Nothing that the television pictures have transmitted can truly convey the magnitude of Beijing which I saw for the first time today.
My day began with orange juice 35,000 feet above Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia and just over an hour’s flight time from the Olympic city. It’s as far east to Beijing by plane as it is west to San Francisco. The journey from London via Stockholm arcs across the roof of the Earth, north of Moscow, across the Arctic wastes and then down over Mongolia into northern China.
Thousands of European athletes have already made the trip and are now facing the challenge of Beijing’s climate. Today was not as bad as others. A haze still hung over the city for the most part blocking out the sun but the temperature didn’t break 30C, nor did the much-publicised humidity seem too uncomfortable.
Beijing airport, specially reconstructed for the Olympics, is as breathtaking as the city itself. The enormity of the arrival halls, the fact that it’s nearly a mile by rail car from customs to baggage collection, puts all other airports I’ve ever passed through, into minuscule perspective.
The airport staff also set my initial impression of Beijing. Discipline. Order. Obedience. Politeness. This is a place where white-gloved airport security staff stand like sentries to attention. Where passport pictures are scrutinised to the nth degree. Where everyone who works seems to wear a uniform.
A wall of heat and humidity greeted us as we walked to the coach outside and set off for Beijing on an eight-lane highway with red and white Olympic banners fluttering from every lamppost along the way. A sign says “Olympic Village 27km ahead”. The slogan: “One world: one dream” is everywhere.
As I look out at the massive expanses of concrete highway and office-blocks stretching to a blurred horizon, I think this is China’s version of drab Los Angeles. But the further we travel, the more that comparison pales. Beijing has an enormity all its own and no American city, not even New York, matches it.
I’m travelling with 25 UK newspaper and television editors and we are gunked collectively by the vastness of Beijing and the fact that so many hundreds of buildings, like the airport itself, and our hotel, the Sofitel Wanda, are so cavernous.
Around every corner are examples of how China’s communist leaders have come to terms with western culture and capitalism. Virtually every major western bank, hotel chain and fashion outlet seems to have a place in Beijing. Our guide tells us there are even 300 McDonalds.
In Jianguo Road, I go to find an ATM nervously hoping it will accept my Ulster Bank card. Other than the fact that the card is returned after and not before the money appears, there isn’t a problem.
I turn on my hotel TV and have immediate and full access to CNN and BBC World and think what is all the fuss about media censorship. I link up my laptop to the hotel wifi and watch the Belfast Telegraph and BBC Northern Ireland morning television news 5,000 miles from home, the Chinese broadband connection faster than my link in Belfast.
Out on Jianguo Road, the pavement around the hotel is surprisingly light on pedestrians for a city with so many million people and there is hardly a car passing by. The whole centre has an air of cleanliness and order about it, the like of which would not be encountered in any British or Irish city. I’m told that to reduce congestion, Beijingers have been advised to stay away from their city centre and are certainly only allowed to use their cars on alternate days during the Olympics.
Perhaps before the week is out, I’ll see where they all are with their 10 million bicycles and 3.3 million cars.
Shortly after our arrival, we have an Olympic reception, addressed by the Chief Executive of UK Sport, Sue Campbell. Her message is that the Olympics are “no longer an amateur pursuit.” To contend for gold medals, she says athletes need world-class facilities and training, need to be Formula One, need to be elite in their class.
She speaks inspirationally about British hopes in Beijing and leaves no doubt that there is a new air of confidence and an expectation that the medal tally will surpass previous Olympics.
Tomorrow and later this week, we will find out, when we pay our first visits to the Olympic sites, the rowing at Shunyi Park, and the athletics in the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
Dusk fell over Beijing shortly after seven as our coach took us to a dinner at the Wu Ta Si restaurant, in the west of the city.
En route, we drove across Tiananmen Square, the largest in the world, past the portrait of Chairman Mao and the Great Hall of the People. These world-famous landmarks stand on Chang’an Avenue, which runs east to west across Beijing. Nearly 100 metres wide, it stretches for more than 30 kilometres, underlining the enormity of this city.
As I look out from my 19th floor hotel room on the night lights of Beijing, my overall impression is one of awe at the expanse and development of this Olympic city. History is in the making here at these Olympics.
Beijing has to be seen to be believed. We, who are lucky enough to be here, sense we are visiting not just another major city but the new and coming capital of the world.