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Lonely Planet promises tell-it-like-it-is books in Chinese for Chinese
By Zhu Shenshen

INTREPID investigators and authors are traveling around China to compile fresh and candid Lonely Planet guidebooks in Chinese. Zhu Shenshen takes a hike.

Lonely Planet (LP) is considered a bible among Chinese travelers for overseas destinations, from Britain to New Zealand to South Africa, though most are written in English by foreign writers. It's valuable for its candor. It goes beyond tourism promotion cliches and provides first-hand insider information. It goes off the beaten path.

Now, it plans to publish new Chinese-language provincial and regional guidebooks for Chinese readers. They will include updated editions of already-published books in Chinese about provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai, Hunan, Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, the Municipality of Chongqing, and the Guangxi Zhuang and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.

The new regional series for Chinese provinces promises to be pretty candid, without the typical boilerplate. If a place is jammed with tourists, LP is going to say so, or so its editors say.

One example is Lijiang City in Yunnan Province, a hot tourist destination that many people say has become spoiled and commercialized.

"We never compromise our opinions for commercial gain," said Hu Zhen, who is in charge of the new Lonely Planet book for Zhejiang Province and possibly and maybe Shanghai. (Yes, it will mention Xintiandi, and mixed opinions about it.)

"If necessary, we won't reveal our identity as LP authors during our investigation," said Hu.

Lonely Planet has assembled an international team of experienced travel writers, editors and experts to put together guidebooks for China.

"It's not a bible or an encyclopedia, it's like a trustworthy friend," said Yap Seow Choong, a Singaporean based in Shanghai, who is a consultant for the Lonely Planet China project. "It's an assistance book to help you start your own trip with useful information and accurate assessments, before you become advanced tourists."

The tag on his weixin (weixin is a popular instant message app) account is "my work is to travel."

According to Yep, intrepid LP writers endure all kinds of hardship.

"There were thefts, unexpected rain and snow blocking roads, and the experience of being sick in a remote village," said Yap. Those were extreme events, however, and mostly the teams' adventures were less threatening, he said.

The new books in the series feature "paidang" or trendy street snacks in Guizhou Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as well as interesting architecture in Shanghai.

Take the example of Lijiang, the ancient town and now tourist mecca in Yunnan. According to the staff, the new introduction will be something like, "Though many people don't like its modernization and commercialization, more people are coming to visit this town." Instead of, "It's a south China town with several hundred years' history," - which is boilerplate in many guidebooks.

"It's important to tell true things and feelings, though sometimes it's difficult," said Tan Chuanyao, an editor.

Li Xiaojian, who is in charge of LP China and based in Beijing, told Shanghai Daily that the team includes 30 writers in China, among 400 writers worldwide for Lonely Planet, which is headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. The China team includes freelance writers, interpreters, journalists and others.

Lonely Planet has just recruited new authors in China and it will start training new authors in April.

Shanghai Daily recently spoke with four Lonely Planet writers and editors in a teahouse and restaurant in Shanghai. They include:

Yap Seow Choong, consultant for Lonely Planet China Project and a former journalist.

Hu Zhen, in charge of the new LP book for Zhejiang (maybe including Shanghai). He quit his job with a securities firm two years ago.

Tan Chuanyao, author of the LP book on Sichuan Province. She used to be a language teacher and market researcher. She quit her job in 2008 to joint the first batch of LP writers in China.

Yuan Luan, who is updating the Guizhou book. He is a staff member of CCTV and owns a hostel in Guizhou.

Why do it

"I'm writing because I love travel," said Hu. "That's the first priority. The money lets you survive but doesn't ensure a luxurious life in a city like Shanghai."

While writing the Lonely Planet book on Yunnan, Hu interviewed people who had cared for Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese army in Myanmar, providing the kind of detail Lonely Planet is famous for.

Tan enjoys the process of investigating, searching, interviewing people and finding interesting details. In the Sichuan book, Tan tells readers about poet Zhai Yongmin who opened a bar in the center of Chengdu for public poetry readings and gatherings of poets and book lovers. He came across the woman as he was strolling around.

In Chengdu, she visited almost 10 bus stations to collect schedules and check arrival times.

Staff in most stations keep detailed schedules in their pockets. "The trick is to ask them again and again until they give you the schedule," she said.

Authors double check on important routes such as those from Chengdu to Chongqing, she said.

Writers investigate a range of subjects. In addition to interesting sites, they check out public transport schedules, accommodation and food.

For the book on Yunnan, four writers, including Yap, spent 40 weeks in the southernmost province, in addition to pre-trip planning and post-trip writing and editing.

Yap often spends two days and one night to visit eight to 10 hostels in a town. In addition to basics such as location, cost, sanitary conditions and Wifi, he checks out things like much-hyped lake views. In one hotel near Cui Lake in Kunming, he found no lake view except from floors eight, nine or 10.

Though not all Chinese readers want to read about well-known sites, they still must be included. Not every Chinese-speaking visitor may know the area or may be from the Chinese mainland.

In Shanghai, Lonely Planet will not only cover the basics but also interesting architecture, providing historic and cultural background. Unlike English-language guidebooks on Shanghai, the big focus is not on bars and night clubs. The books give practical information on when to avoid tourist groups.

Controversial food

Writing about local food can be tricky and controversial, says Yuan.

Dog meat is commonly eaten in Huajiang in Guizhou Province and barbecued pigeons are popular in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. These are probably not mentioned by Western authors for Lonely Planet, according to this Chinese team. And the China team itself is debate whether to mention exotic food.

"Eating dog is a cultural phenomenon wherever you go in Guizhou, so you had better prepare for it," says Yuan, author of the Guizhou book. "Even if you don't write about it, it's still there."

Yuan said he won't recommend dog meat eateries but in the new book he discusses the industrial chain of dog meat in the province. "Some sources of dog meat are suspect," he said, indicating captured and stolen dogs.

On writing for LP

Yap described the team as a group, who are passionate about traveling, have good language skills and understand the needs of travelers.

It's not surprising that most writers have journalism experience.

Lonely Planet trains all writers and editors. For example, they are taught to how to draw a simple map using their footsteps as measurements. They can't use maps directly because of copyrights. Sometimes they have found excellent new routes linking sites, which are often valuable to tourists.

Sometimes overseas writers for Lonely Planet visit China to train local authors in the Lonely Planet approach to investigation.

They remind locals to always try different routes whenever possible, and get off the beaten track.

Writers are armed with the latest gadgets for accessing the Internet, writing, navigating and taking pictures.

How books begin

Once a decision is made about a subject, then a commissioning editor puts together a brief for the author or authors, including destinations from top to tail. Then the authors begin their research and add more details to the brief. Research typically takes two months, sometimes longer.

Compared with Western authors who have done it all before and are updating their books, sometimes 10 or 12 times already, with new hot destinations, Chinese authors have to start from scratch.

It often takes two months or more for an author to investigate.

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