The story on how this book set its paper sails to me is a chain of coincidences flowing through space and time. And different people. And different countries. Not to mention languages.
The very first ring of this chain seems quite easy to be found. As a matter of fact, the actual navigation began by the river Thames on a Saturday morning in November 2011.
This embarkation point was strategically located in the same Oxfordshire and by the same river Simon Winchester refers to a few times while talking about the Chinese Yangtze.
On the one hand, I can recall the exact moment and place in which "The River at the Centre of the World" made its way onto my landing place.
My girlfriend noticed this junk of a book (no offense meant: should be read like "Chinese boat". How limited the English language could be!) while browsing through the bookshelves of a charity shop.
"Look here. You might like this one" - she said.
And I did, indeed.
Mr Winchester wrote a very good travelling book, the kind of stuff I like and was lucky or clever enough to do it in a perfect time.
It's 1996 and the mighty river Yangtze is going to change - to be changed - forever by the mastodontic Three Gorges Dam. The dam is still under construction but the propaganda machinery is already well oiled and fully functioning.
The British journalist and his Chinese guide, Lily, pass through the old Three Gorges on their way to the distant Yangtze springs and coming from its faraway mouth. What they see is now under water, drowned by progress, sacrificed on the path of a new Great Leap forward (or backwards?).
But what the Three Gorges used to be is just one of the many interesting chapters of this mouth to spring trip. Mr Winchester got talent, passion, a hint of irony and just a soft spot: the bygone glory of the British Empire.
The non-British reader may find "The River at the Centre of the World" a bit too much obsessed by the personal stories of English explorers, adventurers and captains, but its author should be easily forgiven for this.
Simon Winchester doesn't forget to deal with Chinese history and never loses his focus on the river is navigating through, flying over or driving alongside it.
There is a sort of permanent fascination for the Yangtze in all of its/her names and parallel, temporary, infatuations with Shanghai, Nanking, Wuhan and all the cities, towns, villages, hamlets or settlements the river flows through.
I never got bored by all of these facts and learned a lot which is always nice.
The funny thing is that while my girlfriend "discovered" and I read the original English version of the book, it turned out how the same book in its Italian translation was with my dad in Italy since 2003.
And all the times I visited my parents and looked through their bookshelves searching for something more to read, "The River at the Centre of the World" never caught my eyes.
Well, I suppose there is a logic behind this: the Yangtze had to be found by the Thames, which is definitely her westernmost tributary.