China, a short five-letters name, yet in these five letters dwells the name of the largest and most powerful nation in Asia, the fourth in the world in size. A country rich in history, culture and art, a country that for one reason or another, most people wants to visit, fascinated by books, films and comics that have always presented China to the world in their own way. From Marco Polo to the Kung Fu movies that were a big hit in the past, to the well-known Last Emperor in Bertolucci’s masterpiece; from Mao‘s Little Red Book of Thoughts to Corto Maltese’s trip from Hong Kong to Harbin, nearly each one of us, for one reason or another, has been attracted by this partly mysterious country caged, up to a few years ago, by an inaccessible ‘forbidden door’.
Those were different eras, of course, because China has always been there; not always visible to the world perhaps, but always present, like a Damocles’ sword which we need to confront with sooner or later.
“China is near”, it is often said; perhaps with a hint of fear by those who see this majestic nation as a looming threat, or with a certain admiration by those who are moved by its arts and culture. Huge amounts of people queue up to see the XiAn terracotta warriors when they are taken to exhibitions around the world; many who passionately follow the Maoist ideals that made inroads in the 70s, still look with pride and hope at the affairs of the homeland of non-soviet communism.
I started to see China in the countless Chinatowns of the places I was passing through: Bangkok, Penang, Kuching. Extending my gaze beyond an impenetrable horizon, I saw, or rather I imagined, its far shores from the Thai banks of the Mekong River; I saw its door, no longer forbidden, at the border posts in Macao and Hong Kong, countries that belonged to China but that have already been barbarized by the previous presence of foreigners.
China was always there, almost within reach, an open door inviting me to enter, whispering in my ear: “come in, come.”
Like Oscar Wilde, I too ‘can resist everything except temptations’, and China is an unfair temptress, setting traps during years and years, throwing hooks and waiting for my arrival, patient as a Chinese citizen, sitting on the edge of that proverbial river. And I, for years, watched China secretly, as one peeps the generous cleavage of a busty lady, playing indifference, pretending not to show interest yet admiring, with the corner of one eye, this shrewd Lady of the nations with the air of one who still feels too inexperienced to enjoy its grace.
Now that I am a grown up and mature enough to court her, and my approach is just a few days away, I realize China is so terribly big that the preparation of a journey inside its borders presents a hardship far greater than difficult visa applications. “Where do I start?”, is the question that has been haunting me for the last few days.
I look at a map, I read a name without conviction, then I say: “I want to go there”, then the eye continues to run greedily on the same map, I read another name and with equal conviction I add: “Yeah, I also want to go there”. But time, as you well know, is an evil tyrant, and the little of it I have at my disposal forces me to make some hard choices. There is an infinite number of names, and they all convey feelings, exoticism, culture and somehow poetry. I need to pick one, and one only. In the end I choose Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province…