Some years ago now, I crossed the border from Kazakhstan into Xinjiang in China’s far northwest, and found myself stuck in Urumchi with the equivalent of US$50 and no onward tickets. It wasn’t a problem; saving my cash for food, I ‘hitch-hiked’ on China’s trains by boarding them at small-town stations and then jumping off before the ticket collectors reached my carriage. At Jiayuguan in Gansu, I spent a windy night on top of the Great Wall. When I got to Xian, a green-coated PLA soldier had a spare ticket to Beijing and insisted I go with him — we spent the journey drinking Tsingtao beer and communicating in sign language, and he wouldn’t accept a penny for the ticket. In Beijing, I slept in a bike shed and got to see early-morning tai chi for the first time. And further train-hiking got me to Hong Kong on the south coast — all the way across one of the world’s largest countries for less than the price of a typical hotel room.

This is just to point out that travel need not be expensive. If the spirit of adventure is present, you can see foreign countries as well as — if not better than — package tourists.

But few adventurers have gone as far as Tom Carter. Despite a lack of funds, he decided he wanted to see China — all of it — and he set off on a two-year odyssey to visit every province and region of the PRC. He slept in bus stations, travelled with farmers and monks, fell ill and got into scrapes, but got to meet the kind of people a business traveller never would.

The resulting photo book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, features a small proportion of the people he met during his epic trek. And what a trek it was: 33 provinces, 56,000 kilometres, 56 distinct cultures and over 10,000 photographs… Tom has probably seen more of China than any Westerner since Marco Polo.

The 640-page book is available in bookstores in China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and will soon be on sale in North America. Until then, for your armchair travelling pleasure, we reproduce a few photo spreads below.