Often referred to in semi irony as the bible, The Lonely Planet for any country can be seen grasped in backpackers hands as they make their way through the streets, looking for a second opinion on any shops and restaurants before taking the courage to step through the doors. 40 years ago I can understand how Lonely Planet would have been essential for finding places to go and the tourism highlights a country has to offer. The present day traveller has internet access in nearly every hostel allowing the usage of wikitravel and hundreds of travel blogs to gain a wider scope and a variety of opinions on what is and isn’t worth visiting or paying the entry fee. Hostel booking sites such as Hostelworld are far more effective than lonely planet as you receive up to date reviews on each place rather than it just being reissued each year despite the possibility of it changing ownership, falling into disrepair or even closing down.
On the Chinese tourist trail there are a list of five common places that the Lonely Planet owner recites to you as places they are visiting, these being; Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an and Guilin. Apart from Guilin the others are attractions for the sake of the city and cultural relevance around it. When it comes to Guilin the main appeal is countryside and Guilin is generally the hub which transports you to nearby areas. Lonely Planet is insistent on Yangshuo being the place where you want to go to get the best experience. Because Yangshou was initially an extremely small town, by Chinese standards, of about 100,000 the huge influx of tourists has made the place something far more akin to South East Asia than anywhere else in China. It is the only place I’ve seen in China where the restaurants label themselves as serving ‘Chinese Food’ and where this is outnumbered by pizza and steak in surrounding restaurants. There are signs down alleyways for Tattoos, which are generally frowned upon by the rest of the country, and all the rooftop bars play Beer Pong until the early hours in the morning. Nothing about Yangshuo felt like China and yet when you go on a bike ride within 5 minutes you are back in an idyllic rural beauty. It is lucky that most of the people that rely on Lonely Planet for every detail won’t stretch themselves the extra 45 minute (70p) bus journey down the road to the smaller, quainter and much more scenic Xingping.
On the other side of the spectrum the later editions of Lonely Planet China (which are incidentally illegal in the country due to the Tibet section but most people wave around ignorantly) have neglected to include much detail about Fenghuang which is a Chinese tourism hotspot. Fenghuang still features some coffee bars and disco’s, often including karaoke, but these are all examples of how the Chinese tourist splashes out and has a good holiday time rather than being a simulation of any othe western inhabited holiday scene. Fenghuang is still fairly accessible, a 3 hour bus journey from the train station of Huaihua or less from a couple of other nearby stations. The small city is quite beautiful with the bamboo boats actually being made out of bamboo and not plastic and being powered by man rather than motor. There are still lots of options for local cuisine and to find a pizza place is actually a fair challenge compared to the well priced street food and noodle café’s. The city is a good place to relax in the daytime, or join the groups of people sketching along the river, and at night it comes to life with a very lively night scene, but this dies off quickly by midnight. The buildings are illuminated nicely and the general atmosphere is one of fun and relaxation. The local hand crafts and souvenirs are the best and most reasonably priced I have yet seen in China with fabrics and pashminas being particularly attractive. There are also numerous local specialities which are suited to the western taste buds. There are some delicious honeycombe ginger snacks everywhere and also some hand spun thin ricehair sweets with peanut paste in the middle. In the evening the streets are alive with the usual affair of numerous skewer grills but with the addition of fried chilli potatoes and herb rice with bacon. Of all the local specialities I’ve found in the country these are four of my favourite. Another speciality is something baked inside mud, though I am yet to see what is inside, and a selection of snails. On the downside, because the market is catering for some rich Chinese tourists there is a large selection of exotic foods, which are often displayed outside the restaurant alive. Here they vary from snake, bamboo rat, bee larvae and the one which disturbed me the most being a wild cat. But this is after all China and I would rather see China than some form of Western party conglomeration (poor cat).
In my six days in Fenghuang I saw about 10 white faces, in five minutes in Yangshuo I saw more than 10. I hope that either Lonely Planet starts giving people broader options of where to go so there isn’t just a western path trodden into the country or more people begin using a variety of sources so those who want to see something that feels more authentic aren’t missing out.