In conversation with Mark Elliott: In defence of the travel guide

By Harriet Willis

“In the age of Trip Advisor, why should we still buy paperback travel guides?” This is my first question for Mark Elliott, travel writer, Palatinate alumnus and past President of the Durham Union society. Elliott is best known for his unique ‘treasure-map’ style travel books that guide tourists around lesser-known Asian countries (Asia Overland, SE Asia Graphic Guide), and also for contributing to over 50 Lonely Planet guides.

“If you’re doing an interrail trip where all you need to know is the location of key sights for a selection of cities, then maybe you don’t need one,” Elliot starts, “just look up the best hostel online and you’re ready. However, for those planning on spending a bit more time in one country, a guidebook can be a good way to get you started – especially if you’re seeking a cultural experience rather than a list of activities. To get to know the people, a good start is to pick some short-term travel goals that get you slowly off the standard traveller route – the guidebook can be useful by offering locations where you are likely to be a rarity as a foreigner. In such places, without the guidebook, it is all too easy to stumble into cultural faux pas without even realising why.”

“Of course, the particular need for a guidebook will vary greatly depending on where you visit. If you’re going to Norway – where [a lot of people speak English – when you turn up at a hotel, you will discover that a lot of things are self service, and that you really should have called ahead to book. But, you will learn that as you go. On the other hand, if you step out of a plane in Novosibirsk, you likely didn’t realise that virtually no one speaks English. And you probably didn’t realise that to buy a train ticket you have to write your name in Cyrillic. You can’t just learn that stuff as you go. In places like this, having a guidebook can be a massive help, if only in showing phrases and hotel names to taxi drivers who can’t read Latin script.”

“Another important point – the way that a publisher might sell the importance of a guidebook – is that you’re buying a ‘trustworthy voice’”. Whilst he doesn’t want to be quoted on precise accusations, Elliott then suggests that there’s a wide suspicion that in certain countries, online ratings get flooded with reviews that have been essentially paid for, thus undermining the reliability of ratings for numerous hotels and restaurants.”

In Novosibirsk, you probably didn’t realise that to buy a train ticket you have to write your name in Cyrillic

Described as a ‘masterpiece’ by the Guardian, Elliott’s guidebook to Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan: With Excursions to Georgia) is crammed with hand-drawn maps with thoughtful annotations detailing points of information. Knowing that Google Maps could possibly be a substitute, I asked why he felt inspired to create such a guide.

“You have to bear in mind that my first books were written in the 1990s. They were all map-based be cause there were no maps available for many of the places I was covering. It was essentially a pre-Internet world. Nowadays, we live in a world where anyone with a phone or laptop can draw up a perfect map of anywhere on Earth in seconds. Whereas, in certain ex-Soviet countries back then, just being in possession of a detailed topographic map could be considered a form of espionage. So my maps, often made by simply walking the streets and counting paces, were simply the best I could do. And they were very useful in their day. You’ve got to remember there has been a huge change in perceptions to tourism since then.”

Elliott’s guide to Azerbaijan and Georgia (Azerbaijan: With Excursions to Georgia) is advertised as the only detailed guide to the country. “Why should I visit somewhere that has such little written on it?” I ask.

My first books were all map-based because there were no maps available

“Georgia still isn’t a massive draw for Brits compared to some European countries, but its popularity has grown enormously and it is currently one of the new travel hotspots for European backpackers – relatively easy and cheap yet still with a great sense of exploration. For example, look at Georgia’s glorious multiday mountain treks – for example in Swaneti or between Tusheti and Khevsureti. You’ve got soaring Alpine mountains and many of the delights that you might have in, say, the classic New Zealand trails, but none of the crowds and certainly no need to pre-book a place as you need to do on popular routes like the Milford Track.”

But isn’t the development of new routes bad for the ecosystem? “Over time, if there are too many tourists, then maybe. But for now numbers remain very modest. And on top of that, a lot of the villages up there [in Tusheti] were dying. The populations of poor shepherds now supplement their incomes by supplying simple accommodation to tourists and providing pack horses and serving as guides. Limited tourism has actually made some of these beautiful villages – complete with their astonishing five-storey stone towers – economically sustainable. Places that were on the verge of extinction are essentially being resurrected. Everybody wins”

Places that were on the verge of extinction are essentially being resurrected

One of my questions for Elliott, given his 30 years of travel experience, is about unexpected cultural insights that might prove surprising to an oblivious tourist.

“In Azerbaijan there are plenty of curiosities that you might never stop to notice without someone telling you. The whole Absheron peninsula surrounding the capital looks a little drab at first glance but with a good guide you can find places where fire comes spontaneously out of the ground, holy hoof prints and even a shrine where you can get a bottle broken over your head as a way to cure you from jumpy nerves. Don’t worry – it doesn’t hurt. On any city courtyard you’re likely to find bags of bread hanging from trees – usually mouldy. Why do you think that is? The answer is that bread is seen as coming from God so should be treated with reverence. For example, if you’re eating and you happen to drop a piece of bread on the ground, you should pick it up and kiss it and then put it carefully aside. You don’t throw away bread with other waste, either. Hence there is a dilemma of how do you get rid of the stuff. Those tree-hanging bags solve the problem.”

“Another place ripe for serious cultural misunderstandings was in Cameroon. I’d come to write what I thought would be a rather uncontroversial magazine article on some rare birds in the country’s northwest highlands. But the complication was that the area where the birds lived was on the borderline between two of Cameroon’s 180 mini kingdoms, each with its own language, culture and fon (monarch). The polite way to visit as an outsider is to start off by presenting oneself to the fon. In the kingdom of Kom, this meeting turned out to be something like walking onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. The fon sat on his throne finished with ivory tusks at the focus of a rough stone amphitheatre. Facing him were his courtiers, lolling in strange poses. I had been carefully briefed and thus came equipped with the requisite bottle of J&B Rare whisky which was promptly placed within the king’s stash… and now and again handed to various courtiers to drink. It was like a student party night with all kinds of ‘down in one’ drinking rules. Failing to sink one’s drink, and many other breaches of etiquette, were liable to incur fines denominated in goats. Yes, real goats. I was fined two goats for taking a photo of the fon. Looking him in the eyes was worth two more.”

Photograph: Richard Cotman via Flickr creative commons

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