My Yunnan travel plans crumbled under the onrush of the torrential rains that hit the province in the early summer. The news were not reassuring, the high mountain roads unsafe, the prospect of outdoor activities bleak. I lay in waiting, but in the end I did the sensible thing. One week before my departure I revolutionised my itinerary: no more Yunnan, but the neighbouring province of Guizhou would be my destination. I sketched an itinerary, collected information and set myself the goal of exploring just this one province, whose area is roughly 60% of my country Italy – not small.
I tend not to be pretentious by wanting to pack too many far-away places in one trip. In my opinion it wastes time and money, and doesn’t allow penetrating the spirit of the place for sheer lack of time. I am a one-country-at-a-time sort of traveller, but when it comes to China I can restrict my rule to just one province. At my fourth trip to the Empire I could make allowances to less visited regions and my moral commitment to visiting Yunnan was not completely betrayed. I put it aside for a future occasion.
The problem, if any, was the doubt that assailed me about wanting to return to China at all. I had made the decision in the spring, not without having to overcome some wavering, but in the end giving in to the need of the cultural challenge that came from continuing learning Chinese. After that time I had luckily recovered equanimity and the madness of tackling this daunting trial came home to me. After all, had I not sworn that last year’s trip to China would be my last?
When the friendly Finnish customs officer checked my passport and boarding card, he asked me if I was going to China for business. I answered for tourism and he put on a startled expression as if China could not ever be a tourist destination. With all my qualms, that made me feel even more insecure, but it was too late. Eight hours later I would land in Chongqing and there would be no way back until a month later. I had to play the game.
Chongqing lived up to its notorious reputation of being one of China’s three big stove cities, together with Wuhan and Nanjing. From the early morning time when I stepped out of the airport, a cape of heat hovered over the town and increased in the course of the day until the evening, making outdoor walking an unpleasantly sticky and tiring experience. Chongqing had a lot to offer and I was curious to find out, but I felt crushed under the pressure of the heat and waved the white flag.
The position of the city is fantastic, at the confluence of the muddy Jialing river into the mighty Yangze river. The throbbing heart of the city juts out on this tongue of land separated from the outlying hills by the two broad ribbons of water. It is a modern town, with gleaming high rise buildings in the centre and disconcerting forests of tower apartment blocks in the suburbs. However, there are also unexpected sights that throw you back to the time when China was a backward country: porters that balance weights on either end of a bamboo rod, the doomed 18 stairs district, now hedged in on all sides by modern buildings, the unpretentious roadside food stalls. As in all Chinese cities, the contradiction of countryside and town life melt together in one place preserving their seemingly irreconcilable rhythms and habits, but in the end shaping the image of today’s country. I felt welcome by this great spontaneity and simplicity.
I might still turn a difficult start into a great trip. Chongqing inspired me to do my best.