Head to the Heavens

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When I first came to China 12 years ago, I walked through the Beijing Capitol International Airport and wondered what I had gotten into. I had flown from San Francisco via Tokyo, and the contrast between the two airports I passed through and my destination was stark. Unlike those efficient, modern hubs, Beijing’s airport was cramped and painted a dingy mint normally found in hospital uniforms. Outside, cab drivers jostled and shouted for fares. If the Beijing airport made a statement, it was that this country was still far behind the two I had just left.

A couple of hours ago I checked out the new terminal three at the Beijing airport. You’ve perhaps heard the superlatives already: the world’s largest terminal, more than three kilometers long, built in record time with a $3.5 billion budget. From a distance the roofline curves with the grace of the horizon, broken only by triangular windows that recall a dragon’s back. The interior is a bit similar to Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, which like Beijing’s new terminal was also designed by Norman Foster’s firm. There’s the requisite Starbuck’s and Burger King, and a clothing store called White Collar where the staff wear white gloves. The high ceiling is painted red with a white metal lattice below.

I walked around with that head to the heavens feeling one gets from seeing the Milky Way or a blue Beijing sky on a light pollution day. If the new terminal makes a statement, it’s that this country is eager to take its place as a world leader.

Below, a short clip that gives a little feel of the new terminal: