DINING with Robert Storey is a disappointment. Instead of mouth-watering delicacies such as Peking duck or shark's fin soup, this influential Hong Kong observer opts for cheap eats at a Central noodle stall. A tour of Wan Chai girlie bars is also a bit of a letdown. We're talking in and out, but not the way you might imagine. Likewise for a Lan Kwai Fong pub crawl. Storey carefully surveys the beer list at each bar, jots some notes in a pad, then leaves the place dry. A night with publishing's prince of penny-pinching is akin to stepping out with Scrooge. Storey prefers being well-read to painting the town red. If his name rings no bell, not to worry. Despite throngs of devotees who hang on his every word, Storey has yet to make the best-seller lists, at least in The Sunday Times. However, his name has become legend from Kunming to Ho Chi Minh City. And there isnot a cockroach-infested guesthouse in all of Kowloon where visitors haven't welcomed the wisdom of this road-wise scribe. Anyone who has hopped a train in China or sought a cheap night's lodging in such off-the-track locales as North Korea, Mongolia or Vietnam most likely owes a debt of gratitude to this man. Whether one is seeking a bus connection in Ulan Bator, an authentic Taiwan teahouse, or - that nearly extinct entity - an affordable room for rent in Hong Kong, Storey has the answers. He has put his slight frame on the line time after time, suffering innumerable discomforts and unbelievable amounts of road distress to spare his readers the same. Storey is author of eight travel guides published by Lonely Planet. The Australian company's 'Shoestring' and 'Travel Survival Kit' titles dominate the budget-travel market. Better than Hitchhiker Guides to good deals, these books have become sacred bibles on the backpack circuit. Recognised as a leading authority on austerity, Storey has roamed the world, exposing the best bargains in budget travel. Leave it to Fodors to advise on room service, car rental, and where to wine and dine. However, if there is a hostel bed, cheap buffetor standby flight on the wing, Storey will find it. He has crossed the Gobi Desert with little more than a few bottles of vodka and his signature life-sustaining supplies - Ritz crackers and peanut butter. Some people subsist on a few dollars a day as a matter of necessity. Storey does it for a living. Andnobody manages such cheapness with such style. Nor are many as influential. Wherever Lonely Bob roams, thousands of backpackers follow in his footsteps. Like a locust cloud of skinflints, they will munch the same muesli, sip the same yak butter tea, and count the same cockroaches to sleep in the Chungking Mansions flop-houses he recommends. Hordes of backpackers clutch the China survival kit as they whittle a few fen off the bill for fried rice in Beijing. 'You can't charge two fen!' they scream. 'The price is supposed to be one-point-eight. It says so in the book.' Storey, who co-authored the landmark China guide, has also written books on Vietnam, Taiwan, Mongolia and Beijing, and penned part of the Indonesian guide. Having roamed in the past with Robert Storey through China, Mongolia and North Korea - not to mention several safaris to the wilds of Lamma island - it seemed only fitting that I tag along, Sancho Panza-style, when this flop-house Don Quixote set off in search of square deals in one of the world's most expensive markets: Hong Kong. Storey was back in the territory, bravely battling our runaway inflation to research another edition of Hong Kong, Canton And Macau, a travel survival kit first published in 1978; he has been updating it since 1989. The sixth edition has sold 50,000 copies since its mid-1992 release, ranking it 17th in world sales for a company that sold 1.4 million of its budget guides last year. However, the Hong Kong book is infinitely more influential than the numbers suggest, as any local hostel owner knows. 'It's the most important book about travel in Hong Kong, no question,' says a travel agent in Chungking Mansions, the Grand Central Station for backpackers passing through the territory. Storey's tips and warnings about Hong Kong reach thousands of additional readers as part of Lonely Planet's 'Shoestring' guides to both Southeast and Northeast Asia. Some might see Storey, 42, as an odd choice for authorship of the definitive guide to the dark alleys, bright lights and bargains of Hong Kong. A long stretch from the fit, dapper adventurer of the Royal Geographical Society mould, Storey is slight, wearsglasses, walks with a limp and is rather nerdiA sh. He neither smokes nor drinks, rarely shops, and is not given to wild nights in Wan Chai. Although the book had mentioned the area for years, our tour of Lan Kwai Fong was, in fact, Storey's first visit toa local nightlife district that had already celebrated its 10-year anniversary. However, ask him the birthplace of Confucius (Qufu), where to get a Big Mac at four in the morning in Tsim Sha Tsui (either Granville or Peking Road), what people did on Lamma before the arrival of dogs and hippies (produced plastic), or how one escapes certain death after running out of petrol in the Gobi Desert (bring plenty of vodka, which can be parlayed for rationed petrol), and Storey overflows with information. He can recite the truck routes into Tibet, the visa regulations for Vietnam, and make those rarest of nightlife recommendations - where to party in Pyongyang, North Korea. His crystal-keen memory and train-spotter's fondness for facts have made him a favourite of Lonely Planet, for which he produces as many as four books a year. Storey, who calls Taiwan his home base, is rarely there for more than a few weeks at a time. The native of New York City is used to moving around. He grew up in New York, New Jersey and California, before settling in as a slot machine repairman in Las Vegas following a stint with the United States Air Force, stationed in New Mexico by the Texas border. Three years spent alongside leggy chorus girls in Vegas casinos inadvertently gave Storey his start as a writer. His brief marriage - 'disastrous' is his description - during the mid-1970s provided the fodder for his first book, How To Do Your Own DivorceIn Nevada. Needless to say, the book was almost as successful as the marriage. 'It sold maybe 500 copies,' Storey says. 'I can't even believe I'm telling you this.' He recovered on an 18-month trip that provided a new love - wandering. He returned to school and studied language while planning his next adventure. A friend mentioned the need for English teachers in Taiwan. 'I went in 1982 and got a job the first day,' he says. 'I arrived in the afternoon and was teaching that night.' Ever the perfectionist, Storey grew frustrated with the lack of language textbooks. He wrote his own. Creative Conversation first appeared in 1985, and Storey is proud to note it still commands a strong market share of English texts in Taiwan. A similar distaste for the guidebooks to Taiwan resulted in Storey's writing breakthrough. In 1986, he produced his first guidebook, Taiwan On Your Own. 'It was very primitive,' he admits. 'There were a lot of photos and I made the maps myself. To give you an idea of how primitive it was, I had to buy my first computer to put it out.' The book attracted the attention of Lonely Planet, which was then riding high on a wave of interest in Asian travel. Founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler must have identified with Storey's enthusiastic verve. They themselves began publishing in 1973, with a hand-stapled guidebook called Across Asia On The Cheap. Two decades later, the company claims 140 titles, offices in the United States, Australia, Britain and France, and sales of more than $80 million. Lonely Planet then published one guide to Korea and Taiwan, about as similar as Discovery Bay and Boracay. They decided to split the title and picked up Storey's guide to Taiwan. Following a quick rewrite, he received his first Lonely Planet assignment inHong Kong. 'I moved to Hong Kong in 1988 for two months and went everywhere,' he says. Rather than join the backpackers in Chungking Mansions, Storey, who speaks Mandarin, opted to rent a room with a Chinese family. 'Their daughters took me around, taught me some ofthe language and showed me Hong Kong's secret places.' Not that Storey needs much assistance. His work methods are rigorous, refined from nearly a decade in the travel writing game. A typical day begins with the city sights, eateries, hotels and museums, then ends long after midnight in a cheap hostel, with Storey poring over train timetables and history books, frantically feeding information into his laptop. He is prolific, a perfectionist, an avowed workaholic. 'People think a lot of romantic thoughts about travel writing,' he says. 'Being a travel writer is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Mostly, it's work. A lot of work. 'People think it's a holiday. Yes I travel, but I mainly see a lot of airports and bus stations. I have no time for sightseeing. I either spend all my time on buses or trains, or else I'm checking out hotels and restaurants. I work about 12 to 16 hours a day. And it's lonely work.' Take Mongolia, where Storey produced the first modern guide to a country that had largely been locked away from the outside world for most of the century. Storey calls his Mongolian guide 'my greatest accomplishment'. Most travel books lean heavily upon previously printed material, lifted from other guidebooks and reference material. The challenge with Mongolia, he says, was to create something from nothing. 'I had to do it all myself.' He spent three months in this rugged, unforgiving land, travelling to each of the far-flung provinces, often by jeep when petrol shortages stopped the planes and trains. There was often no food, and very basic accommodation. By comparison, Hong Kong may seem a folly. However, this is far from the case. Three hours of rambling with 'Lonely Bob' and I still have not had my first beer. We have left Lan Kwai Fong and are heading towards Wan Chai. Storey makes many stops on the way. There are film stalls on Stanley Street where the stock must be checked, alley markets that must be browsed. Travel this way is testing. When Storey, who is in his standard-issue Salvation Army gear, ducks into Jimmy's Kitchen, I decide to wait outside, thinking they should toss him out rather quickly. Instead, he returns minutes later, still scribbling menu items on his notepad. Such diligence is the backbone of a good guidebook, but not all Lonely Planet titles are cut from the same cloth. Take Tibet, for one. Not just off the mark, the book is an utter embarrassment. Originally researched in the mid-1980s, the book has not been properly updated, although new editions continue to appear with the same old information. It's criminally inaccurate. Another popular target of Lonely Planet critics is the Cambodian guidebook, originally a short chapter attached to the Vietnam guide. By all appearances, only a short visit to Phnom Penh was involved when this was expanded into a woefully inadequate book. 'You hear complaints all the time,' Storey says. 'Customers always complain, but our customers tend to be a bit more fanatical about everything. A lot of people live by Lonely Planet books. They treat them too seriously.' To be fair, few see the challenges firsthand. And they are enormous. Storey updates the China book at least every two years, and the information really needs revising every month. 'The prices are always changing,' he says. 'Hotels and restaurants close, or open, or change management. You can never keep up.' Readers respond with letters detailing their own disappointments, discoveries and ire. The best are reprinted by Lonely Planet and are quite entertaining. However, Storey says many are ill-informed and obnoxious. As a general rule, Storey tends to travel incognito. Some of his favourite tales involve accounts of his own demise, described in great detail by adamant Lonely Planet readers. 'You hear all kinds of things - plane crashes, train wrecks, motorcycles goingoff the road,' he says. And he has allegedly choked to death on dim sum or tofu burgers more times than he can remember. Spending your life on the cheap travel circuit can be tiring, as all who have traded in their backpacks for briefcases know. Storey is relieved to see Lonely Planet starting to move upmarket with its audience. 'Being a travel writer is hard on people,' Storey says. 'It wears you out. Eventually, I'll either burn out or slow down. The time spent on the road takes a toll, both emotionally and physically.' However, Storey hasn't parked his laptop yet. After writing the Hong Kong guide in Taiwan, he'll visit Lonely Planet headquarters in Australia before returning to the road to update Northeast Asia On A Shoestring. Before the summer, he has to return to Mongolia, then start on a new book on Korea. And then there are rewrites of the guides to Indonesia, China and Vietnam. The funny thing is, with all this travel, Storey has never taken a vacation. Where would he go, one wonders? 'New places?' he says. 'I have my hands full with all the old places. Tibet is one area that really intrigues me, but I don't want to add any new places to my list. 'A holiday for me is just being home.'