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Flying into Beijing's mega-airport

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

I was curious.

I had my camera.

I had visited the Web site

And soon I would see one of the world's largest buildings in person.

Bigger than the Pentagon, bigger than the small country of Vatican City, a building that is supposed to be so impressive that its architects describe it as "a symbol of place."

But really it's just an airport terminal.

Image: Beijing Capital International Airport
EPA file
People walk through the new Terminal 3 building at the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China. 

And I was going to get my first glimpse of this behemoth not as a journalist reporting on the ceremonial grand opening, but as a passenger flying in from London.

Dizzying statistics
Designed by British architect Norman Foster (responsible for the feng-shui friendly Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong and the Millennium Bridge in London, among many others), Beijing Capital International Airport's Terminal Three is the kind of project that inspires people to summon up dizzying statistics.

The new terminal, which cost an estimated $3.75 billion to construct, occupies 14 million square feet. The building was constructed at lightning speed; it took four years and 50,000 workers.

Compare that to London Heathrow's Terminal 5, set to open later this month. Terminal 5 took nearly 20 years to build and cost at least twice as much as the one in the Chinese capital.

And, as the British press noted pointedly, the Beijing terminal is bigger than all five Heathrow terminals put together. But, as one columnist commented, the Chinese government does not need to abide by the same labor laws and union restrictions found in the U.K.

The new capacity means that Beijing Capital - already China's busiest airport with 53 million passengers traveling through in 2007 - will be able to handle nearly 90 million passengers a year by 2012.

My flight from London was on British Airways, just one of six airlines that have been operating in and out of the new terminal since it opened two weeks ago. The other airlines will join by the end of March, well ahead of the anticipated build-up of visitors coming for the Summer Olympic Games.

So, it was with some anticipation that I looked forward to landing at the new terminal in Beijing.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Even the parking lot at the new Beijing Airport terminal is massive.

Vast, but empty space
Reports had described the terminal roof as resembling the shape of a dragon's back. Unfortunately, I did not have a window seat and the haze of Beijing's pollution was especially thick, so I couldn't see the building until our plane pulled up to the gate.

As soon as we disembarked, I looked in vain for a trolley to dump some heavy hand luggage. There were none to be found.

Nor were there any people.

"This isn't China," said NBC cameraman Marcus O'Brien, who had been on the same flight with me. "There are no people."

He was right. The only human activity came from airport staff, many of whom were lined up to welcome and steer passengers through a vast, shiny space. And its size really is the most remarkable thing about the building, seen from the inside - apart from a long, sloping roof that lets in natural light.

The terminal building is roughly two miles long. We walked half a mile before we got to "Immigration" and then hopped on a light rail train to get to "Baggage."

Even some of the employees seemed a little lost.

When I set off to retrieve a long duffel bag from the oversized luggage counter, the guard standing under the sign for "Oversized Baggage" shrugged his shoulders at me and said he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do and that he couldn't help me. (Fortunately, the duffel turned up on the regular luggage belt.)

Canine at the conveyor belt
There was, however, one unexpected addition to the new terminal.

A cute beagle on a leash nosed around suitcases and bags as passengers waited for their luggage to come off the conveyor belt. He began to circle one of my duffel bags repeatedly. The customs officer looked up at me as he saw the beagle focus on my bag.

"Um, it's cheese," I offered.

"Cheese?"

"Yes, you know, very smelly cheese," I paused as he stared at me in confusion. Cheese - especially anything that smells as strong as ripe Camembert - is still a rarity in China. The odor was unmistakable as I pulled the offending item out of my bag.

"Like stinky tofu," I smiled nervously, referring to a Chinese street food of fermented tofu which is as popular in night markets as its stench is overpowering. "Sorry."

He walked off with my Camembert and the tail-wagging beagle in tow.

"You got busted by a beagle," laughed Marcus.