Reviewing the Guidebooks I Used on the Silk Road

These are the guidebooks I used during my trip, and what I thought of them. For the most part, they're not that good... but at the same time, they're indispensable.

What follows below are lightly-edited versions of my Amazon reviews, as well as links to the most recent versions of these guides. If you have books you liked better (preferably in English), let me know in the comments.

Lonely Planet China (2013 edition): two stars

Better than the 2011 edition, but already out of date at time of publication

First of all, a word of warning about the "Vine" reviews on Amazon: none of them have actually used the guidebook as a guidebook, and none of them speak to how accurate, useful, and reliable the information in this guidebook is.

I traveled to China in late summer 2012, and I found the 2011 edition to be very inaccurate with lots of the prices way out of date (the Chinese government is massively boosting prices on tourist attractions, so it wasn't unusual for the prices to be double what was quoted in the book).

Using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature, I checked to see how my summer 2012 experiences compare to what in this 2013 edition, and it's clear that the research for many places/chapters was conducted more than a year ago. Here are a few quick examples of old information: the section on Xinjiang lists visa requirements for Kyrgyzstan, even though you haven't needed a visa to travel there since July 2012; the section on Lanzhou shows the main bus station in a location that was closed early in 2012; the hostel listed in Lanzhou no longer accepts foreigners (meaning there is really no budget place to stay in Lanzhou); and the price for Fort Jiayuguan is listed as 100 yuan, while it was really 120 yuan in summer 2012 and has probably increased again since then. These may seem like rather trivial points, but I spotted them pretty easily in only a few minutes of using the limited "Look Inside" feature, and I suspect they reflect a greater trend of inaccuracy and outdatedness.

I understand that China is a rapidly changing country, but so does Lonely Planet (that's why they release new editions fairly quickly), and I don't think this is a very good excuse for a guidebook that was out of date 10 months before it was published. Some last-minute price checks by them would not be amiss, especially for tourist attractions which have become notorious for their price hikes. I know some people will suggest on-line research as a solution to these issues, but the reality is that once you get outside the major centers, there is very little up-to-date online information available about China, especially when it comes to infrastructure (bus locations & transportation) and tourist attractions.

On the positive side, the maps do seem to have improved over the last edition, and some of the more egregious mistakes in the last edition seem to have been resolved (though I suspect this is due to a shuffling of authors in this edition: I suggest taking the chapters written by Michael Kohn with a grain of salt, as my experience with him over three different guidebooks leaves a lot to be desired). The prices are obviously more accurate than the 2011 edition, but even if you're planning a trip for 2013 don't expect them to be what LP says.

Some of the reviews here suggest buying the kindle edition, even though they only reviewed the print edition. If you are thinking about getting the kindle edition, I instead suggest you take a look at the kindle-specific reviews that other Lonely Planet kindle editions have received. I've only ever use the print editions of most guidebooks, but I have heard a lot of complaints while traveling about how bad kindle editions of LP are (difficult to navigate, bad maps, poor inter-linking), and I think the kindle-edition reviews tend to back this up. Kindle guidebooks are great in theory, but I don't think they're quite there yet (and I'm not sure they'll ever be, since it there's no substitute for quickly flipping back and forth from page to page).

Lonely Planet Mongolia (2011 edition): two stars

Maybe 100 pages of useful travel information, little of which is for independent travelers & much of which is out of date

Given the paucity of travel destinations and advice, this really should not be a standalone book. At most, it should be part of some Trans-Siberian book, or part of a Northeast Asia guide. As it is, we have a guidebook that is heavily padded, with over 40 pages devoted to Ulaan Baatar (probably the easiest city in the world to get your business listed in LP), a third-rate capital that reasonably deserves perhaps 4 pages of coverage. Coverage of other parts of the country begins on page 79, ending on page 204. Get rid of maps and photos, and that's maybe 100 pages of travel coverage for the entire country (the rest of the book is devoted to the history and culture).

It gets worse: much of the coverage is of little use to the independent traveler. For example, almost all of the sights listed in Eastern Mongolia (pages 138-154) are accessible only if you have private transportation. There are no regular tours that go to Eastern Mongolia, and unless you are going to hire a private vehicle you are out of luck. Another example might be that the top three highlighted attractions in the Gobi region (pages 155-179) are all found on the same page, which gives you some idea of just how detailed and descriptive their write-up is.

Furthermore, the sample itineraries and regional highlights supplied by the author are also highly misleading: in order for most of them to be accomplished in the time frames sugggested, you would need to have private transportation and/or a tour arranged before arriving in the country. But you wouldn't know this from reading the book, and would instead have the impression that it would be possible to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. The reality is that Mongolia is a large country with little infrastructure, and even during the high season you can't count on being able to book a tour in UB that will leave within a few days, let alone count on being able to take public transportation/buses on any given day. On the other hand, it is no coincidence that many of the sample itineraries listed in LP seem to be copied directly from tours offered by agencies in UB, making the book only slightly more useful than arriving in UB without any plans and booking a tour as soon as you arrive.

Given the importance of tours--especially guesthouse tours--and the obvious attempts to try and make the book as long as possible, it's a real mystery why more space isn't devoted to the places one can book a tour, what they offer, typical tour routes (maybe they don't describe typical routes because then one might notice that LP suggested routes are the exact same?), and price ranges. Instead we get about two full pages of information on tour operators from pages 52-54, with a number of tour operators getting short write-ups. unfortunately, none of the descriptions have even approximate price ranges attached, and none of them appear to be guest-house tour operators. Indeed, many of the operators listed appear to be specialists, offering things like cycling, rock climbing, and dog sledding. Since there wasn't enough demand for a Gobi trip at my guest house, I visited Black Ibex, which Lonely Planet as offering "countrywide tours at reasonable rates." They quoted me $600 for a four-day Gobi trip, which was not quite as reasonable as I had expected, given that I spent less than $600 total in 3 weeks in Mongolia.

The bottom line is that this isn't as useful a book as you might imagine. If you want to see things outside of UB, you have to either: a) book a tour, in which case you will likely follow one of the sample LP itineraries; b) travel independently and give yourself a lot more time than the book suggests, especially since you will need to keep backtracking to the transport hub of UB and/or be flexible enough to wait around as you hitchhike to smaller locations; or c) arrive with your own transportation or be willing to hire a jeep. For the most part the information you get from LP will be inferior to that you can get from whatever guesthouse you are staying at in UB, and actually trying to plan ahead using this guidebook will only end in frustration as things are extremely unlikely to go as planned.

Finally, much of the information is woefully out of date. I thought things were bad when I was there in 2012, and it can only be that much worse now. The out-of-date nature of the book is only made worse by the fact that the information on LP's website is even older, and comes from prior editions. So while the print edition might have the wrong information, looking to the website for more up to date information sometimes gives you different information (which you assume is more recent), which is supremely unhelpful when you rely on this only to discover that the information online is even older! Sometimes this actually works out in your favor, though, s this edition has actually removed some useful information that existed in previous versions and is available on the website (such as the Od Hotel in Sainshand, which is your best budget bet there).

At the end of my time in Mongolia, it got to the point where I wouldn't go anywhere simply relying on Lonely Planet: I would try to find as much information online or from other travelers before going to the bus station, another city, etc.

For those considering visiting Mongolia, here are my recommendations:
-The big two cultural attractions of Kharkhorin/Erdene Zuu Khiid and Amarbayasgalint Khiid are both worth visiting, and also quite different. Kharkhorin is obviously much easier to visit as it is serviced by daily public bus (if someone in Kharkhorin greets your bus and asks if you want to stay in her yurt camp, say yes!). LP's instructions on how to get to Amarbayasgalint are ridiculously bad and will probably set you off in the wrong direction, but it's worth it to go there (imagine a monastery in a valley pasture surrounded by nomadic herders, horses, cows, goats, and sheep), and I would suggest spending at least one night to give you time to explore.
- Try to spend as little time in UB as possible. You will likely have to spend a few days there anyway, just waiting to go to other places, but other than Naadam there's no real reason to actually want to stay there.
- Sainshand is fairly easy to visit (it's on the railway line to China) and the nearby sites of Khamariin Khiid and Bayanzurkh are both worth visiting. If you arrive in Sainshand on the weekend you have a good chance of either hitchhiking to the above two sites or sharing a taxi with Mongolian tourists who also take the train there.
- Many other activities and sights available in Mongolia are perhaps better (or at least more easily) seen in other places. For example, Ger/Yurt stays, horseback riding, trekking, and other outdoor activities are also available in Kyrgyzstan, easier to arrange and at less cost. You can also get a taste of the desert in China, with places like Dunhuang offering easily-accessible dunes. Yes, the main dunes in Dunhuang are quite touristy, but you can get away from the crowds and other places in Inner Mongolia, Gansu & Xinjiang offer dune experiences as well.
- You can save a lot of money if you take local trains to/from China instead of the Trans-Mongolian. The only catch is that you have to cross the border by jeep/bus, which is a major pain in the ass and involves long border waits, and buying tickets from the border to Ulaan Baatar can be very difficult (especially on the weekend).

Lonely Planet Central Asia (2010 edition): three stars

Little coordination between the different country authors, questionable coverage of many places.

I used this guidebook in conjunction with the Silk Road (Insight Guides) guidebook (2013 edition: Silk Road (Insight Guides)). In my experience, these two books work well together, especially if your primary area of interest is in exploring the Silk Road (if you are interested mainly in mountaineering or hiking, then the Silk Road guide is obviously less useful): the Silk Road Guide is a far superior guide to actual attractions, and is the best resource for actually deciding what to see and where to spend your time; the LP is best for figuring out the nuts-and-bolts logistics of how to get to these places and where to stay, but is otherwise inconsistent.

The difference in quality is a little surprising, as Bradley Mayhew wrote the Silk Road guide and is also the coordinating author of the LP Central Asia guide being reviewed here. But perhaps it's not a surprise that the Silk Road guide, written entirely by Mr. Mayhew, shows much tighter editorial control and consistency, while the multi-author LP is much less coordinated and more inconsistent. This lack of consistency, combined with the typical LP style of over-hyping all attractions/destinations, makes it very difficult to use this Lonely Planet to chose between different destinations... a problem that is accentuated if you have to select between destinations in different countries (with different authors writing about them): need to chose between hiking in the Wakhan corridor and doing the same around Issy-kul? Good luck with that. Want to know if the market in Osh is better/more appealing than those in Dushanbe, Margilon, or Tashkent? You're on your own. And while you might infer from the LP that Uzbekistan's Ferghana valley is the most conservative area in the entire region, almost all travelers would agree that Osh and the Kyrgyz Ferghana valley is more conservative, and in my experience the Zeravshan valley in Tajikistan is even more conservative (I had local women literally run away from me if they saw me walking along a mountain path).

In contrast to LP's shotgun approach, the Silk Road guide tends to list only the best and most interesting places to visit, and provides pictures of most places (there's generally at least one full-colour photograph on each page). Essentially, the Silk Road guide presents a curated list of sights, without attempting to artificially inflate the number of attractions/sights in a country simply in order to make that country's chapter appear more comprehensive--if something is better seen or experienced in another country, then there's a good chance that it either will not appear in the guidebook or will only receive scant attention. This approach is a lot more useful when it comes to deciding where to spend your time and what to see.

Of course, the most useful function of LP guides is in providing logistical information: where to stay, how to get around, and how much things cost. The good news is that the information in the book was still relatively accurate about 30 months after publication (so maybe 3-4 years after research?): most prices were within 10% of the listed price, though many things in Kazakhstan are a lot more expensive. The bad news is that although prices are fairly reliable, the locations that marshrutkas and share taxis leave from seem to constantly fluctuate and there doesn't seem to be any source of updated information available on the LP website. So while the prices may be close to what LP quotes, you will still need to figure out where things leave from (your guesthouse and/or other travelers are probably the best source of information on this).

As for the content and accuracy of the book itself, I would have to say it is quite variable. Some countries/authors are better than others, and some worse. The chapter on Afghanistan is incredibly brief, and only describes a few places. Sure, this may be understandable given the general security situation, but it's also far too thin and superficial to be something you would want to use if/when the situation improves, as the guidebook suggests. It's also very weird that the cover photo is from Afghanistan, given how useless the book is for that country (you get the impression the Afghanistan chapter is mainly there so they can claim they are the only book that also covers Afghanistan). The chapter on Turkmenistan is also quite bad, and it is missing a lot of useful information (and it must be bad if I can arrive at that conclusion after visiting on a 5-day transit visa). The country-level map is atrocious, especially since it appears to show that the road from Dashogus to Ashgabat goes through Konye-Urgench (this is kind of a big deal if you want to go from the rather small Konye-Urgench to Ashgabat, since from the map you would assume all traffic from Dashogus will also stop in KU). Smaller maps, such as those of Merv and Mary, are also questionable, with attraction flagged in the wrong location and non-existent streets listed. Also, the failure to list 3-day and 5-day itineraries for Turkmenistan makes is mind-boggling, as most people visit Turkmenistan on 3-day or 5-day transit visas.

Lonely Planet Iran (2012 edition): one star

A significant step backwards from the previous edition, with less content and inferior maps

The 2012 version of this book is some 60 pages shorter than the previous 2008 version (368 pages as compared to 428 pages--a difference that is actually much larger than it appears when you strip away sections on culture, history, and language and only focus on the travel guide sections--276 pages of travel coverage in 2008 to 205 pages in the new version), and in many instances the loss in coverage is substantial.

Take the city of Qeshm, for example: in the 2008 version LP lists 7 hotels, 2 restaurants, and a money changer (very important as you get a 20% better rate than banks offer); in the 2012 version (page 271, viewable in Amazon's "look inside" feature), however, there is only one hotel, one restaurant, and no money changers or banks listed. The rest of the information on Qeshm island is clearly based almost exclusively on tourism information provided by a local tourist/development organization (the Avaye Tabiate Paydar Institute), which may be very helpful but doesn't really meet the standard of truly unbiased, honest, and independently-researched advice I expect from LP. This is a major downgrade, but rather typical. The story in nearby Bandar-Abbas is similar: there is no information on where the inter-city bus station is located, and no notation on the map as to where it might be... even though the 2008 edition clearly showed this information. Arriving at a bus station at 6 in the morning and having no idea where the station is relative to the rest of the city is not fun, but it's especially frustrating when you later discover having the previous edition of the guidebook would have solved this problem. These examples are quite typical, and the removal of such important information is difficult to justify.

In other instances, the information just completely misses the mark. An example of this would be the walking tour in Yazd. While it seems like a great idea, the map and the locations marked are not accurate, and actually trying to follow the walking directions or route will lead to frustration as things are not where they are claimed.

A significant part of the problem is that there has been a major change in authors between the two versions: Mark Elliot was responsible for the chapters on Western and Northeastern Iran in 2008, and Andrew Burke covered the rest; in the 2012 version Mark Elliot is out, and new authors Virginia Maxwell (Central Iran and the Persian Gulf) and Iain Shearer (Western and Northeastern Iran) have taken over all coverage outside of Tehran and Southeastern Iran. This has led to not only a dip in quantity, but also a dip in quality: much of the 'new' content appears to be little more than regurgitations of tours offered by local tour agencies. This is unfortunate, but probably an unavoidable trend in guidebook writing. The decrease in quality is so severe that even a Iranian hotelier who is prominently featured in LP--and is thanked in the credit--wholeheartedly agreed that the previous edition was superior. Apparently the coordinating author (Mr. Burke) wasn't able to spend more than a few weeks in the country for this edition, and the contributing authors were essentially parachuted in to provide quick coverage of the country. While this explains the shoddy coverage and the tendency for the book to mimic tours that local agencies and guesthouses offer, it is pretty dreadful.

It is also quite interesting that despite the author change, much of the text remains word-for-word identical to the 2008 text, even in the sections that supposedly have completely different authors and/or were previously penned by Mark Elliot. I'm not sure how it possible, either morally or legally, for the exact same text to be attributed to two different people, but apparently that is what LP would have us believe.

Costs, prices, and the devaluation of the Rial
As others have noted, the Rial has crashed in the aftermath of Western sanctions, resulting in prices being around one-third of what they used to be. This makes the Lonely Planet prices way out of whack, as they decided to price everything in US dollars and not Rials in this edition (they made this decision because US dollar pricing was seen as less susceptible to inflation, which typically was 20% or more per year). So in order to figure out what things should cost, you have to convert from LP's US-dollar prices to Rials using the exchange rate LP uses, and then maybe add a little bit for inflation. The net result is that things cost about one-third as many US dollars as LP quotes. Unfortunately, a few unscrupulous businessmen (I'm looking at you, Vali) have decided to use LP's US-dollar pricing, which means that they charge about three times what they used to charge before the devaluation (e.g., the LP quotes $10, which used to be maybe 120,000 Rials, but now they charge 360,000 rials, which is still $10). Anyway, things should be much cheaper than they appear in LP. If they are the same price as LP lists, then you are almost certainly being taken advantage of.

Insight Guides, Silk Road (2011 edition): four stars

Great for general information & deciding what to see, terrible for logistics. Best used in conjunction with another guidebook.

I bought this book for use on a multi-country trip along the silk road, and used it for parts of China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

The book is actually quite useful for background information and insight into what places may be more interesting to visit. There are multiple colour photographs on each and every page, and I have found these pictures to be more informative than the purely textual descriptions found in books like Lonely Planet (which often hypes every single place they list). Furthermore, the author of this book, Bradley Mayhew, is also the author and/or coordinating editor of the Lonely Planet China and Central Asia volumes, which means that there is really no difference in the quality of the book as compared to LP (actually, I have found the Silk Road guide to be more accurate than the LP editions, especially when it comes to LP chapters not written by Mr. Mayhew).

Obviously this book is not as comprehensive as the LP books (I traveled with this book and four other LP guides), but in many ways it is more useful because the Silk Road guidebook is more highly curated and only the best places are listed in this guidebook (this is especially the case for the Chinese and Central Asian sections; less so for Iran and, I suspect, other West Asian countries). Whereas you might be misled by LP into visiting marginal sights (LP often seems to list places simply to pad their books and make the country/region seem more interesting), almost everything listed in the Silk Road guide is worth seeing. And because this guidebook covers many countries, it also tends to identify the best places to see similar/identical things (for example, I believe it notes that both Turpan, China and Yazd, Iran both have water museums where you can learn about "qanat" irrigation systems... an insight lacking from both the China and Iran Lonely Planets). This Insight Guide also avoids the all-too-common practice of giving glowing recommendations to things best seen in other countries.

If you are thinking of using this as your sole or primary guidebook, however, you should definitely reconsider: despite the claim on the back cover that this book contains all the information you need/want and is the only guidebook you need, it has almost no logistical information. Prices or even price ranges for accommodation options are missing. No budget options are given. Transportation prices, schedules, and locations are entirely absent. Costs of admission are omitted. Maps do not include accommodation or transport locations. The guidebook seems to make the assumption that users are going to be relatively well-heeled and will be taking taxis or private transportation to most places. Do not attempt to travel independently with this as your only guide.

Despite its very real shortcomings, I found this guidebook to be highly useful. For pre-trip planning and deciding where you want to visit, it is much more useful than LP books -- in no small part because of the pictures (and also because it's somewhat difficult to tell from Lonely Planet just how nice or important various places are). During your trip a more practical guidebook will probably be more essential to the independent traveler, although the Insight Guide will still be useful in learning about the background information for individual sights and prioritizing places to visit (it may take some discipline to refer to both you LP and this guidebook, however, as I personally found myself relying on my LP more than I probably should have).

No comments:

Post a Comment