Like everything else in modern China, and especially in Beijing, the first word which comes to mind is ‘big’. From the moment you arrive in Beijing things are big. It takes an age for the plane to taxi from the landing to the terminal; it feels like you cross another airstrip on the way there.
When you arrive at the terminal you then have to take several long, moving walkways to reach the passport control and you feel like you’ve already walked to the city when you’ve only really covered the distance it takes to cross the huge wide main street downtown. After queuing for some time to have your passport checked you have to take the automatic driverless train that takes you to the baggage claim, which is down the escalator opposite the passport area. The trains arrive every five minutes or so but, again, the impression is that you are travelling a long way from the plane to your bags. This is the picture for international travellers arriving at Terminal 3 of Beijing Airport. For domestic passengers arriving in Terminal 1, it takes much less time to pass from the plane to the baggage area.
The Terminal 3 building was designed by Norman Foster to be the main gateway for the 2004 Beijing Olympics with ‘a soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form’. The roof certainly soars, but I do not see the dragon there, only its wings. The airport seems rather different when you leave than when you arrive, probably because, throughout your journey on the way in, facilities are somewhat sparse until you arrive at the baggage claim area. In this part of the airport, there are exchange bureaux and a large ‘inbound’ duty free, whereas on the way out from the check-in to the departure gate, there is always something to look at or some activity to indulge in.
When you drive up the approach ramp to the departures area of Terminal 3 and see the great arc of the building in front and above you, you are already impressed and expect a light and lofty interior. There is plenty of space between the check-in desks for the inevitably long queues or, if you are waiting, for others to check-in for you. There are many displays of departure information, although you may have to wait a few seconds for them to scroll from Chinese to English.
Security checks then take place before you take the driverless train to the terminal and, on leaving the train, you go up the escalator to passport control. Once past here, you meet the main hall of the departure lounge. It is difficult not to spend time just staring at the vast concrete and metal ceiling, which seems draped like a sheet over the relatively slender pillars that hold it up.
Interspersed throughout the central hall area are the duty free shops. These consist of all the standard international labels, but hidden away among them you can also find some more Chinese items such as traditional silk clothing. Chinese and other people in the region especially like to take highly decorative rice cakes or crackers with them to those they visit. They can be a very colourful and relatively cheap gift. There are also a similar range of cafés and restaurants, from western or Chinese-style fast food, to the fuller restaurant experience. A Chinese tea house with a bridge and stream is worth a look, even if you do not sit down and relax there.
The airport lounges are suspended in galleries overlooking the main hall and the duty free area. They are spacious and serve good Chinese and western snacks. The drink selection is more limited and tends to be very much self-serve. They have a great open view down into the hall below, over a balcony. This does not make them noisy, but they are not as quiet and secluded as they might be if you really need a rest between flights. The lounges do not have such numerous shower and washing facilities as the main European hubs. Free Internet access is available here.
One word of caution. Flight announcements are rare and it is advisable to keep a close watch on the departure screens. The central hall can be disorienting as it does not have a clear outer shape and you can become lost amongst the duty free outlets. Moreover, it can be a long way from the central area to your gate. This can be problematic if there is a last minute gate change. Fog and pollution can be a big problem in Beijing, so some delay or change of gate is a reasonable possibility.
Lastly, a word about travel between the airport and the city. Although there is a good multi-lane highway between the airport and the city, this can be quite jammed, especially at rush hour. You probably need to estimate one hour by road. Alternatively, the train may be faster and it links directly into the city subway. It leaves from a station accessed by a ramp straight opposite the arrivals hall of the international Terminal 3. Lack of English can be a problem when using either mode of transport. Taxi drivers often underestimate the time it takes to reach the airport, and they mostly don’t speak English. When arriving, it can be a major problem to explain to a taxi driver where you wish to go. It’s definitely best to be met on arrival and tell them to arrive at the airport early, as flight times often change with aircraft arriving early or late. The train can also take you from the international Terminal 3 to the domestic Terminal 1. The two terminals are some distance apart, so it would be wise to allocate plenty of time for changing flights.
flickr image by thewamphyriWrite a Review
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