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A Farewell to Nanyuan, China’s Oldest Airport

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The year was 1910. Some 15 miles south of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the wetlands of Nanhaizi had, for centuries, been a hunting ground for Chinese emperors.

However, the Qing dynasty would soon come to an end; the 4-year-old Pu Yi would be the last emperor. China’s old order was collapsing — to be replaced by a new order that had yet to be established.

But for Nanhaizi, that wasn’t the end of the story. In the midst of a shattered empire, the imperial hunting ground was to embrace a new life. Far outside the Middle Kingdom, the Wright Brothers had invented the first airplane in 1903, shortly before a Chinese American named Feng Ru — who would later be known as the father of Chinese aviation — flew a self-designed aircraft in Oakland, California in 1909.

Nanyuan airport

A Caudron G.3 aircraft flying toward Nanyuan airport from the Forbidden City (1920s)

China’s First Runways

In 1910, Nanhaizi became home to China’s first airplane runways. The new airfield — also known as Nanyuan, literally “southern garden” — was soon put to use in 1911, when Chinese aviator Qin Guoyong brought a Caudron trainer aircraft from France. It was the first time Chinese people ever witnessed a countryman flying an aircraft — one can imagine the excitement of visiting Nanyuan for the air show.

Qin, who had studied aeronautics in Europe, later established not only China’s but Asia’s first aeronautical school at Nanyuan in 1913. (Japan would not build the continent’s second until 1919.) The school would educate the country’s first generation of pilots.

French flight coaches and mechanics in front of a Caudron G.3 aircraft at Nanyuan airport. (1913)

But Nanyuan was more than just a school. Under the leadership of Pan Shizhong, the engineers developed a biplane on top of foreign technical data — it made China the fourth country to have successfully manufactured a military aircraft, after the US, UK, and France.

After Japanese troops occupied Beijing at the height of the Second World War and expanded the airport for military purposes, Nanyuan became a major airport for the Republic of China air force in 1945.

Chiang Kai-shek and his associates did not use the airport for long. In 1948, the People’s Liberation Army led by the Communists occupied Nanyuan, establishing an air force base. The new base welcomed one of its first tasks when 17 aircrafts flew over the firmaments of Tiananmen Square, as Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Cargo aircraft Shoudu 1 test flight at Nanyuan airport (1958)

China under Mao went through an era of isolation, but when the new republic welcomed an American envoy for the first time, Nanyuan was the first to witness it. In July 1971, US President Richard Nixon’s envoy Henry Kissinger traveled to Beijing from Islamabad alongside several Chinese diplomats; the plane touched down at Nanyuan to drop off Kissinger, who then proceeded to the famous Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. There, Kissinger met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and laid ground for Nixon’s historical visit a year later.

A New Airport for the Capital

In 1958, Capital Airport was established in Beijing’s northeastern suburb. Built at a time when few Chinese people could afford to travel by air, the new airport only operated charter flights. On February 21, 1972, the Air Force One carried Nixon from Shanghai Hongqiao to Beijing Capital for a meeting with Mao.

A new diplomatic relationship between Washington and Beijing was soon established in 1979, shortly after reformists took power. China was on the path to opening itself up to the rest of the world, and Beijing Capital became the international gateway it needed. The nation’s economic boom since the 1980s led to a series of expansions of Capital Airport, until the opening of Terminal 3 in 2007.

Today, Beijing Capital is the world’s second busiest airport by passenger traffic, only behind Hartsfield-Jackson — the Delta hub in Atlanta, Georgia.

While Beijing Capital has become a major Asian hub, its capacity no longer seemed sufficient. In 2014, construction of Beijing’s second international airport began — only this time, it’s not exactly in Beijing. As China restructures the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (Jing-jin-ji) metropolitan area, the new airport is located on Beijing’s southern border with Hebei province.

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9 Things You Need to Know About Beijing’s Enormous New Daxing Airport

Beijing Daxing International was the name, after the municipal district where it’s located. The airfield, with its beautifully-designed architecture, will open to travelers on September 30. Public transportation will link the capital’s new gateway to downtown Beijing as well as the forthcoming Xiong’an New Area.

Daxing International plans to accommodate 100 million passengers annually in the long run, presenting a shiny picture of Chinese aviation infrastructure to the world.

A New Purpose for Nanyuan

Beijing has changed from a backward, impoverished imperial capital to a hopeful, forward-looking international metropolis. Nanyuan, however, was phased out as this transformation took place.

In 1986, China United Airlines was established at Nanyuan by the Chinese military. The company mostly operated Soviet-made aircrafts, including the Tupolev Tu-154 and the Ilyushin Il-76, serving civilian passengers and carrying cargo. Because of its military background, most of CUA’s pilots were recruited from the airforce.

A Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft

The airline served routes that no other carrier did, filling the gaps in China’s air route network. However, when President Jiang Zemin, in 1998, saw military-run business as a major source of corruption, CUA became a target of the crackdown campaign. The 12-year-old CUA ceased its operation after its last flight landed at Nanyuan from Yinchuan, Ningxia in October 2002.

But China United Airlines did not just become history. By 2005, its operation resumed under a new entity, the state-owned Shanghai Airlines.

China’s civil aviation market was growing, but migrant workers often couldn’t afford the airfare to travel home. Operating out of Nanyuan, however, was cheaper than Capital International. While CUA did not bill itself at the time as a low-cost carrier, it was the airline of choice for Beijing’s migrant workers and thrifty travelers. In its first three years from 2005 to 2008, the company served more than 2.4 million passengers — and I was one of them.

And until today, CUA remains the only civilian carrier that operates out of Nanyuan.

The Nanyuan Nightmare

Flying out of Nanyuan Airport is every Beijing first-timer’s worst nightmare. After finding a great airfare deal for a weekend getaway, you realize that it lands not at Beijing’s main airport — Capital International — but the lesser-known airport located in the south of Beijing.

My fuzzy memory brings me back to my first air travel from more than a decade ago — passing by the train tracks near Nanyuan’s front gate, the six-year-old me thought we were at a railway station until I saw the Boeing 737 aircraft that would bring me to the coastal city of Dalian.

Nanyuan was China’s first-ever airfield. But after more than a century’s operation it will soon bid us farewell, as Beijing Daxing International Airport moves in to pick up the slack.

It may take a real-life experience to understand why flying Nanyuan airport is, to put it mildly, not the most enjoyable part of your trip. Its affordable tickets brought tourists, business travelers, and migrant workers to and from different parts of China — as long as they were willing to bear the airport’s chaos and long, unpredictable delays.

Having flown more than 300,000 miles in more than a decade since my first air travel, I decided to return to Nanyuan to say goodbye.

There is neither a direct subway route nor a highway to Nanyuan. I took a taxi through the bumpy country roads to get to the airport’s front gate. Propaganda banners reminded me that it was an air force-controlled area; a sense of unwelcome passed over me when I noticed signs that read “military restricted zone.”

As we approached the airport’s only terminal, my taxi dropped me off curbside. To get into the terminal, travelers were asked to scan their national identification cards through an electronic gate — that was new. I showed my passport to a human, who then let me in.

After fighting my way through the crowds at the departure hall and printing my boarding pass from one of the self-service kiosks, I sat down at a beef noodle shop and bought myself an overpriced breakfast.

Inside security is not unlike every Chinese railway station’s waiting area — local specialty stores, fast food, noise, and a bookstore playing Jack Ma’s motivational speech on a television to passers-by. No photos allowed, a sign reads.

Ah yes, Jack Ma’s motivational speech.

My Priority Pass gave me access to an airport lounge — whose entrance, I later found out, was that tiny door next to the nursery and the restroom.

Thankfully, boarding was on time. Jet bridge was, of course, nowhere in sight. We waited until a shuttle bus took us to our Boeing 737-800.

A flight attendant handed me a bottle of Yanjing, Beijing’s flagship beer brand. Unfortunately, it was just Yanjing-brand mineral water, but I made a toast anyway. Then we sat on the plane for an hour because of air traffic control, before we finally took off for Shanghai Pudong International.

Staring at the airfield and the terminal for the last time, I bid farewell to China’s first airport — and mine — and all of its past glory.

Tianyu Fang
Tianyu M. Fang is a writer based in Boston. His writing has appeared on SupChina, TechNode, Caixin Global, and Sixth Tone. www.tianyufang.net | twitter: @tianyuf