Welcome to Beijing

It is 3:23 pm. I’ve just gotten off a 12 ½ hour flight from Chicago, after learning what a short-checked bag is and stepping onto a Boeing 747 for the first time. I had spent an hour and a half in Chicago waiting for my luggage to show up from my Cleveland flight, grabbed a quarter-pounder with cheese for lunch from McDonald’s, and gotten my visa approved with a DOCS OK stamp at the gate. Now that I am here, in Beijing, I have no idea where to go, but I let my aching legs follow the crowd of people along hundreds of meters of terminal walkway.

My boarding pass with DOCS OK stamp
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As I look out the expansive windows of Beijing Capital International Airport, I wonder how the pilot could have seen to land: the outside air is thick with yellowish-white smog. Still walking, walking, looking for some indication of what to do next — but finally the ceiling swells upward, and there are the lines.

I scan the signs: Chinese nationals, no, diplomatic, no, immigration, possibly, transits out of this terminal, no, transits out a different terminal, still no, no more planes right now, please — so I get in the long line for immigration. I fill out the immigration card, pose for the picture, and get stamped through. Success!

Once again wandering and wondering, I spot a sign that says, Baggage claim: Take train to T3. Train? TRAIN? I take the escalator past the sign and sure enough, light rail trains are carting people off the platform — but judging by a few others’ facial expressions, I’m not the only one confused by the whole system. I pile onto the next train, wonder who is driving because I sure don’t see a place for a driver to sit, and ten minutes later arrive at Terminal 3.

There are a disturbing lack of signs for baggage claim.

Following the crowd, I enter a huge room with the largest and longest bag carousels I’ve ever seen. After 15 minutes I spot my bag and yank it from the pile, then head over to something that looks like an exit…but only sort of. It says, Customs, but not many people are going through it — I read the signs again and glance around, and there, a hundred meters away on the other side of the room, are the very large Customs signs, with a much longer line of people. I roll my luggage over, double-check that I had nothing to declare, step through the metal detectors, and then send my baggage through the X-ray scanner. With no response from the security personnel (is it OK to go? Yes? No?), I loiter a few seconds and then decide to continue on, through a maze of hallways until — 

Railings groan as they hold back hundreds of people, like levees in a flood. I see faces, signs, more faces and more signs, but no one I recognize and none holding my name. I am supposed to call someone named Chen — whom I’ve never met — to pick me up from the airport, but I certainly don’t have cell service. Finally, as I come to the end of the parted sea, I hear someone say,


I look around and see one familiar face, a face I have seen only once before in a picture from a conference call: Michael. Michael introduces me to the person standing next to him, Jesse, who has replaced Chen at the last minute. C’est la vie.

Jesse leads us to his car, and his driver — yes, this Chinese twentysomething has a driver — shimmies us through traffic to our destination: the Haidian district.

Crosstown Traffic

Eight lanes of traffic near the 798 Arts District
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Beijing has the craziest traffic I’ve ever experienced: 4 lanes each direction, packed with cars, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles…and they all weave through each other with a bit of horn-honking, yelling, but rarely any collisions. It seems all very hectic at first, but within a few days I realize how remarkably predictable it all is: big things get right-of-way and everything else wiggles between.

“Silicon Valley”

We get out of the car at our hotel near Renmin University in the Haidian district. I feel surprised at the strange sweetness as I breathe for the first time the polluted air. The sun is a dull orange disc, dim enough to stare at through the smog.

The setting sun, masked by smog
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We meet Jenny and Chen at the hotel and walk with them to Zhongguancun, where steel and glass shimmer in every direction. Surrounded by China’s top institutions of higher education, including Renmin, Peking, and Tsinghua Universities, we are in a place often called the Silicon Valley of China. This is where I’ll be spending most of my three weeks, teaching human-centered design to college students from all over China.

Zhongguancun at night
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On the third Sunday, with the summer sun and humid air steaming me like a pork and cabbage dumpling, I wander through Zhongguancun’s maze of skyscrapers and urban parks. Parents sit in the shade of trees as they watch their children learn to speedskate in Zhongguancun Plaza. I walk through the nearby hillside garden that leads to an expansive patio over the road below. I’m sticky with sweat just from taking pictures.

But, between the many floors of the Gate City and EC Malls and the Ding Hao Electronics Center, there are plenty of air-conditioned indoor spaces to cool off, grab a bite to eat, and gain the attention of ravenous solicitors selling electronics of every sort.