As Tranquil As an Airport

The End of A Journey

I never expected to use that phrase in my lifetime, but the new Beijing Airport Terminal 3 comes about as close to that description as I can imagine, especially for international flights. My yardstick of comparison is Beijing Terminal 2 which I have used for the past 14 years, a serviceable but very plain terminal. My experience of checking in at Terminal 2 does not trigger a flood of warm memories, as it usually involved a 30 minute wait in a slow-moving queue. Today in the new terminal I stepped right up to the counter with absolutely no waiting—what a remarkable change of affairs. Airport security did not follow immediately but we walked a bit and then took a train ride to international departures. Only then we went through security and visa checks. We emerged into what is an essence a large and very spacious high-ceilinged shopping mall that provides great opportunities for those last minute souvenirs and gifts. What amazed me was how quiet and uncrowded this space was. The vast terminal (largest in the world when it opened last year, now second largest to Dubai) somehow manages to swallow up the crowds that continuously pour into it. Walking around in there (and walking is the operational word: I noted 6000 steps on my pedometer when I boarded my plane) I felt nearly by myself until I got to the departure gate, which is separate from the central mall area. At the gate I saw a retired gentleman decked out in Phillies red, with sweatshirt and cap. He was from Lititz. I asked him if he had heard the score of game 1, ended only four hours earlier. He had not, so I gleefully reported the happy outcome of the first game of the World Series, which the Phillies had handily won by a score of 6 to 1. I had spent the morning in my hotel room, and I was able to monitor nearly every pitch on – more testimony to the power of the internet. Otherwise, the flight back to Newark was very smooth, long as can be but on-time. Amtrak back to Wilmington, and then a pick-up from my well loved and long-suffering (i.e., all too frequently abandoned) wife.

It was a great trip, as all of my trips to China are. It was a huge learning experience for me about the process of making quality television programs. I have been on programs before, but there is a difference between an interview, in which the camera grinds away and I blab, and telling a compelling story. Making high quality television (e.g., National Geographic quality) is a grueling process. This series is being produced by a New Zealand company, NHNZ. I came away with the highest admiration for the professionalism of the crew. Apparently it is a rule of thumb that a day of shooting produces roughly three minutes of program. What is it that takes so much time and is so costly to produce? The 32 cases of equipment give some indication that we are not talking point and shoot. There is great artistry in setting up shots, arranging backgrounds, excluding unwanted elements. The takes on each scene are endless: wide shots, tight shots, reaction shots, over-the-shoulder shots. Then of course the principals flub lines, miss cues, exit in the wrong direction, stumble and stagger. So it is re-take after re-take after re-take. It is Pip (Philippa), the producer, who is the ultimate decision maker, the one who gets the ulcers. Her favorite expression is “One more time please!” Sally is the field producer. Forming a perfect duo with Pip, Sally keeps track of every shot and every word of dialogue, knowing at all times exactly how to resume a scene. She also is compiling a video blog, pressing her small camera into our faces at odd times and asking us what we are thinking or what is going on. Alex, the director of photography, is integral to the creative process. I have seen him dangle in a 60 foot hole on a cable, climb a chimney, or balance on a string of neck vertebrae swinging in the air by a crane. He is extraordinarily creative about getting the right shot. Rob, camera-man 2, got his start as a fixer in the Philadelphia shoot, accompanied the crew around the United States, and became so valuable that he was invited to become cameraman 2 in China. His creativity behind the camera was evident, as is his genial personality. He is a true sports fan, and was happy to cheer for the Phillies once his Mets had faded into oblivion this year. Adrian, the sound man, begins his day violating us by poking microphone wires down our shirts and out our waists, and then he spends the rest of the day adjusting them whenever the sound quality doesn’t please him. He is extremely old, my age. We sexagenarians got along beautifully. This genial father of 10 is the most imperturbable of men. He enjoyed greatly sampling the brews of China: Tsingtao, Huang He, Yanjing. For my part, I rarely let him drink alone. Eric Huang is only 27, lived in New Zealand for several years, and has only just returned to Beijing. His father is a Chinese diplomat now serving in Belgium. Eric speaks excellent English, and is our fixer, the bridge between our English culture and Chinese officialdom. Kelly is an intern, given the title of production assistant. She is a mere child of 21, and was hired by Eric from the film studies program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She is fresh-faced and perpetually smiling. She always apologizes for her English but speaks clearly and understands clearly. She is extremely competent, very quick to respond to our needs by running errands, arranging for lunches, ordering food in restaurants, dispensing petty cash, and generally making life smooth and pleasant. She always checked us into hotels, collecting our passports for registration, and then returning them to each of us, a ritual repeated many times. Either she or Eric or both accompanied us on our forays whenever possible so that language was not a problem. One other member of the large crew was Daming, an extremely valuable camera assistant. He spoke little English.

Success for a complicated venture in China depends on meticulous advance planning and people on the ground in Beijing to obtain a wide range of permissions. NHNZ, a major producer of documentaries, operates an office in Beijing for just this purpose. When we left Beijing on Thursday we were met by an official of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, who inquired about how satisfactory the arrangements were. The answer was ‘very satisfactory.’ His handiwork was especially evident in the filming of the Lanzhou – Ding Xi train sequence, where we were handled with great deference at both ends of our short rail trip.

Hotels in Beijing are excellent. Once one ventures out into the provinces the results tend to be a little less satisfactory. One thing that is uniform is the generally satisfactory level of internet and cellular service. China has clearly made a commitment to modern communications that is not matched by all parts of the United States, including rural New Jersey where I live. One learns not to base expectations about the comfort of a hotel by the attractiveness of the lobby, which belies a generally dingy quality to the rooms, especially the bathroom. There is always a western toilet, but plumbing tends to be old and leaky, and all too often the shower leaks onto the bathroom floor. Tight caulking is apparently a challenge that has yet to be mastered. There is rarely a hair dryer or a box of tissue in the room, and never, ever an iron. (Laundry services are cheap and efficient). They are unconscionably stingy with toilet paper. On the other hand, there is always a generous tray of grooming amenities, including toothbrush, comb, shower cap, lotions and potions. There is always some form of water heater in the room, with cups and tea (green or jasmine). Rooms tend to be dimly lit, making reading difficult for us seniors. Alarm clocks are rare, and beds tend to be about as comfortable as ironing boards. Oh, for all this, things are not that bad. I have yet to be daunted! An extensive hot breakfast buffet is normal, and one is usually able to browse enough to scare up a decent meal, including palatable eggs, perhaps corn bread, and fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe). Don’t count on coffee. If you are daring, you can choose cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, beans, peppers, various sliced meats, steamed bread, sometimes dumplings, noodles, and various spicy concoctions that stretch the envelope of what we silly Westerners think of as breakfast foods. In general I would say it is easier to be a vegetarian in China than in America.

I find China endlessly fascinating, and I will happily return again and again. But for now, faithful reader, this is a wrap!


1 Comment

  1. Lucy Pope said,

    October 31, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Peter- This is a wonderful chronicle. You should really write a book about your life on the road, dig etc. I’ve enjoyed reading this no end. I can hardly wait to see the final product. NG Channel in May? Or regular network TV? Please let us know when it will be on.

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