Beijing & Shanghai
Beijing & Shanghai by Peter Hibbard, Paul Mooney & Steven Schwankert
The Silk Road: Xi'An to Kashgar by Judy Bonavia
Yangzi by Judy Bonavia & Richard Hayman
For too long, travellers in China have had to choose between the pseudo hip Lonely Planet guides and offerings from the likes of Fodor's and Frommers. So, the release of three books by Hong Kong's Odyssey Guides causes a good bit of buzz.
The guides are another step in Odyssey's quest to eventually publish books about every mainland province. Few of those books have much chance of making money. But each will aim to be good enough to read without having to visit the place it describes.
Odyssey always sets itself apart from standard guidebooks that 'do' the trip for the kind of travellers who want only to scratch locations from their list.
Travel writers are susceptible to 'travel guide burn out' - by which all destinations visited professionally begin to be seen through a template. 'Informative paragraph on historical significance of destination ... top attractions ... brief overview of local cuisine and where to find it ... hotels ... theme parks ...'
Odyssey guides avoid the formula by choosing writers who are not only familiar, but in love, with their subject.
Beijing & Shanghai: China's Hottest Cities is written by three long-time China hipsters with diverse interests in culture and history. Beijing-based writer Kaiser Kuo, for instance, offers a four-page essay on the state of rock music in the capital. Useful for the business traveller? Probably not, but a good gauge of the soul of the city.
The Yangzi: The Yangtze River and The Three Gorges, although certainly handy for travellers, reads equally well from the armchair - best fulfilling Odyssey's mission.
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, although readers wanting to be told exactly where to go and when might find it lacking.
Are these books practical? That depends on the type of traveller you are. There are plenty of maps, although they're less detailed than those in Lonely Planet guides.
The practical information sections of the Cities book, for instance, contains the usual information about hotel addresses and numbers, it appears almost as an afterthought, as if the authors feel that true travellers don't need their hands held when they step off the train.
Odyssey guidebooks will find a niche among people interested in literary depth. The average traveller may feel more comfortable with the familiar, user-friendly guidebooks. But if you want to drop the security blanket, an Odyssey guidebook will inspire you to embrace the exotic and take your own trip.