Writing a guidebook to China: An interview with Rough Guide author David Leffman

Culture | by Ric Stockfis
Posted: March 1st, 2010 | Updated: July 16th, 2010 | Comments
Rough Guide China, David LeffmanDavid Leffman is the co-author of numerous Rough Guides, including those to Australia, Iceland, and Hong Kong & Macau, as well as the 1,232-page Rough Guide to China, which was described by the Financial Times as "by far the best...." He's appearing at this month's Literary Festivals in Beijing (Saturday March 6, 2pm) and Shanghai (Thursday March 11, 6pm). Here he discusses some of the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the road. How did you come to write travel guidebooks? I was originally all set to become a zoologist, but then I realized I'd spend half my life in labs and libraries, and the rest of the time backstabbing colleagues over budgets. As a guidebook writer I've managed to visit some incredible places and see extraordinary wildlife, developed my interests beyond zoology, and had the satisfaction that comes with authorship. I'll never be rich though. You often work with other authors: how do you decide who writes what?
Well, once the authors have been assembled, we all sit down to hammer out territorial rights. Sometimes this is easy; for instance, I used to live in Queensland, so of course was chosen to write about it for a guidebook on Australia. Some people might have affection for a particular subject, or be a specialist on a region; it's important to find writers whose passion for a place will keep them going when the necessary brute collecting of facts begins to become tiresome.
Can you describe a typical day on the road?
In cities, I'm up early and racing around to review accommodation, restaurants and services, cram in a few sights and nightlife, then collapse late in bed. In rural locations I spend half my time on buses between sights that probably take just a few minutes to review. So either sustained, intense activity or enduring huge lulls between the action. Researching a guidebook isn't like being on holiday, but I enjoy the job.
Do you turn up with a list of places you need to visit, or is it a case of just looking around when you get there?
He he, you must be joking! I'm always researching my books, and from about six months before each trip I can spend three hours a day at it. I read books, surf the net—anything to keep me up to speed with changes and new attractions to check out. Of course, there's enough flexibility to include places I just stumble across once I'm already in China, but time is always short so a large part of the book has to be planned in advance.
What have you been your personal highlights of traveling around China?
Crashing the three-day Miao Sisters' Meal festival in rural Guizhou. I met the entire teenage population of twenty-five villages, got caught up in bullfights, communal dances, dragon-lantern displays (more like hand-to-hand combat with fireworks) and dragon boat races, and drank more booze than gets sold in London on a Friday night. That and getting introduced to, and beaten up by, a large slice of China's martial arts community.
Any unfortunate experiences that stand out?
Being beaten up during a riot in Indonesia and attacked by a shark in Australia. The shark was far easier to deal with. China has always been good to me though.
Do you ever worry about encouraging tourism to "undiscovered" places?
Guidebooks usually follow on the heels of places being "discovered," but my one time as a pioneer did have sad results. In 1996 I wrote about a two-day jungle path linking a few quiet villages in Xishuangbanna; the next time I was there people were calling it the "Rough Guide Trail" and tour groups were hiking it; and now the path is a tarmac highway with coaches streaming through. I've never had the courage to ask villagers what they think of it all.

Is there anywhere in China that you'd still like to travel to?

I haven't been to Beijing since my first China trip in 1985, so I'm looking forward to spending a few days there in March. But look, China is as large and as complex as Europe, and I've only spent three years here in total, so of course there's still a huge amount for me to see. This year I'm researching an entirely new book on the Southwest—Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi—and despite knowing the region well I'll be visiting plenty of places for the first time.

Is writing about China different from writing guidebooks for elsewhere?

The problem with writing about China is remaining concise and focused. There is so much history and so much to do, but the entire country has to fit into 1,200 pages. Most of the readers' mail we receive is about places we've left out—or that the book is too heavy, and have we thought of cutting it down? You can't win.

Do you anticipate China ever taking off as a popular backpacking destination?

China has already taken off as a backpacking destination—at least, there are certainly backpacker magnets such as Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La in Yunnan, and Yangshuo in Guangxi. But the market is a bit different in China than other places in the world, in that a good proportion of foreign tourists are actually resident teachers or students, and there are an increasing number of domestic backpackers too. Both these groups obviously speak Chinese to some extent. I think the language barrier and a general ignorance outside of China of what the country offers beyond the Great Wall and Terracotta Army is still putting some Western backpackers off.

What's the hardest part of the job?

I like to do a good job, and that means producing a book which helps people have an interesting time. So getting feedback from readers who have had a bad trip can be depressing. Of course, China changes so fast that it's impossible for the guide to remain completely accurate once it's published, and the books are deliberately opinionated, so you're never going to please everybody. But it does bug me when I've made a genuine mistake.

The most rewarding?

Travel writing is a selfish discipline, and the most rewarding things are personal triumphs which can seem trivial to anyone else. But on the whole, the highlight of my job is having avoided the whole 9-5 existence, while spending so much time exploring another country and another culture.

How can you spot a travel guide writer on the road?

By the ragged look of someone who has spent the last three months in 90 different beds. That and the notebook.
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