Think outside the Planet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


The only book I've ever thrown away unread - nay, unopened - is a guidebook a Norwegian travel agent forced upon me when I set off on my life's biggest journey back in 1988: the Trans-Siberian train trip to China.

When I arrived in Beijing I found backpackers walking the streets, their noses so deeply buried in the Lonely Planet that they were crashing into lamp posts and falling down open sewers. They seemed to stick so rigidly to what The Book said that they missed all the good bits. I decided to never get a guidebook again.

This principle stood me in good stead until last year, when I, E and K planned to travel from Lanzhou to Xiahe on the Tibetan Plateau, home to the famous Labrang Monastery. For some idiotic reason I visited the Lonely Planet website to check for alternative routes, as I dreaded falling victim to the 'have a copy of your passport made for exorbitant prices hundreds of metres from the bus terminal before catching the 7am direct bus' scam run by enterprising locals.

To my delight I read that there were buses leaving every half hour from Lanzhou South bus terminal to a town quite near Xiahe, and from there to the lovely little mountain town with its Tibetan monks and pilgrims and green rolling hills polka-dotted with sheep, undisturbed by passport nazis.

The bus left Lanzhou at 8am as promised and arrived in the little town of Linxia two hours later, also as promised.

But that was it.

At 11.30am we were still sitting on that damned bus, just one kilometre outside Linxia. What the author of the article failed to mention was that he had never actually taken the bus, which wouldn't leave Linxia until it was full.

If we had taken the 7am bus, complete with passport hassle and 'you take photo' officialdom, we would have been in Xiahe by then, cavorting with sheep.

By the time we finally got to Xiahe it was 3pm and starting to rain. Torrentially. What's more: the last bus back to Lanzhou was to leave in 15 minutes.

Fortunately - as with everything in the mainland - whatever your need, there is an entrepreneurial-minded body nearby to accommodate it. As soon as I turned away from the ticket counter with the bad bus news, a guy materialised: 'I can drive you to Lanzhou any time today.'

So it was a little bit more expensive than the bus and the guy did crash into some bollards while texting, but we got to walk around Xiahe in the by-then beautiful weather and we were satisfied. But, people, what I want to say is this: never trust the guidebook. Never.