BEIJING, China (CNN) — The trip up to Beijing from Hong Kong couldn’t have started any worse. The typhoon 8 signal — one of the strongest ratings Hong Kong gives storms — was in effect, which made getting a taxi a very wet proposition.
Thankfully, things improved quickly after successfully hailing one (though the obligatory typhoon surcharge was enforced), and despite a hairy ride dodging fallen trees along Hong Kong’s highways, I was relieved to find my flight was still scheduled to fly.
We sat on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a brief respite from the howling wind, and the first 10 minutes of ascent was of the white-knuckled variety. But the three-hour flight passed quickly and I was soon getting my first view of Beijing Airport’s new Terminal 3.
Designed by British architect Norman Foster and built at a cost of $3 billion, it’s the largest of its kind in the world — a soaring steel and glass structure that took just under four years to complete.
It’s big, bright, airy and very user-friendly. The huge roof is made up of a bronze and earthy red grid-like pattern that gives the whole place a futuristic atmosphere – and it just stretches on … and on.
I was struck by the amount of staff in attendance, as if there was one worker per passenger. I knew it was the eve of the Olympics, and staff had probably been drilled in the art of welcome relentlessly, but they all were incredibly polite and helpful.
Media people pushed their oversized cameras around, toned athletes slinked about like graceful jungle cats and Olympics officials checked off lists — all with goodwill and a sense of camaraderie.
Immigration was a breeze — a courteous nod and yet more staff waiting beyond to guide weary travelers to the baggage claim area (a state of the art system capable of processing almost 20,000 bags per hour).
I arrived at the baggage claim to find suitcases being spat out on to the conveyor belts at a rate of knots. Indeed, my bag was already doing a loop, a first for an international flight, from memory.
The atmosphere of calm and control quickly diminished after clearing customs — hoards of security staff, journalists, and sports fans jostled for front position as arriving passengers (no doubt some famous) pushed luggage trolleys toward the exit signs.
Then it was time to test the much discussed Beijing taxi drivers who, from many reports, have spent the past year busily attending English classes.
No such luck, but it wasn’t a problem — a taxi regulator was at hand giving succinct instructions to my driver as to my destination. And he did make up for his limited English skills with perfect driving and a very nifty uniform.
As anticipation grew over the opening ceremony last week we were busy visiting great landmarks like Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City, where our crew inadvertently ended up as the star attraction.
Many Chinese have never seen a foreigner and a few dozen asked if they could be photographed with my CNN colleagues.
When we asked one – through a translator – “why take a picture with us, when Mao’s freshly re-painted image is positioned just across the street?”, he replied “because you are new to us, you are fresh!”
Another said he had never seen a man with brown skin in person and thought producer Larry was one of the Olympic athletes!
It was a reminder of how isolated this vast nation is from the rest of the world. The hundreds of security and military personnel – who seem to be positioned every 15 metres – shift their eyes to get a better look as we walk by, all the while remaining otherwise motionless.
Other Chinese nationals seem to watch movements and the way we interact with each other. We’ve come to East Asia to witness athletic history and to chronicle the most political Olympics in more than two decades, but never could we have predicted becoming a target of the curious.
On the afternoon of the Opening Ceremony, it was relatively quiet, at least for Beijing standards — as if everyone was resting indoors in anticipation of the momentous event.
Just hours before the curtain was raised we were engrossed in a new Olympic event; the big guessing game: Will it rain or will Beijing be blessed with a clear sky? Who will light the Olympic flame? How will it be lit? Will we be dazzled by the opening ceremony?
I don’t think any of us was disappointed.