Dezan S Chris Devonshire-Ellis - China Remembered The Silver Russian Samovar at Beijing Capital Airport 08.17.2009 – It’s a sunny afternoon along a peaceful country road in north-east Beijing. Poplar trees and silver birch line the road, red-billed magpies, resplendent Resource Li in blue feathers dive amongst the trees, and the occasional horse and cart trot by Chris Devon Beijing acco along the two lane tarmac. Traditional northern Chinese houses, with angled roofs and courtyards line the way as traffic moves along at a sedate 30mph. Suddenly, sirens blaring, a convoy of police station wagons, lights on full beam, overtake at speed, three unmarked cars hurtling along in the center of the fifteen vehicle dash. It’s just another afternoon on Beijing’s old airport road, and a senior government minister, or maybe even Deng Xiaoping himself has just driven past. The airport road, I am told, was built back in 1972 to accommodate the visit of then U.S. President Richard Nixon to China. The legendary meeting between Nixon and Mao, which spawned its own opera devoted to the subject, ushered in a new period of Sino-U.S. relations, ultimately resulting in diplomatic relations being restored on January 1, 1979. Before Nixon’s visit, diplomatic flights had been few and far between, with most of those limited to the Soviet Union and other communist states. The airport road still exists, but is now relegated to being a rural country lane, the preserve to donkey carts and local Beijingers still going about their agricultural pastimes. Beijing’s Capital Airport was still just a one terminal affair as recently as just ten years ago. A new six lane expressway was opened as business and diplomatic traffic increased exponentially from those halcyon days in the 1970s following the new detente. China was becoming the world’s manufacturing hub, and seduced by the prospect of 1.2 billion consumers, globetrotting executives were flooding in. Terminal 2 opened with Japanese money in November 1999, and the massive Terminal 3, built to cater for the Olympics as well as the expected rise on passengers, threw open its doors just last year. Yet it was Terminal 1 that for many China hands was their first experience of China. Originally built in 1958, it stayed as it was – the only gateway to Beijing – until 1999, when it underwent extensive refurbishment. At the time of the refurbishment, the entire airport operated solely from Terminal 2. When Terminal 1 reopened in 2004, a piece of old China had been lost forever. Granted, the old Terminal 1 was somewhat shabby and had seen several coats of paint to hide the cracks over the years, and the service was quite literally, arguably dreadful. But it was also convenient, easy, and had some residual charm. The building was essentially just a long block, with a round section at the end where all the gates were. No chance of getting lost, one just walked straight and found the gate at the end. On the stroll up, one passed souvenir shops of dubious quality, but the real prize lay at the end. With no restaurants, the only food and drink on offer was at the entrance to the departure gates, with a couple of middle aged, bulked up, swaddled women clad completely in quilt and bearing the hints of mustaches. Both stank of garlic and baijiu. Magnificently surly, in ways that only old communists can manage, they would dispense dry cups of noodles as the only food available and dispatch packets of Nescafe powder or a tea bag into an empty cup. Questions about water were met with an annoyed, freezing glare, a mixture of suspended belief at the stupidity of foreigners, sheer malice, and an utter lack of any semblance of service whatsoever. Eventually, having reduced you to a quivering wreck under the might of socialist intellectual superiority, a lofty arm would be raised and a casual wave in the direction beyond would be all that was offered as advice. Turning around, and hopefully following the 180 degree angle of direction being gesticulated, one’s eyes would feast upon the ultimate savior on such unhappy purchases, for there, hidden just behind a pillar, was a huge, five foot tall, silver samovar. Steaming, gleaming, and very very Russian, Terminal 1’s sole source of food or drink was this behemoth. Equipped, quite properly for the proletarian masses with several brass taps, it would dispense boiling cascades of dangerously hot water, for free. The coffee powder and the noodles would miraculously reconstitute and be born again into something resembling slimy strands of yellow seaweed and a dark sludge of little discernible flavor. They were of course, quite naturally disgusting. Anything more would be bourgeois to the extreme. Yet when in Rome…and I would buy the noodles and have a coffee just to use the samovar. The new, refurbished Terminal 1 was fitted out with Starbucks and restaurant franchises aplenty. Commerce had arrived at Beijing’s original air gateway, and a sandwich was now RMB75. The noodles, while revolting, used to cost just five. And despite the millions of dollars invested in the new terminals, nothing has ever been able to replace the grandeur of that old Russian silver samovar. And I also, somewhat masochistically, rather miss the old socialist style of service. This article was written by Chris Devonshire-Ellis, founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, a foreign direct investment company with a law firm in Shanghai, Beijing, and many other cities around Asia. This is one of a series of “China Remembered” articles that are being run by the China business news website, China-Briefing.com. 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