Travel Photographer Tom Carter’s 5 Favorite Chinese Villages

Text & photos by Tom Carter

China, the mystery of the Orient, and also its greatest paradox. The fastest growing economy in the world from history’s oldest civilization, where steel and glass skylines are haloed by crumbling walls and well-heeled bankers rub shoulders with barefooted ethnic minorities.

The country is amidst one of the most rapid transformations in its vast history, what this author calls the Change Dynasty, yet also remains a veritable kingdom of the ancients.

During my 2-year, 35,000 mile journey to all 33 provinces and autonomous region in the People’s Republic, I have been blessed to visit both the gleaming metropolises of China’s future and the sepia toned remnants of its past.

The following series of photos, taken from my coffee table book of photography CHINA: Portrait of a People, are what I personally consider the most beautiful sites of Old China; those remote villages that have yet to meet China’s wrecking ball, and a proud people contented to proceed with their antediluvian customs as they have for five thousand years.

To be sure, villages such as Lijiang in Yunnan and Jiangsu’s Zhouzhuang are at once protected heritage sites and popular tour group destinations offering an accessible and attractive albeit faux look at traditional village life.

But for a glimpse into China’s true history, an excursion in the opposite direction from the crowds, off the proverbial beaten path, will reward the intrepid traveler with sites and experiences incomparable.


Qian Nian Yao Zhai by Tom Carter

5) QIAN NIAN YAO ZHAI, Liannan Yao Autonomous County, Guangdong

Overshadowed by the neon glare of Guangzhou, South China’s notorious capital city of concrete, crowds and crime, and lost in the karst peaks of North Guangdong, 1,000 year-old Qian Nian Yao Zhai is the largest and oldest Yao minority village in the country.  Over 7,000 red-turbaned Yao tribespeople once occupied the sloping stone and slate homes.  However poverty and generational differences have dramatically reduced the population to less than 200 residents, leaving the mountain village a perfectly preserved portrait of traditional Yao culture.

Gongtan by Tom Carter

4) GONGTAN, Youyang Tujia-Miao Autonomous County, Chongqing

Nestled beneath the Wuling Mountains and overlooking the jade shoals of the Wu Jiang River, rustic Gongtan was founded in 200AD and is home to the region’s Tujia minority people.  For centuries accessible only by boat, the Ming Dynasty-era estates are constructed entirely out of wood and perched on stilts against the steep palisades.  Unfortunately, the 2,000 year-old architecture is fated for the pyres of modernization when the municipality’s local government will bulldoze the village this fall to build the Pengshui Hydro Power Plant. Visit while you can!

Langmusi by Tom Carter

3) LANGMUSI, Gansu-Sichuan border

Historically, Sichuan used to be part of Kham Tibet and it wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that most Tibetans do not recognize the provincial boundaries of government-drawn maps nor the ethnic divisions of census bureaus.  Located 3,000 meters atop the mountains of West China and directly on the Gansu-Sichuan border, Langmusi is a slat-board settlement and spiritual stopover for resplendent Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims come to worship at the Sezhi and Geerdeng monasteries.

Tianluokeng by Tom Carter


West Fujian’s Hakka people, a subgroup of the Han, migrated to South China during the Qin Dynasty and, to protect themselves from hostile locals, ingeniously constructed clusters of circular, fortress-like homes directly out of the elements. The Tulou rammed-earth structures of Nanjing County span 4 stories and up to 40,000 square meters, housing up to one hundred residents apiece – the epitome of Chinese communal living.

Zengchong by Tom Carter

1) ZENGCHONG, Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou

With ethnic minorities maintaining over 40% of the provincial population, Guizhou is China’s least developed but arguable most attractive region. A constellation of uncharted settlements populate the mountains of South-East Guizhou, most notably the secluded Dong village of Zengchong.  Surrounded by pyramid-like rice terraces and protected by a crystalline moat, the small islet supports 100 tightly-packed slat board residences and a three hundred year-old wooden drum tower.  Master carpenters for centuries, the Dong have beyond a doubt constructed the most beautiful village in China.


Tom Carter in Tibet (Photo credit Eelco Florijn)

Travel photographer Tom Carter (1973) was born and raised in the City of San Francisco and graduated with a degree in Political Science from the American University in Washington, D.C. Following a political career with a number of high-profile state and national campaigns, Tom decided to “peek over the fence” and subsequently spent 18 months backpacking down the length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Tom later spent one year in Japan, one year in India, and four years in the People’s Republic of China, travelling extensively throughout the country’s 33 provinces and autonomous regions. The result was his first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, hailed as the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author.

CHINA: Portrait of a People

Visit Tom Carter’s homepage. You can purchase China: Portrait of a People on Amazon. Like CHINA on Facebook. See China Daily reviews on CHINA: Portrait of a People here. See more of Tom’s photos of China on YouTube (a must see!).



Filed under Guest Writers & Bloggers, Special Events

13 responses to “Travel Photographer Tom Carter’s 5 Favorite Chinese Villages

  1. Wonderful piece…beautifully written, great sentiment…and nothing more to say except, thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. Thanks for sharing Tom. We live in Beijing at the moment and have been to Lijiang (yes, it has been very ‘done up’) and a few of the big cities. I’ll make a point of trying to visit these beautiful villages. 🙂

  3. China is on my bucket list. What a wonderful glimpse of areas to visit and explore. Lovely photos. Thanks Tom and Karen.

  4. Tom is a great writer as well as a great photographer. His blog today makes China so much more real for me.

  5. Exquisite photos–a real reminder that the modern world and the “progress” it brings with it are not always for the best….

  6. Simply stunning. What a wonderful post. Yet another country bumped up the list, thanks to Karen’s International Week 🙂

  7. You know what’s really cool … now that I have such a huge bucket list, I realize I also have friends (sometimes two or more!) in the countries of my travel desires. Sa-weet. I went to Germany many years ago, and I had a friend and her family there – what a great vacation with people who could show me around to all the cool spots. My German friend and I went out on the road, too. Simply awesome. Way better than your typical bus tour.

  8. Special thanks to Karen Elliott and everyone here for your enthusiastic response to my photos and my book. I think Karen’s idea for hosting an “International Week” is a novel idea and look forward to seeing more. As for China, if anyone ever has any questions about traveling or living here, feel free to get in touch; I am always happy to offer advice.

  9. China is another country I’ve been drawn to for many years. Had planned to visit in 2002, but a family emergency prevented me from going with a group of spiritual friends. I was enchanted with your photos Tom, and you showcased some provinces I wasn’t familar with. I loved the photo of the cluster homes/fortresses. Never saw anything lke that. Such a beautiful country with so many contrasts. THank you so much for sharing.

  10. I hope everybody takes a moment to go to Tom’s YouTube presentation – a load of pictures there, too! The YouTube link is at the end of the article.

  11. How beautiful! What a wonderful post.

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