I Think I Need a … Guidebook?

As I packed to leave for Shanghai earlier this month, I worried about forgetting things. Most stuff, of course, I could replace here if I really had to (though not shoes—my 10WW feet are freakishly large in the U.S., let alone China), but so far I haven’t realized that I’ve forgotten anything important.

One item that it didn’t even occur to me I might need is a guidebook. After all, guidebooks are outdated, right? I can google the name of pretty much any city or town in China and find out what its major tourist attractions are, how to get there, and where I might want to stay. Why lug around a guidebook when I have my laptop and an Internet connection?

I had forgotten, though, that during my first two stints in China (2005 and 2006-2008), I had spent hours thumbing through my Lonely Planet China, finding inspiration in its chapters and plotting out trip itineraries. Some of those trips I took; some of them were never more than daydreams. Lonely Planet wasn’t the perfect resource: as the Amazon reviews for the current edition of its China guide show, the series has never been strong on getting details (like ticket prices and opening hours) right. But I wasn’t reading my LP for those details. I was browsing. I’m a browser. If I had the vague thought that I might want to take a trip to the southwest, I would turn to the guidebook for … well, guidance. I wanted the big picture: what are the main places to visit in that region? What are their major attractions? Why go there? Sometimes I would pick up the book just to read a chapter on a province that I’d never thought of visiting before, to find out what I might have overlooked. If it weren’t for paging through my old Lonely Planet, I would never have spent a week in Yangshuo, Guangxi in 2005, a vacation that still stands as my favorite trip in China.

Google is great if you know where you’re going. But if you just have a sense that you want to go somewhere, it’s more useful to browse, to collect a lot of ideas and then sift through them. It’s the same in cooking: the Internet works great when you’re searching for a specific recipe, but a cookbook can be more helpful in suggesting dishes that you don’t yet know you want to make.

I’m not quite at the point where I have time in my schedule to consider traveling very much—that dissertation won’t write itself!—but one of the best things about living in China, to me, is the opportunity to explore a country so big I doubt I’ll ever stop finding new places to visit. But I can’t find those places entirely on my own. So one of these days, I’ll be adding a new Lonely Planet China to my bookshelf in Shanghai, to pick up whenever I’m actually going somewhere … or just browsing.

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