If you travel, you need maps. Even more so, if you travel "off the beaten track", bicycling or hiking. If you like maps in general, traveling also gives you pretext to shop for maps, and to learn what kind of maps are published in each country you visit.
China travelers are actually supplied with maps pretty well. Every big book store (what they'd call a 书城, "Book City" - there are at least a couple in every provincial capital) would have a fairly well-stocked map department; smaller versions are found in local book stores (mostly, the Xinhua chain) in prefectural and most county-level cities. Besides the city maps, of which I am not talking now, what you need for the countryside travel are provincial atlases. A typical atlas, selling for about CNY10 (less than $2), would have perhaps 30 pages, with one map (a two-page spread) per a prefecture-level unit (there are about a dozen or more in each province). The scale is usually around 1:500,000 - 1:1,000,000 in the more densely populated areas, or 1:2,000,000 or even less in the desert western areas. These are basically detailed road maps, primarily targeted to motorists; but for a bicyclist they are more convenient (and usually more detailed, too) than thick glossy national or regional highway atlases. They show all towns and townships (镇 zhen, 乡 xiang), and a few more major villages (村 cun ); railways and stations; all National (G) and state (S) and some county (X) roads, as well as major tourist attractions. The legend is usally all in Chinese, of course; but even if you don't speak the language, the map vocabulary is not that hard to learn. (You probably will need most of it to read road signs anyway...).
Some of the same publishers also produce provincial wall maps with essentially similar scale and content. Some travelers like them more (see Marian Rosenberg's article on Star Maps Publishing), but I'd rather pack an atlas into my bag, and get a map to hang on a wall.
Getting an atlas for the province you're currently in usually is not problem, as most good bookstores in the province would carry at least one edition. For out-of-the-province atlases, it is more of a hit and miss: a major "Book City" may have 2-3 competitors' atlases for the "home" province, and maybe also atlases for a dozen or more other provinces, but it's somewhat hard to predict which ones. If you have time and a fixed address in China, ordering from Amazon.cn is often your best bet. As of the early 2012, Amazon.cn take cash on delivery for many books, so you don't even need a Chinese credit card.
Most publishers update their atlases every year or two; still, some may be rather out of date, despite the purportedly recent publication date. And yes, occasionally you may encounter a "fantasy road" (in reality, a river of mud, or a construction site) or a "fantasy bridge" (in reality, a ferry). Occasionally, there are bigger bloopers: I've seen a few maps of this kind that manage to show Lüshun, Liaoning without its famous harbor. Hmm, maybe fighting the Battle of Port Arthur in was a mistake?
There are several competing publishers some with multiple maps series - Star Map Press (星球地图出版社)， SinoMaps 中国地图出版社， Dizhe Chubanshe 地址出版社 (i.e., Geology Publishers) with their Dipper （北斗） series, and a few others. Which ones to buy, if you have choice?
Hey, my cheaper atlas said this was National Highway 209!
The best series of provincial atlases that I have seen is the one published by Star Map Press, and labeled 军民双用 (Jun-min liang yong, "Civil and military use"). They of course are nothing like real military topographic maps, but have better scale than other similar maps (1:300,000 for most provinces) and correspondingly better level of detail.
They may not be as good as you can see on an on-line maps, such as on maps.google.com or ditu.sogou.com - but that assumes that the online maps have a good coverage of the region of interest - which is not always the case! Still, the rivers and the switchbacks on the roads allow you to get some idea of what the terrain is like. These atlases are a bit thicker and more expensive than those of the competitors, or than Star Map's own "lightweight" provincial road atlases series (中国分省公路丛书) (maybe CNY15-18 instead of CNY9-12), but are certainly worth the trouble getting if you're cycling, hiking, hitchhiking (usual disclaimer: not recommended!), or making use on "very local" buses.
The reader should be warned that atlases from this Jun-min liang yong series are pretty hard to come by in shops, though, especially outside of the province in question. Exceptionally, I saw an almost complete selection of them in Quanzhou's "Book City" (the underground one, in the park near Quanshan Gate), but elsewhere you'd only see a couple of them at best, often for some random province you don't need. Amazon.cn, however, sells pretty much all of them (and at a discount to the cover price, too!). For example, here's one for Yunnan， or for Fujian. And here's Tibet and Xinjiang
Star Map Press' Jun-min liang yong atlases are to be commended for their economical use of space: instead of allocating one page per prefecture, and wasting a lot of paper this way, their maps correspond to squares of a province-wide grid. (There is still a table of content, which identifies pages by the major cities located there). The publisher also avoids the annoying "feature" present in the Dipper provincial atlases, which are padded with rather unnecessary single-page maps of adjacent provinces and their capital cities. (Which results in a huge duplication of space if one buys several provinces' atlases).
Overall, Star Map Press' Jun-min liang yong product truly stands out head and shoulders above the competition. Well, maybe one shoulder: despite generally better quality than the rest of the breed, this series has some minor, but annoying, shortcomings, even in comparison with more commonly available atlases:
It sort of helps if your map shows the same villages that the local bus schedules do, doesn't it?
- Somewhat strange choice of populated places to show. It is actually a fairly common thing with online maps (like Google Maps): when you zoom in, the map shows smaller villages, but sometimes stops showing labels for some larger populated places. This is not much of an issue with an online map, but when you see it happens when you switch from a "worse" to a "better" paper map, it's annoying. For example, on the road (S207) from Xiazhai to Xiaoxin in Pinghe County, the less detailed SinoMaps atlas shows five villages (彭林 Penglin，长汀 Changting，枫埔 Fengpu，旧楼 Jiulou，厝丘 Cuoqiu）, pretty much all of which are indeed landmarks: they are signed on the ground, and listed in the schedule of a local bus (which, helpfully, is posted at each stop along the road). On the other hand, Star Maps' more detailed Jun-min liang yong atlas choose to show a completely different set of villages along this route - of which only one appears on the locally posted bus schedules!
- Similar to the competitors' products, these maps do show some of the railways and highways that are under construction (labeled as such). However, they certainly could show more of them - surely such construction projects usually take a few years, and detailed plans ought to be available to the mapmakers. It is particularly annoying that even when these maps show railways under construction, they don't indicate the location of the stations - which is something that the traveler need the most. The Fujian atlas doesn't even mark stations on the new Fuzhou-Xiamen high-speed railway, even though it must have been about to open when the atlas was printed.
- Rather strangely for mass-market maps (perhaps, taking the series name too seriously?) the Jun-min liang young series is quite stingy with showing the location of various tourist attractions. For example, out of the thousands of the Fujian Tulou, only 10 individual sites are specifically entered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Surely it is appropriate to mark them all (as some of the cheaper maps do)? But Jun-min only show three of them. Similarly, among Fujian's famous bridges, Jun-min shows the Anping Bridge but not the Luoyang Bridge - even though most competitors usually show both. Such omissions are unfortunate, because many road signs show directions and distances to such objects, so being able to locate them on the maps is quite beneficial even for travelers who aren't interested in these attractions per se.
- The Jun-min liang young atlases probably show more of the county routes (the "X-series" roads) than other atlases, but they never label them. Some writers (see e.g. Marian Rosenberg's article) claim that no maps label them, but this is incorrect: for example, SinoMaps' Fujian road atlas (福建省公路里程地图册, from their 中国分省公路里程地图册系列 series) clearly shows and labels them all. These roads are important for country side travel, and at least in some counties they are signposted (even if not always consistently). There is no reason why a 1:300,000 map should omit these labels!