Tag Archives: impressions


Heathrow Terminal 2 vs Beijing Terminal 3 (Previous Version)

There’s good news about living in Harrow: We’re only two bus stops away from a rental car station. But now for the bad news as well: it’s closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday all day.

And sometimes, life calls for that trip to central London on Sundays — on more flexible timing than what the Tube offers you. So where do I get my car? Heathrow Airport. Thankfully, you get to choose where you pick your car up — you in essence arrive at any terminal, then choose the desk of your car rental company.

I decided to give the recently re-done Heathrow Terminal 2 a try some weeks back before I headed to my rental car company at the airport. (Coincidentally, I have now mastered this skill I once thought was impossible — driving a manual / stick-shift in the UK — I can do this as one of my licences is a full one for manuals as well.)

I can’t really speak for Terminal 2 as a full experience, since Tracy and I have yet to catch a flight there (plus British Airways doesn’t fly out from Terminal 2, so it’s the Speedbird terminal AKA Terminal 5 for most BA flights). But I did get a chance to grab a quick bite at the landside Terminal 2 cafés.

The one thing that comes to you after 14 years in China is this perception that all airports have to be big. Chengdu’s Terminal 2 certainly stunned us, as it took us forever to get from the plane to our taxi rank at the exit. (Barcelona El-Prat was huge as well, but at least it was more compact.) So I was looking for Heathrow’s latest addition to be huge, certainly landside. After all, this came after Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3, so it had to be inspired by China, or aspire to be of similar dimensions. Right?


Heathrow Terminal 2’s dimensions left me wanting for more. There was only this bit of the airport at the departures level where you had a bite (and even so, you had to head out of the main building into a covered “midway piazza” to change levels). There was woefully little for you at the arrivals level, and the fact they couldn’t exchange Macanese patacas wasn’t too encouraging either.

Contrast that with Beijing’s Terminal 3: there is a Starbucks that occupies probably 20% of the whole Arrivals area. I’ve met tonnes of visitors from especially the US in that part of PEK T3. It gave you a place to “belong to”, as it offered options “just in case” you needed something at the airport. The fact that Level 4 now comes with a railway ticket office for Chinese trains is a very cool new addition. And for those of us who would prefer something more British, there’d be a Costa at Departures Level as well, which was in fact where we entertained (quite coincidentally) British TV executives at the China-UK summit on TV formats about half a year back.

I’m not saying Terminal 2 “is through”; it isn’t, and for a terminal that opened less than 4 months ago, I’m sure there’s a lot more in store. I was expecting maybe a major brand name café a la Terminal 5 at the Arrivals Level (you at least got something from Costa before heading onto the Heathrow Express). But big name café chains aside, Terminal 2’s arrivals level feels tiny. Not that you had to have sofas at the arrivals level (PEK doesn’t come with that either). But it gave you a feel: This is as big a terminal as we have. Which for the world’s leading industrialised nation doesn’t say a lot.

(But then again, for the real Britain, you’d head outside of Heathrow.)

I’m thoroughly impressed by Terminal 2’s wide open spaces, but less so with regards of what the terminal building itself has. For the newest terminal building of the capital of the UK, I thought I’d be seeing something a little larger, with more on offer. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spoilt rotten by Chinese airports. Or maybe @ LHR T2 it’s still earlier days.

But I’ll still be thankful for the Costa at the Departures Level at Terminal 2. I know I’ll need to get work done on those long flights. Thank heavens I know there’s a Caffeine Charging Station. Plus to have the ultimate word on T2, I’ll need to get out of (or fly into) London from that terminal.

I hope when I’m airside, I’ll be positively surprised.

PS: I am starting to get used to the “duo-tone” airport jingle at Heathrow…

Street Level China: 0 m.a.s.l.

That’s zero metres above sea level, for the uninitiated. Some time ago, I joined my wife on a trip to the city of Qingdao (in eastern China). She had media business to do in Qingdao, so I went around the area while she got busy — I went as far out as west to Ji’nan (where I found my optimised English standards in use) and environs, as well as the cities of Zibo, Weifang and Gaomi.

Shandong finds itself at an HSR crossroads, although only some of its most important cities are linked to the national HSR system. There’s a 200-250 km/h HSR stretch from Ji’nan to Qingdao, which will soon have a newer 350 km/h addition. When that’s done, trains will take just over an hour to reach Qingdao from Ji’nan (at the moment, it’s upwards of three full hours).

The cities of Weifang and Zibo struck me as two cities I could really imagine myself living in. In Weifang I found wide, open spaces and (what else) a Starbucks and Pizza Hut, one next to the other, so I could do a little food refuge if a crass excess of seafood got me scared (I am, after all, a little more “continental” — remember Switzerland is a landlocked country!). Zibo, though, is a funny place. The city isn’t made up of just one locality, but a series — with the main city (Zhangdian district, Zibo) at the northernmost extreme. The main city district has a lot of buildings which remain those with a very 1980s / 1990s look; that’s no surprise given the fact that the city didn’t miss out on the first round of reforms (when Deng Xiaoping was around), but later rounds of reforms and development went elsewhere. My rail friend there told me that Zibo started off as a Tier 2 town, then was downgraded (unofficially) to something he calls “Tier 2½” — because it’s missing out on the latest round of reforms and opening up. A lot buildings in Zibo still retain the look they had two decades back; they money, in the meantime, has gone elsewhere.

Gaomi remained a sleepy town to me. Me and American-Chinese friend Will went there back in 2010; my granddad hails from there, so to give him a nice surprise, I picked up a train ticket from that town. I remember back in 2010 that when I went there, there was probably one major statue, a huge highway leading into town, and then all there really was — remained peace and quiet. They’re redoing the station — it’s showing its age, but is still incredibly busy.

I was also given a personal guide tour of Qingdao’s main station by station staff, who showed me how train crew got busy. Next time you board a train departing Qingdao early in the morning, just remember that you’re not the first onboard: the train pulls in an hour ahead and train crew have to prepare absolutely everything within around 30-40 minutes before they let passengers in. It’s work.

I hope to return to Qingdao soon — there’s a whole swath of eastern Shandong I have yet to totally explore!