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Closing the Book on China

I just now published the last part of my China travelogue, the story of a one-month trip I took with 5 friends almost two years ago. While this might not be the most ambitious writing project I ever started, it certainly is, by far, the most ambitious I ever completed. If you don't mind the self-indulgence, I'd like to write a few words about what's involved in such an undertaking. If, like most people, you've entertained the idea of writing about your travels, hopefully some of this will prove helpful.

A few numbers

Here's the raw data:

  • About 30 pages of notes (on laptop)
  • 7393 pictures
  • 182GB of storage, 364GB counting field backup

(If you've never done serious travel photography you're probably recoiling in fear at this point, but these are actually fairly typical numbers.)

And here's the output:

  • 32 blog posts totaling nearly 25,000 words — enough to fill more than 50 single-spaced A4 pages or about the size of the typical novella
  • 328 published photos (4.5% of the total, also a fairly typical proportion of "keepers")


Along with the obvious clothing and toiletries, this is what I carried:

  • Canon 5DMk2
  • Canon EF 16-35/2.8L
  • Canon EF 50/1.4
  • Canon EF 70-300 DO
  • Gitzo 1530 tripod with Acratech GV2 ballhead and leveling base
  • MacBook Air (1st gen non-ssd)
  • Two external hard drives, lots of memory cards, UV and polarizing filters, RRS plates, spare batteries, etc.

Travel Budget

Every time we hit the ATM — which we tended to do with alarming frequency — we withdrew about 300€, or slightly more than the average Chinese makes in a month. How far such a sum would take us varied wildly: it barely pays for one night in the Park Hyatt Shanghai (and that's before you even take a look at the minibar), but it would have lasted us three months in the piss-infested wreck of a hostel we made our home in Lijiang.

Traveling as a group saves quite a lot of money. Hiring a minivan and driver to get to out-of-town sights is very cheap when you're splitting the bill five-ways. It also increases your bargaining power and thus makes haggling slightly easier, which is always welcome.

Hong Kong is markedly more expensive than the rest of China. There are basically no hotels below four stars in the interesting parts of the city, and they're priced accordingly. Food and transportation is slightly cheaper than in Europe, and thus way more expensive than in the PRC proper.

While bare subsistence costs are relatively low, obviously as soon as you get the idea of doing some shopping or enjoying a really nice meal, the sky's the limit – even on a clear day. In our case, for spending three weeks in China proper and one week in Macau and Hong Kong, with four internal flights and a couple of sleeper trains, staying mostly in cheap hostels but with the occasional splurge, we ended up spending close to 2500€ each.


Taking the trip took one month. Documenting it took eighteen, although obviously I stopped and started a number of times and never worked on it full time for longer than a day or two. (I do have a job.) Still, it's obviously quite an undertaking. I started out thinking I'd just bang out a few words each day and it would hardly take any time at all. It did, partly because what I ended up writing is significantly more involved than a straightforward travel blog (some posts required quite a bit of research), and partly because "banging out a few words" is a lot harder than most people think. Not planning to invoice anyone about this, I didn't keep accurate time sheets, but I can give you a vague work plan with fairly reasonable time estimates.

Publishing the photos is time-consuming but reasonably straight-forward:

  • Edit 7393 pictures down to about 300, making sure those selects are all of good-enough quality and that you've covered everything important. For each of those photos:
    • Straighten and crop
    • Adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, etc.
    • Retouch if needed, which was relatively rare here

From past project that I have religiously timed, I know this takes at least 60 hours.

For the text the process is more involved:

  • Take notes every day. (Even though you'll be among friends in a foreign land, and will thus have zero difficulty finding more exciting things to do than whip out a laptop and jot down whatever's happening, you absolutely need to do this regularly if you want your writing to be at all reflective of the trip.)
  • Research if needed
  • Write post (Outline, Draft, Rewrite until you're happy.)
  • Choose illustrative photos
  • Layout post
  • Repeat the above 30(ish) times

Note-taking is fairly quick if you do it right, maybe 10 minutes per day. The rest is much harder to estimate, not least because different posts require vastly different amounts of time. The very first one was probably conceived, written and published in less than an hour, because it's quite short and purely narrative. The posts on our forcible stay in Xi'An airport are also narrative, but they're much longer and were rewritten several times to improve their comedic appeal. Writing about Shanghai's economic development is straightforward, after you've done enough research to actually understand what it is you're writing about. The epilogue, like a few of the latter posts, is long, required a lot of research and proved hard to write. Some of these posts might have taken upwards of 30 hours of effort, and that's without taking and choosing photos, layout and proof-reading.

If this sounds ridiculously long, you failed to follow the earlier link to "Fuck the Karate Kid". Please go there now, I'll wait. Thank you. So, as everyone who's tried knows, stringing together words in a way that sounds pleasantly effortless is surprisingly time-consuming. I don't claim to be an especially good writer, but some of my work has gotten the occasional bit of praise from friends or family. If indeed I can sometimes produce good copy, the only reason I can think of is that I try a whole lot harder than most people. A lot harder. Most seem to think that "first draft" is the same as "nearly done". That may be true for a progress report, but if you want people to enjoy your writing, you can't stop at your very first attempt, find it lacking and then complain you can't write. That doesn't even count as trying. Good, effortless writing never happens for me before the fifth rewrite.

Enough of this rant and back to the effort estimation. In addition to all the time above I spent being productive, I also expended quite a lot of hours on needlessly doing things twice. Namely, I had to re-layout every post when, 80% through, I decided that the whole thing would look better on Squarespace than as just another iWeb blog. Also, maintaining a terabytes-sized photo library is not exactly effortless, and I spend way too much time backing up and checking backups and moving hard drives around. Anyone who does this kind of project regularly eventually needs to stop and seriously think about how they're going to keep their photos (and their adjustments) safe and backed up. This, however, probably deserves a whole post in and of itself.


That's easy: there never was any process. I flew to China and travelled 8000 kilometers there while carrying loads of photographic gear. A few days in, I felt I should write a few things to my friends at home, and decided to do it on a public blog. One thing lead to another, and 500-odd hours of work later I have something not entirely unlike a travel book.

Despite my starting this post listing the camera and lenses and computer I used, it eventually became obvious to me that gear matters very little. Funny thing is, had I had just a P&S and access to cyber-cafes on the way, I could have produced something very similar. It would have taken longer, a few of the photos would have been different, but in essence I could have done something looking quite close to this with almost no (financial) investment. And you could have too. None of this is actually hard: it's just taking the pictures you'd show your family, and the stories you'd mail your friends, massaging them just a little bit and putting the result online. There is nothing in here that anyone can't do. Only one step is a real challenge: writing the very first post. You need to be foolish enough to pick a few photos, write a few words, throw them online, before you realize that you're committing to doing that same thing thirty times more. Which is remarkably short-sighted, certainly. But if you're stupid enough to finish that first post, all the rest happens, eventually, all by itself.

Of course one needs a website to publish that kind of stuff, preferably one with tools for hosting a blog and photos. But just as anyone can take photos these days, anyone can go to blogger or wordpress and create a free account. I was surprised how ridiculously easy the whole technology part of all this turned out to be.

Writing was a lot of fun, but like many of the things I do, it's heavily geared to an audience of one. Looking back at the blog, it's more than a personal memoir about the trip, but it's not really travel writing or an essay on China either. It's just a bunch of things that caught my eye, be they personal anecdotes, historical facts or social commentary. I doubt it's of much interest to anyone who doesn't know me or wasn't on the trip, and even most of those will be bored by a lot of the trivia I've weaved into the story. Travel writing is a very idiosyncratic genre, and great writers like Bill Bryson or J. Maarten Troost can spend pages and pages on personal stories only tangentially related to their trip without ever getting anywhere near boring, seemingly effortlessly, but for people like me that's hard, really hard, actually hard enough that it seems like I cannot do it. I realized this long before I'd finished telling the tale, but it didn't stop me. I've been writing about my trips since I was 14, but somehow I always gave up around the second week, when it became obvious that the "What's the point?" question had no satisfactory answer. I have now accepted that there is no point, except in enjoying the process of putting sights and smells and frustration and amazement into words and trying to make them look good on a page. For the first time I can honestly say that I've tried my best to do that, and the result will certainly not win any prize nor even be read by… well, anyone… but it is my story, and I must say I had nearly as much fun telling it as I had living it. Perhaps for the first time, I truly understand what Terry Pratchett means when he says: "Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself."

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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for having shared your experience in China. It was very delightful to read you :).

Writing a blog about my Japan travel during it gave me a taste about the effort you're talking about here. Not so polished than yours, but already a lot of time: about 2 hours per day.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToch

Thanks for reading ! By the way what's the address of your Japan blog ?

August 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSerge Boucher

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