On the 14th of September at the M on the Bund in Shanghai, prolific Chinese author and photojournalist Hong Mei, accompanied with her husband, photojournalist Tom Carter, gave an exciting talk about her debut travelogue, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me (title translated from Chinese), to an audience of around 100 people. The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session.
Hong Mei became the first Chinese woman to backpack across the entire Indian subcontinent. Along with Tom, the couple deliberately selected off-the-beaten path regions and survived on a limited budget as they travelled for over a year across the length and breadth of India - a country that still comes across as a mysterious land for many Chinese people.
As a British man of Indian heritage who has never lived or worked in India, I found the talk to be very insightful and highly inspiring. I have not been to India since 1999, and I suppose because I've had a very English upbringing, so, sadly, I would be somewhat of a misfit in Indian society/culture if I ever go. Of course, it goes without saying that India is a beautiful country with a rich and vibrant history.
Having listened to the India that Hong Mei and Tom described, as well as seeing the photos they shared, it didn't seem much different from what I had experienced in 1999 (!). Things, such as for example, the lack of proper infrastructure and the lack of hygiene in public places in India, makes China look like a developed country. This type of external observation is exactly what the Indian government needs, because if they don't know what and how foreign guests feel about their country, then how can they make improvements?
I thought it was courageous and brave of the remarkable Hong Mei to have travelled to some of the remotest parts of India by herself—I'm sure that even some native Indians would not be tempted to do that!
A young European lady in the audience asked Hong Mei how she was received by the Indians, not only as a Chinese but also as a foreign woman. Her response did surprise a few in the audience. "Despite what we have seen and heard about India recently in the news, I actually felt very welcomed and relatively safe." said Hong Mei.
She went on: "At first contact and glance, most Indians thought that I was a Japanese or Korean, but when I told them that I was a Chinese, they were very friendly and welcoming. India is a country with stunning scenes." She revealed that in some parts of India, local people had never met a Chinese person before, so the people in those parts were very nice and welcoming.
The talk did touch on a key point: even though China’s new middle class are travelling abroad more than ever before, yet it is still uncommon for Chinese people to travel independently – either as backpackers or on a luxury tour. Chinese people usually travel in groups and try to see as many countries as possible and in as little time as possible. For someone to backpack around one country on their own for a long time is seldom heard of; though, it is not to say that this trend may pick up in the future.
Hong Mei's book, written in Chinese, is available here.
Having travelled extensively across ALL of China's 33 provinces...successfully succeeding in circumnavigating over 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so, Tom Carter, a superlative photojournalist and an old China hand, is just the man to have beside you when you need a story to be covered.
Carter, originally from San Francisco, has remarkably not only captured the whole of China through his lens, but has travelled extensively throughout India for a year too - a country that is still very much a hardship environment for foreigners (almost medieval in places). Try surviving in India for a day without making frequent visits to the toilet - that's if you can find one (nearly 50% - I say again - nearly 50% of the country's population has NO access to a toilet). Hats off to Tom for doing what he did for over a year because India is hard work. I couldn't survive the 3 weeks that I was there for in 1998, the last time I visited the country, despite staying at one of the BEST hotels in New Delhi at that time.
We chatted about many things for a couple hours with topics ranging from big media exasperations to publishing to travel war stories. Tom's wife, who is also a photojournalist, is a native from Jiangsu Province. She has recently published a diary about her travels around the whole of India (i.e. every major State in the country) - a first for a Chinese woman.
In the meantime, you can check out Tom's book, CHINA: Portrait of a People by clicking the picture below!
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