Book Review: Odyssey Guidebooks China Series

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Feb 4, 2005 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Beijing and Shanghai: China's Hottest Cities
Peter Hibbard, Paul Mooney & Steven Schwankert

Yangzi: The Yangtze River And The Three Gorges
Judy Bonavia & Richard Hayman

The Silk Road: Xi'An to Kashgar
Judy Bonavia

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For too long, travelers looking for guide books to China have had to chose between the pseudo hip smarm of Lonely Planet Guides and the frumpy tedium offered by publishing houses like Fodor's and Frommers. So the release of three new Odyssey Guides caused a god bit of buzz among the China guidebook reading public. The question is, are the books worth the buzz? The answer: definitely. The Odyssey Guides take a radically different approach to the whole travel guide concept, mixing in with its facts and figures an equal part of romance and fable. This overall affect is to make the destinations presented come to life in historical and cultural flesh tones, becoming far more than what one finds in normal guidebooks.

Travel writers are all too susceptible to "travel guide copy chop burn out", a state of mind in which all destinations visited professionally begin to be seen in terms of a uniform template. "Informative paragraph on historical significance of attractions...brief overview of local cuisine and where to find parks...etc.," The result is uniformity of product, with any given book, no matter what the intention of it's creator, becoming a mere collection of hotels listed by price range, so-called "must see" tourist destinations, and a few assorted anecdotes thrown in for good measure.

Odyssey Guides offer a refreshing paradigm shift in this tedious formula. As a fellow travel writer who's produced a fair share of the above described copy for cash, I'd be willing to wager that the publishers, rather than adhering to formula, instead chose writers who are not only familiar, but actually fairly in love with the places they've chosen to write about. Odyssey's newest release "Beijing & Shanghai: China's Hottest Cities" is co-authored by three long time China hipsters whose diverse interests in culture, history & rock and roll music seep into the text of the guidebook's pages. Mixed in the pages of the Beijing guide is a four-page essay by Beijing Based rocker and writer Kaiser Kuo on the state of rock music in Beijing. Useful for the business traveler? Maybe not, but a good gauge of the soul of the city as told by someone who definitely knows. Yangzi: The Yangzi: The Yangtze River And The Three Gorges, while useful as a guidebook for travelers intending to tour the region, reads equally well as a book for the armchair traveler just looking to read and learn. And The Silk Road: Xi'An to Kashgar is written with an appreciation for the region and its culture that far surpasses the usual guidebook fare, though readers looking to be told exactly where to go and when might find it a bit lacking.

Naturally, the question are these books practical arises, and the answer depends on the type of traveler you are. There are plenty of maps, but they aren't quite as detailed as those found in Lonely Planet guides (where every spot of interest, hotel & mentioned restaurant is laid out on an easy to follow grid). While the practical information sections of Beijing and Shanghai does contain the usual information (hotel addresses & numbers, etc.), it appears almost as an afterthought, as if the authors really feel that the true explorer shouldn't need hand holding. For this reason, while it's likely that these Odyssey Guidebooks will find a niche among people interested in depth & literary value, your average traveler will probably stick to familiar, more user friendly guidebooks that, in essence, take their trips for them. In an age where it feels as if everything has already been discovered, and all that's left for the independent traveler is to "do" this location or that, it's a pity.

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This review was first run in the South China Morning Post, October 2004