I have real ambivalent feelings towards the whole Lonely Planet series. For those not in the know, LP is a series of travel books which are explicitly aimed towards the poorer, more adventurous backpacker hippie type. But isn't that the sort of traveler that I am? I'm certainly not the $100-per-night hotel Fodor's-reading type. Why feel ambivalent towards the LP?
On one hand, the 1000+ page LP China edition is a very useful book. There are the actual specifics of where the bus stations and cheap hotels that accept foreigners are. (The latter is especially important since every Chinese city is loaded to the gills with $2 per night crummy guesthouses that I'm willing to stay in. However the commies don't let foreigners stay at these places, mainly to prop up the luxury hotel market.) Furthermore, I don't want to buy a map for every city that I stay in. I'll even go as far as to say that I'm willing to consider suggestions for cool places to see when I happen to be in a random town. In short, it is extremely useful resource to have if you travel in China (I actually have a Rough Guide, which is out of England, but the same sort of idea.)
That being said, this is what I despise about the China series. The first is that I think it tries way too hard to kiss up to its readers. It always goes on about how "exotic" this city is or how "adventurous" that route is. It pats you on the back if you take an 18-hour sleeper bus from Dali to Kunming. Sure, it's annoying, but whitey does it so often that there are ticket offices with English-speakers to sell tickets for luxury Daewoo buses that make the route; there are no such vendors in western Sichuan. The book also frequently drops gratuitous references to being a backpacker like, "You can find pretty marble sculptures to buy here, but carrying these around in your backpack might be troublesome." There are these incredibly insipid anecdotes that the authors have thrown in which turn a not-very-interesting story about how their bus between two major cities broke down into some wild, National Geographic-type encounter with the natives. Finally, there's the first page of the book, which gives a little intro spiel about the authors, which is a complete overload of autofellative self-congratulation. One guy's intro runs something like, "At the tender age of 17, he escaped from New York to the mountains of Colorado. After graduation, he hurtled across the world and is still looking for a home, living out of his backpack." OK, so I can appreciate that this guy didn't go straight from elite prep school, to Ivy League, to a paper pusher in a brokerage firm. But his (probably self-written) bio makes him out to be some sort of mystical visionary with lots of insight into the inner workings of the universe, when instead he's probably closer to what I am, which is some schmo rich enough to afford a plane ticket and backpack to travel on the other side of the planet and can occasionally appreciate the local culture.
Another aspect is that I think the LP guide has negatively influenced the tourist industry in China in a few ways. For example, one writer, who's putzing about himself, trying to gather info for the book, might bump into something that's slightly quirky and off the beaten track and then mention it in the book. The result is that everyone reads this, wants to see this something off the beaten track, and thus creates a beaten path to this oddity. The perfect example of how this works is Dr. Ho in Lijiang. One of the writers of the early editions probably feels a little ganmao le (sick) and decides to look for a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. He finds Dr. Ho, who offers some tea which helps a little. Said writer makes a passing reference to the doctor in the Lijiang passage. A cottage industry is born, where Dr. Ho's house becomes a major tourist stop. He now offers tea to tourists (sick or not) and then asks them to pay "what they feel is appropriate." The result is that Dr. Ho is probably the luckiest man in the province, with naïve foreigners going out of their way to his house in order to pay a couple of dollars for crap tea that cost him pennies.
The more entrepreneurial types in China have seen so many laowai's walking around with their backpacks on their back and their daypacks on their front, noses buried in their glossy new LP, walking past dozens of similarly interesting streets looking for this one oddity mentioned in the LP, completely oblivious to the people around them. These entrepreneurs have seen the willingness of these foreigners to be led by the nose by these books. Thus, there are so many restaurants with big signs out front that say "Recommended by the Lonely Planet." These restaurants are in Dali, Yangshuo, Turpan, outside the Great Wall (or at least outside Simatai, which the LP claims is the most adventurous place to see the Great Wall. Simatai is a developed section with vendors all over the place; for adventure, go to an undeveloped section.), or other places which the LP deems as adventurous, and thus so many people go that an industry builds up, thereby making the place thoroughly conventional.
This is especially true in the cases of Dali and Yangshuo. It's been a complete case of positive feedback. The first LP probably mentioned these towns as small, quaint little places to stay at, so a bunch of foreigners went there instead of the other small, quaint places which aren't mentioned in the book. This small, quaint place sees a fair sprinkling of foreigners and realizes there's buckets of money to be had. So one guy probably asked one random whitey what food westerners like. This guy, probably having been in China for several weeks, probably really missed a good Western breakfast, and so told him banana pancakes and muesli with yogurt. So these entrepreneurs open several restaurants cooking banana pancakes and muesli with yogurt to lure whitey in. The next edition of the LP comes out saying this quaint, little place is a haven for Westerners, with plenty of restaurants that serve banana pancakes and muesli with yogurt. So a shitload of LP-reading foreigners, who actually aren't that adventurous and can't bear the thought of going to a Chinese restaurant with Chinese menus, flock to these places, and the cycle repeats itself. Indeed, Yangshuo and Dali have turned from little villas to monstrosities, where backpackers come in on planes from the other side of the world in order to pretend that they're in their home country by doing exactly the same things they could do back home like sitting around in cafes watching the latest Hollywood movie while eating banana pancakes, and perhaps at the end of it, buying a colorful little trinket that signifies, "Oh, I was in a foreign country, I guess."
When I was researching the several options for where to go this summer, I checked out the LP web site's bulletin board. There are some posters there who clearly seem to have a lot of experience traveling in China without their nose buried too deeply in the LP and their advice/reviews were helpful. However, the vast majority of the posts go like this: "Can anyone help me on where to go in China? I have two weeks to see as much as I can. I'm flying in to Beijing and I want to see Dali and Yangshuo. Does anyone have any suggestions for other places to go?" Thankfully, these posts are followed up by some more experienced people replying with, "You're a fucking idiot."
After a close textual analysis of the LP, though, I think the writers deliberately cover up some places. For example, for this trip that I'm doing this summer, I want to start in Chengdu and head north to Gansu or Qinghai, which has a lot of Tibetan people. One route, which looks particularly badass/dangerous, goes through the city of Yushu in Qinghai. I heard from a friend, who's studying Tibetan language with a monk in Beijing, that Yushu is THE place to be in terms of temples. But after a thorough scouring of the LP, all I could find was a brief reference to Yushu in one sentence, mostly as a town that you pass through if you're going from Xining to Chengdu, a rough week-long route that few people do. The two possibilities are that 1) they didn't do their research or 2) the writers are deliberately hiding this place in order to protect it. But if they do mention this place (as opposed to any of the other random villages along the route), it shows that at least they've been there. I think that the writers probably have the same attitude towards the majority of their readers as I do (disgust) and that they're willing to wax poetic about Yangshuo in order to get paid while protecting the really good things for themselves.