Postcard from Beijing... no 6

A guiding light?

t the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I can't help but feel relieved that Spring Festival – aka Chinese New Year – has ended. Over the holidays my apartment was flooded with friends taking advantage of the time off work to check out China's capital and, while a full house was fun, playing tour guide 24/7 can be tiring.

During their stay, my friends surprised me in many respects (reinforcing that old adage that you never really know someone until you live with them), but none more so than on day one. Handing over my trusty Time Out guidebook, I asked them what they wanted to do. Their response? “Nothing that's in the guidebooks - far too touristy. All guidebooks do is tell us where NOT to go.”

I hastily agreed but, as I shoved the book back on the shelf, I wondered: Did I really share their stance?

Don't get me wrong, I can certainly see my friends' point of view. Travel guides are of limited use in a city like Beijing. Typically the likes of Lonely Planet, Explorer et al update their publications every two years but, in Beijing, bars and restaurants open and close quicker than Andy Roddick can serve up an ace - making any guidebook to China's capital out of date as soon as it's published. Case in point? I recently wasted hours hunting for a Rough Guide recommended restaurant, Three Guizhou Men, only to find that it had been replaced by Repulse Bay.

Travelling with guidebooks presents a practical problem too - the average China guide is big and heavy, so it's not surprising that many travellers question whether they're worth their weight. It easily identifies you as tourist rather than a resident - you might as well walk into the shopping mecca that is Yashow market with a sign saying “Rip me off.” But the fact remains that guidebooks can be pretty useful and I know that I would have been lost without mine when I arrived in Beijing. It provided interesting, invaluable information on the city's history and culture as well as highlighting the capital's top sites – and bites.

At the end of the day, places make it into guidebooks for a reason: They're worth visiting. If I hadn't used a guidebook when I touched down six months ago, I would have missed out on many memorable experiences. Two of my favorite Beijing venues - the Stone Boat Bar in Ritan Park and restaurant Dali Courtyard - I discovered through a guidebook.

Of course, I'm not advising that anyone become a slave to a book. Guides can only show you so much and it would be foolish to confine yourself solely to what's written on a page: Those travellers that are able to go beyond the guides and interact with people on the street, will have a more authentic experience. However from my own Beijing experience, it's definitely worth dipping into a travel guide too: If nothing else, it can help travellers navigate the busy, bustling metropolis that is Beijing with a little more confidence and in a little more comfort.