Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 03:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 03:40 | SYDNEY

Our man in Beijing

31 March 2008 09:21

Alistair Thornton (pictured) is a Beijing-based economic analyst. This is his first post about life and politics in today's China.

The thick morning smog did a wonderful job of obscuring my view of one of China’s newest architectural wonders, Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3, as I descended into the capital a few days ago. I’ve seen about as much of the dazzling exterior as anyone else has. Foster & Partners, the team behind the £1.8bn airport, boast that 'its soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form celebrates the thrill of flight and evokes traditional Chinese colours and symbols'. I’ll have to take their word for it.

What I can attest to is the terminal’s interior. And that is extraordinary. The sheer space inside is daunting. Most of my fellow passengers wandered around with their heads flung back, mouths agape. The roof is a massive 2,600ft wide, arching and towering above you. It shimmers in a kind of optical illusion, with curving slats of glossy metal and crimson atmospheric lighting, baffling the eye. The floor space (pristinely buffed, I might add) is 17% larger than Heathrow’s (even including the troubled new Terminal 5), making it the largest airport in the world. To help travel-weary visitors cope with the size, a high-speed train whisks you at rollercoaster speed down the dragon’s spine, from immigration to baggage reclaim.

There are far too many staff, most standing to attention guarding their 20 square metre patch, others wandering, smiling politely. This may have something to do with the fact that the terminal is only open to five carriers at present (another 20 move in this week) and my flight was the only one in at the time. It certainly is efficient though, and I was out of the airport in less than half the time it takes at Heathrow. ‘Practice makes perfect’ must be an idiom the Chinese are familiar with; the latest of six dress rehearsals involved the processing of 8,000 ‘volunteers’ and 7,000 pieces of luggage.

The new airport was built partly because the old one couldn’t cope with the soaring demand, but very much with the Olympics in mind. With an estimated 700,000 visitors descending on Beijing in August and the whole world tuning in from home, the Chinese are extremely proud of this gateway to the Games. As my taxi sped away, the driver pointed back at the airport and smiled gleefully. He chattered excitedly despite all my protestations of linguistic ignorance. He seemed to like it…