Late in the evening a few days ago, after 16 or so hours of waiting and flying and waiting and flying, I got stuck in Heathrow Airport. Not at, but in. There was a group of us – a family with three young children, another woman on her own, me – who had been the last off the plane (the kids had been asleep and needed delicate parental carrying to avoid tantrums on waking; I’d found a lost iPhone and the hostess asked me to show her the exact seat where I’d found it, which of course I couldn’t remember, being almost asleep on my feet, too, and so rapidly lost my feeling of good-Samaritan smugness).
We’d walked, as directed, from the plane up staircases and along corridors, following the signs to the baggage hall. But then the signs seemed to give up on us, or at least they pointed through doors that were locked. We turned around and tried to go through other doors, which were also locked, and so, still hopeful, we attempted to go back the way we had come, and found that the doors had been locked behind us. Then we saw a pair of doors that we’d only just walked through automatically shut and lock themselves and soon enough we began to feel like we were in a Mission Impossible, airtight, slow-death chamber of doom that would require one of us (the smallest child?) to be sent up an air vent as an emissary to civilisation and help.
There was no one around, in any direction. All the now-locked doors were glass, so you could see through them down the length of corridors that only airports can house – tunnels of grey as far as the eye can see, all empty. The only person finding the whole situation remotely entertaining was the little boy in the David Beckham No 7 shirt, who was having one of those early glimpses of the utter helplessness of his parents.
Take me to Mongolia
The panic didn’t last long. A phone was found, someone was called who called someone else who called someone else, and soon enough we saw our rescuer – an airport official coming into view at the end of one of the interminable corridors. We were pathetically grateful. And in that way that only people who are at fault can do, she blamed us for our misfortune and denied that anyone else had been left on the plane when she had locked all the glass doors, even though there we were before her, a party of seven, stuck.
This is all a long way of saying that there is something peculiarly disturbing about being in a place that is usually teeming with people after everyone’s gone, about seeing emptiness somewhere unused to the state. You start to hear echoes, see shadows, but then even the memory of human activity is overtaken by the deadening quiet. It’s like being in the office long after everyone has left, or at a seaside resort midwinter. It can be beguiling, in a haunting sort of way, but often it’s just plain old spooky.
The plane I’d caught had flown from Beijing, and the day before the flight, on one of those Beijing afternoons when you can hardly see your own feet through the smog, I had gone to the north of the city to see the Olympic Park. It felt appropriate, as the London Games came to an end, to make a pilgrimage to its predecessor. (A pilgrimage with the help of an extremely grumpy taxi driver. Hailing a taxi in Beijing involves emotional bribery: nine out of every ten will refuse your destination point blank and drive off. Most will look at you as though you’ve asked to be driven to inner Mongolia. You have to plead.)
Arriving at the park, you see the stadium first, that frantic asymmetrical creation, rising up against the orange sky. But then your eyes fall back to earth and you realise that, on all the highway-like walkways and footpaths by the fake, dragon-shaped river, there are very few people. This is Heathrow Airport syndrome magnified a thousandfold. A place built for hundreds of thousands, for peak human density, for a condensed period of time, now hosts a smattering of tourists and the odd seller of ribbons on sticks and photo books.
We all know the stories of Olympic parks falling into disrepair – the empty swimming pools and ragged running tracks – but, this being China, there’s no chance of that. The whole area still looks immaculate, but seems pointless. The sheer acreage of empty space, coupled with the white mist of pollution, makes you feel as if you’re walking in some post-apocalyptic concrete wilderness. It would be beautiful, if it wasn’t so bleak.
Two years ago, a report by State Grid Corporation of China said that 64.5 million electricity meters had registered zero consumption over a six-month period, suggesting just as many homes in China were empty – enough to house about 200 million people (a startling number, even out of a population of 1.3 billion). The figure was disputed, but emptiness seems to stalk the nation – there are countless photographs of newly built, vacant shopping malls, deserted theme parks and whole housing estates that resemble, from an aerial view, lifeless toytowns.
And yet, in Beijing, on every street, on every corner, you see cranes. They are building here as though they’re running out of time. In some ways they are: a new report by the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the government needs to spend £5trn over 20 years to accommodate the 200 million people who will move from the countryside to the cities. But in the meantime, many of the new buildings, and new cities, are eerily devoid of movement.
The new buildings in Beijing are vast – not tall, but wide – and shiny, glass-fronted, gleaming. I saw more window cleaners in Beijing than old people. But China is not only building new homes and offices. In a central neighbourhood, near Raffles, the Novotel, the Grand Hyatt and the Oriental Peace Hotel and about 50 other hotels, I passed a building site that will soon be a monolithic Waldorf Astoria. It was half-finished, a skeletal frame. You wonder who will stay in all those rooms at crazy prices, and how many of them will sit there week after week, empty, like all those shopping malls and apartments and Olympic parks.