Contrary to the advice of everyone and their mother, we decided to visit the Shanghai Expo. For those who haven’t heard already, the Shanghai Expo is a world fair in the tradition of the Great Exhibition of Industries of All Nations held in London in 1951. Countries from around the world put up pavilions to showcase their industrial strength, technological development and culture. 

World Expos are held every two years but this one is drawing record crowds. The organisers expect 70 million, making it the most visited Expo in history, and going by the current crowds it seems well on its way to achieving that. The Expo has seen millions of visitors (around half a million a day during the summer holidays), with people queuing up for up to six hours to visit the popular pavilions.  

When I visited Beijing I realised that in China you’re most likely to run into scores of local tourists, unlike other countries where tourist attractions are swamped by foreigners. This is because few Chinese have the opportunity (or the means) to travel abroad. Besides, there’s tonnes to see in their own country. So, the Expo has become another of those must-sees in China, with people from all over the country flocking to it. Again, since many of these people will not travel abroad, the Expo is a good chance for them to encounter foreign cultures.  All-in-all, despite complaints from foreigners about the crowds and the queues, the Expo serves its purpose by introducing the world to masses of Chinese people. 

I am allergic to queues (and I can probably travel to many of the countries instead) so I don’t know why I wanted to go.  I’m pregnant, it’s extremely hot in Shanghai, and with the massive crowds, it was probably wiser to give it a miss. .. but having missed the Beijing Olympics I felt it would be lame  to miss this one. 

My cunning plan was to go in the evening, thus skipping the heat and hopefully the crowds. On the advice of friends who had visited, I planned to enter through the gate near the least popular pavilions where most people choose to exit. The evening ticket is cheaper and I figured even if I didn’t enter a single pavilion, I’d just take pictures in front of them and get a sense of atmosphere. 

Unfortunately, V got enthusiastic on our last day… and since we didn’t have anything planned, decided we should try our luck in the morning itself. It turned out to be a blistering hot morning, again not promising. 

So, for any other crazy folks out there, here are my tips for visiting the Expo:
1. The Expo opens at 9 am but there are people queuing up to get in from 7.30 am. There is a rush to get reservations for the China pavilion, which are apparently snapped up within minutes. So we opted to enter at around 10.30 am when, according to some slide show that V checked, the crowd at the entrance drops off.
2. We entered through Gate 2 which is on the Bund side of the river (as opposed to the Pudong side where the main attractions are). This was a wise choice because at around 10.30 am, the queue to enter wasn’t too bad and we had only about 10 minutes in the blazing sun before entering the covered area. 
3. Mainlanders are not respectful of queues. They will push and wangle their way ahead of you if they can. Coming from India, this is nothing new. It is a habit that comes from being one among a billion people, and being schooled in the knowledge that if you don’t push to get ahead, you’ll get left behind. Like in India, people will stick to you in a queue, possibly so as not to let other line-cutters in, and keep bumping you with their bag/strolley. Having lived in HK for nearly five years now, my own pushing skills were a little rusty but soon I found myself (gently) elbowing midgets (read, children) out of the way. Mainland kids seem to have been taught that being pint-sized, it’s ok to push their way through even more roughly than adults, unlike Honky kids who are encouragingly (to anyone who is wary of kids) well-behaved. Much has been said of the Little Emperor syndrome among  Chinese kids and I saw it evident particularly among Mainland little boys, who were generally incredibly bratty while their parents and grandparents looked indulgently on. 
4. They say the measure of a country’s development lies in their public toilets. All the public loos in Expo, I used were extremely clean… spotless in fact, and flushed automatically. 

5. The most important tip of all: if you are not disabled (read, in a wheelchair), over 75 years old or accompanying a disabled person or senior, OR pregnant, DON’T GO. The queues are really that long. The sun is that hot. There is no pavilion without a queue and every queue is at least a one hour wait. The popular ones range from three to six hours. The government recently recommended that pregnant women not be given special disabled access (so as to discourage pregnant women from braving the heat and the crowds apparently) but not all pavilions are implementing this. Thus, I was very very lucky to stroll right past the queues and be able to visit a fair number of pavilions including some popular ones.  

So, thanks to my bump, V and I were able to visit these pavilions:
1. The first pavilion we visited was the CSSC pavilion. We decide to try our luck jumping the queue there and were rewarded. This pavilion showcases China’s shipbuilding history and is quite good (in comparison) I thought. There are models of ships already built as well as a vision for a floating city, a city on a ship. The highlight was a video on a semi-circular screen that showed the development of ship-building in China and the possibility of an underwater city. 

We then took a bus to the Pudong side. These shuttle buses are very frequent and comfortable. We never had to wait more than two minutes for one. Note that people will plonk their portable stools down wherever there is space and have no qualms about using your leg as a backrest.

2. Having landed up in the Asia section, we visited Iran. It was ok, with some interesting blue mosaic wall features and jewellery and traditional dress displayed. 

3. My favourite pavilion of the whole Expo was Morocco. It looks beautiful from the outside and displays the various traditional crafts of the country from stone work to pottery, beautiful jewellery and market scenes around a lovely central courtyard and fountain. Really made me want to visit the place. 

4. We also saw Jordan which was quite good because there was a guy demonstrating sand layering (and there were souvenirs for sale) as well as a henna artist. 

5. We were very lucky to get into the South Korea pavilion which has a loooong queue. The highlight of this pavilion is an movie screening, which combines animation with acting and a live performance by a dancer. The video was a bit childish but seemed to go down well with the audience. I think they divert queues into either the film or a live performance but basically you take what you get because it’s so hard to get anywhere. 

6. Another one we were lucky to get into was France. They did a good job of creating a sensual atmosphere (as that was the theme of their pavilion) and the car displays seemed to attract a lot of interest, as did inexplicable a corridor with Louis Vuitton logos. The highlight was the impressionist and post-impressionist art they brought down. From afar, I identified a Renoir, Cezanne and Gaugin… and a crowd had surrounded a sculpture I think was a Rodin.

7. The much sought after China pavilion requires reservation to enter. However, I was able to enter the China provinces pavilion, where each province in China has a mini-pavilion inside. Though many of these looked good from the outside, they were pretty mediocre from the inside.

8. Our final stop was Poland. They had a rather interesting corridor with cut-out depicting icicles but that was it. The highlight, I guess, was a 3D film on the history of Poland but they told me I had to queue up so I decided to call it quits.

A comment on the pavilions in general. Most of them had video screenings of the highlights of their country’s development and culture and some had models depicting the same. This is certainly not enough to satisfy anyone who has braved upwards of three hours in the heat. I think the pavilions in general needed to do more to make it an interactive experience. Having touchscreen games does not count.

The pavilions that I tried and that did not let me into the fast lane on grounds of pregnancy – Japan, UAE, and Germany. Boo! Ok but to be fair… these pavilions had people queuing up for around six hours so I’m not really complaining. Just really grateful to those that did let me in.

We ended our day eating at the restaurant attached to the German pavilion. Surprisingly, the servers were German. The food (obviously German fare) looked quite stylish. The Chinese, even the more rustic looking ones, seemed to be happy to taste the elegantly presented stuff as well as the different varieties of beer.

India and China – a short comparison

For some reason, India and China always seem to be mentioned in the same breath in the media today. I think this is optimistic.  Take this Expo as an example:

1. It is a huge event and China has managed to pull it off brilliantly, despite initial hiccups, similar to the Beijing Olympics. Having visited the Expo, it is far less chaotic than the media would have you believe, though the queues are insane.

2. The loos. They were pristine. And they are public loos being used by masses of people.

3. There was seating everywhere. Honkys look down their noses at Mainlanders because they tend to squat whenever they are tired. Because word of the queues got out, people brought along these brilliant portable stools (I got one too! ) but really, most often there was somewhere to sit without them. Much of the seating was shaded and there were even sprinklers to help cool people off. Public events in India never provide enough seating… so these stools would really come in handy.

4. Water fountains were provided here and there. People were not allowed to bring in water for security reasons but you could buy a bottle and then fill up. Despite the heat and the crowds, the water did not run out… either at the fountains or at the push-carts.

5. All the infrastructure worked well – from the buses to the escalators to the sprinklers to cool people down.

A few observations on social behaviour. I mentioned that there is much similarity between Indian and Chinese people in a crowd. There are differences too:

1. There is pushing and line-cutting but not on the scale that goes on in India. People still leave that one centimeter of space between your body and theirs.

2. Again, given the throngs, men do not take the opportunity to feel up women at will. Granted, I may have had a better experience being a foreigner. However, foreign women in India are felt up in crowds too. So Chinese men get kudos from me for keeping their hands to themselves.

Some Expo facts:
More than 190 countries and more than 50 international organizations have registered to participate in the Shanghai World Expo, the largest ever.

Haibao is the mascot of the Shanghai Expo 2010. It means treasure of the sea. It is based on the Chinese character for man or person, “人”.