of his self-promotion posts to advertise his book. He does this sort of thing quite frequently to stir up publicity for his book of China photographs.

I especially love Tom’s bit on how he out-did Marco Polo.

The part about how National Geographic should hire him is also fairly comical.

Many people use the internet to promote sales of their products in similar ways.

Congratulations to the smarter readers who figured it out.

I will say if he personally went to the ancestral grounds of all the minority groups, then that is fairly impressive. He won’t be the first as I’m pretty sure Herman Wong did that in the 1980’s.

But it’s also likely that he photographed all of the minority groups without actually visiting their homelands. One could photograph all the nationalities during Chinese New Year in Bejing for example.

BobMarkus - did you basically like him or was he only a blowhard?