Letter from China (1): Die Sonntags-Peking

Berlin Tegel airport was not built to accommodate the Chinese tourist of the early 21stcentury. Check-in is at the gate, and once you have passed security, you are trapped in a little waiting room, which is not connected to the other gates and has nothing to offer except a tiny duty-free kiosk. The passengers bound for Hainan Airlines flight number 490 seem nevertheless determined to empty the sparsely filled shelves, cramming perfumes and chocolates into their shopping baskets.

A bottle of Williams Birne (pear brandy) would make a neat present for my German host in Beijing. Waiting in the long line in front of the cash register, I witness some desperate conversations in Chinese. One lady only managed to snatch one box of Belgian chocolates and tried to ask the shop assistant for another one. “他聽不懂我,我聽不懂 他,”she complains (I don’t understand her and she does not understand me). I offer to help.  Soon the whole travel group (Europe, eight countries in twelve days) has converged on me, using my services as a translator. “Can you ask her if this is buy three, get one free?” As soon as they discover that I am buying pear brandy, they empty that shelf as well.

The two cashiers are frantically typing prices into the register, looking overwhelmed and tired. “登機票“, they patiently remind each customer to produce their boarding passes – even they had to learn some Chinese. Boarding is almost completed, but the woman in front of me still has about 50 items in her basket. Getting a little nervous, I ask one of the sales ladies if the pilot would wait for us. She gives me a resigned look. But of course, she says. “Das ist doch die Sonntags-Peking.” Meaning: This is the Sunday flight to Beijing (it sounds funnier in German), and everybody knows that this is the craziest day of the week.

It has not even been three years since it is possible to fly directly from Berlin to Beijing. I still remember the days when the only flights from Berlin to destinations outside of Europe were to New York, Moscow and Ulan Bator. I am told that it will take at least another year until the new airport in Schönefeld will be completed and Tegel will finally be history. „This makes you feel a little shabby“, muses the German businessman sitting next to me on the plane. (From his accent and attitude I can tell that he is a true Berliner.) „At least when you see that shiny airport in Beijing.“

I myself cannot wait to see the new Beijing airport, which was finished in time for the Olympic Games in 2008. But when I get off the plane, everything looks strangely familiar: the immigration hall with the painting of the Great Wall on its back, the rectangular arrival lobby. I am already in a cab on my way to Chaoyang when I realize that my flight from shabby Berlin-Tegel arrived at the shabby old terminal in Beijing. Maybe this is how they ease the transition for travelers from slow old Europe.

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