The Joys of the Lonely Planet

To reach Pushkar, in Rajastan, you first take the train to Ajmer; while Pushkar does have a station, very few services stop there. From Ajmer, it’s a half hour journey, through a pass between two low mountains. Pushkar is on a small plain surrounded by mountains, and lies around a square holy lake. It is famed as few places where Brahma is worshipped and draws in both pilgrims and travellers. The main street is full of souvenir stalls and even a didgeridoo shop, for those hippies wanting to appropriate two cultures at the same time.

My first time in Pushkar was a day trip – I stayed in Ajmer instead, exploring the sights there. I popped into Pushkar for a few hours; the lake was dry and too many people were hassling me, so I headed back fairly soon. My second trip, I stayed a few days in the Lakeview hotel, which had been recommended by my friend Vicky. The hotel’s more expensive rooms overlooked the lakes, and didn’t have bathrooms, due to their proximity to the religious area. I settled for a room on the street side. I spent many happy hours in the roof restaurant, watching the ceremonies on the lake.

Time had been hard for the hotel’s proprietors on that first trip as they had not been listed in the most recent Lonely Planet Guide. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with the place, it seemed cheap enough too, so it was probably just bad luck. The problem is that travellers will always work their way through the guidebook first. Tripadvisor might be challenging the supremacy of the Lonely Planet’s reviews now, but the Lonely Planet still directs a large number of visitors. It’s reviews are better too – Lonely Planet reviewers give an objective review. Tripadvisor is full of vendettas, angry screeds and people with unrealistic expectations.

For restaurants, bars and hotels around the world, endorsement from the Lonely Planet can be incredibly valuable. If a place gets a particularly good write-up, another might open nearby with a similar name, in the hope of catching some of its trade. The encouragement of the Lonely Planet brings in yet more tourists who like the comfort of good guesthouses and restaurants. I’m one of them.

The Lonely Planet soon begins to look less lonely. One can buy didgeridoos in Pushkar, and every town has restaurants selling banana pancakes or Oreo shakes. On the street a short distance from the Lakeview Hotel is an excellent falafel stand, and the ‘Out of the Blue’ restaurant sells excellent pizzas.

(Out of the Blue also sells a special lassi. My father once tried to order this for dessert, thinking he would treat himself. I’m very grateful to the waiter who, after asking three times if he was sure, explained that the lassi was special as it contained bhang, a very strong form of marijuana. My Dad opted for a fruit lassi instead.)

The Lonely Planet has created new bottlenecks in India, just as the overland hippie trail led to traveller hangouts like Delhi’s Indian Coffee House being popular. And hanging out with other visitors can be fun. It was another traveller who told me I had to visit Orchha, which was much more interesting than its short write-up in the Lonely Planet suggested.

But, at the same time, you don’t want to spend all of your time with people you would avoid back home. William Sutcliffe discussed this in his novel about India, Are You Experienced. While the book suffers a little from being a product of the laddish 1990s, it contains some astute observations about India. In Manali, the narrator meets a load of public schoolboys, who are thrilled at bumping into each other by chance. He points out that there are only a few places in India where they are likely to go. India might be massive, but tourist India is a much smaller place. I’ve chatted with people in Agra, then bumped into them a few days later in Jaipur.

There are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary. For these, a guidebook is invaluable.

But escaping the trail can be fun. I would never have gone to India without the reassurance of reading a guidebook beforehand. But my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by travellers; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. I stayed three nights in an empty luxury hotel near Dausa that had regular power-cuts. And I’d have sometimes done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available, rather than go with places made complacent or more expensive by guidebook listings. Nowadays, I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it. And, just like the first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap suggested, the best advice comes from other travellers.

For my next trip, I’m wondering if I should just leave all guidebooks behind.

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