So, Expo. What can I say? I'd heard about it, seen it on TV, read about it and even written about it. Hell, it was time to go and see it for myself. But I wasn't willing to queue up for hours to gain entry to the "hot" pavilions. Fortunately, there was plenty to see (and touch, if you're willing to break the rules along with everyone else....)
Friday 11 June was my day of choice, which came as a welcome break in the seven-day work week before the three-day Expo-dedicated Metro Line "Lucky" 13 at about 9.30 a.m., my first impression was that, well, it was kind of.... quiet. (Yes, "too quiet," as the hoary Hollywood cliche has it.) After all the reports of crazed queuing and hellish numbers of people desperate to get in, the empty lineup of white gates stretching across the space the size of a parking lot came as a surprise. If people had been camped out here since 7 a.m., surely they hadn't all made it through the gates already? We'd expected a bit of a wait just to get through security but it was a breeze, with staff outnumbering visitors, 3-1.
Thirty minutes later we emerged from the escalator to see a two-hour queue already formed at the Australian Pavilion. We found the closest ticket reservation machines hoping to get a spot for at least one of the Theme Pavilions but volunteers were already covering them up, their purpose for the day complete. I'd written earlier in the week about reservation tickets for the China Pavilion being given out randomly as people entered the Expo site. A volunteer I talked to clarified, "the tickets are handed out as you go through the turnstiles but they're all gone within 5 or 10 minutes." To even have a chance of nabbing one, you need to be in line by 7 a.m. when the queuing area opens, though you'll still be behind the hundreds of people already queuing for the queue at 5 a.m.
If you are so inclined to rise before the break of dawn and join these brave and determined souls, then be sure to wear your running shoes, because once you're through the gate you'll be sprinting hell for leather with the crowd to get a place in line for the most popular pavilions. Take the time to consider your route in advance and which entrance is the closest. For this technique, taking the Metro is not advisable. Although it conveniently deposits you bang into the middle of the site, you still have to mess about waiting for the trains, which will only slow you down. In this game, every second counts, which is most likely reason that the Madang Lu Metro entrance has considerably smaller crowds of a morning.
Our other tips sadly also failed to assist us. We'd read and posted about a WAP site (wap.expo2010.cn) that would keep us updated on queue times and the busiest spots to avoid and though the service worked, it was only in Chinese. It didn't really matter. The same information was readily available in English throughout the day via loud speakers and big screens but the message never really changed. Everywhere was busy. At just 10.15 a.m., the list read as follows: Japan 5 hours, Saudi Arabia 4 hours, Korea 3 hours, UK 3 hours, Kazakhstan 2 hours. We tried texting the Finnish pavilion reservation number but to no avail and the 2000 daily city stamp booklets available only on the Puxi side were surely already sold out. We had two choices: suck it up and get in line or see what was on offer sans wait. We went with the latter, challenging ourselves to a day of continual locomotion.
Exploring Expo on the move: The zero tolerance approach to queuing
We came to this decision standing in Oceania Square directly in front of the queue-less Pacific Pavilion. And where better to begin this hazy, warm Shanghai day than by sampling some tropical island delights? Not much to look at from the outside, inside, each island nation had its own section to walk through, with videos of hula girls and images of palm-fringed beaches and underwater scenes. These mostly served as backdrops for displays of local crafts and handiworks but instead of offering explanation or description, the only lettering in sight read "DO NOT TOUCH", (a phrase we would see frequently throughout the day, in bolder and more desperate type and usually in conjunction with people sitting, standing or toying with the items in question). But even if there had been more explanation, few would have stopped to read it. With so much to see, there's little time to be wasted in the details. Instead, the favored technique was a wide-eyed scan of the area, occasionally lingering on a particularly eye-catching item, before moving swiftly on. The countries offering passport stamps had the biggest crowds and for many visitors it was just a stamp-and-run affair with barely a passing glance at the displays.
Next stop was the World Trade Center Association Pavilion (well, it was just opposite). The entrance way was bizarrely guarded by a statue of a giant baby, and the interior was no less puzzling. An odd use of a large space to not show much of anything at all, there was an eerie display of fashion mannequins, a gift shop and the latest innovations in home appliances. These included an intelligent washing machine that reads the bar code of your clothes for which cycle to use and a cooling cabinet with an "ice room" at the top – in my world this is called a fridge and is not the height of modern technology. We moved swiftly on.
We decided to head across Europe and make our way to Africa, checking out the crowd situation en route. We quickly established there were crowds everywhere and fixed a rendezvous point in case we got separated. We managed to stick together and made our way past the shaggy raffia rug-covered Spain, and the swanky-looking Swiss pavilion, covered with flashing red lights with just the tip of a chair lift in view as it circumnavigated the top of the building. Fortunately, we've both had plenty of experience with chairlifts and didn't feel we'd be missing too much on that front, and so continued on our way to check out France and the UK. Both had lineups of 2-3 hours, rendering them no-go areas so we made do with their exteriors.
The Netherlands was an interesting one. Entitled "Happy Street," it was much more open to view than the fortress-like constructs of most other countries (a reflection of their laid-back and open nature perhaps?). It was colorful and lively, but it was queue-city. Three hours.
The massive Africa Pavilion takes up an entire corner of the site and no waiting is required. A great warehouse of a space, it was more bazaar than exhibition with arts and crafts from all over the continent on sale at numerous souvenir stands. The mass of people inside milled around in all different directions as soon as they entered the space, moving from shopping to showcase to shopping again, with passport stamping desks again attracting the most attention.
In Togo, an unattended stamping post drew a crowd of do-it-yourselfers who left without a second glance at the booth, though to be fair, there wasn't an awful lot on display.
Sudan had gone for a more interactive approach with a crew of middle-aged women wearily attempting to convince any passing ladies to have their hands hennaed. Mostly the crowd was wary, keeping their distance until someone's guard was dropped, and then they'd surge forward to take a closer look.
We left Africa and made our way to South America where a fast-moving queue at Peru looked like a tempting candidate for our next stop. Within ten minutes we were inside the dark pavilion and making our way up a ramp surrounded on all sides by lively video footage of Peruvian food, people, farming, animals, nature, cities and music. It was simple but effective, evoking for the first time what felt like a real sense of the country. The restaurant was already packed for an early lunch and so it was back out into the light to decide on our next move. We swung a right and wandered towards the cedar wood edifice of Canada, and to Americas Square. There were no events in the square for the next forty-five minutes and we could see Mexico across the road with a reasonably small queue and thought we'd give it a whirl.
On closer inspection, it was a non-starter, with the queue deceptively starting at ground level before disappearing into a subterranean area. There was an inviting bank of grass behind it, though, and we decided to make one more stop before taking a break.
That stop was just next door in the Joint Pavilion for Central and South American Countries. Another big warehouse space, the highlight here was Costa Rica, where they were serving up delicious-smelling fresh coffee. We took a cup for 20 RMB from the harried looking guy behind the counter who explained they were still waiting for their staff to arrive (visa issues perhaps?) and had had some delays getting their coffee through customs. A problem others seemed to have also encountered too—almost two months in, there were still a number of empty display cases and bare walls, particularly in these smaller nations. We took our coffee back to Mexico and climbed to the top of the grassy bank and sat in the shade to take stock of our day so far.
After our coffee break it was time to get going again and after a quick stop in America Square to check out a South American group of musicians Ensemble Sinsote from Colombia who were cheerily playing away barefoot for a decent-sized crowd, who were tapping their feet and nodding supportively.
Another large and queue-less pavilion nearby was the Caribbean Community, where we particularly enjoyed Jamaica with its dedicated reggae room (though Bob's dulcet tones had sent a few off to sleep) and friendly staff. Barbados was another hit and great stop for those with kids—there were interactive games, with a surf lesson, golfing and mini tennis to keep them occupied for a few minutes at least.
Barbados: Surf's up dudes!
From there the Romanian Pavilion lay directly ahead, looking disappointingly less like a giant apple in real life than it had in all the pictures. Still, the design allowed you to watch part of the folk song performance (held every 20 minutes) from the outside whether you were in the queue or not.
We then made our way to Zone A and Asia, via the Expo Garden. Just at the entrance to the garden is the Baosteel Stage which surprised us with some interesting sculptures, craftsmen making musical instruments, and regular tea ceremonies on display plus the chance to get up close and personal with some other Chinese traditions like paper cutting. The stage highlights a different province or area of China each week and with regular cultural performances, could be a good alternative to the impenetrable China Pavilion for a taste of the diversity of Chinese culture, albeit on a smaller and more limited scale.
The Expo Garden itself was pleasant though quiet and we walked its length to arrive at the flying saucer-shaped Culture Center. As we approached there was a flurry of activity around the doors and not wanting to miss out, I asked one of the guards what was going on. He told us a performance was about to start but there were no tickets left. No surprise there then. There was another line waiting to go inside the building just to take a look around but on asking a volunteer what was inside, she told us, "Nothing really… I guess it's quite high and you can see outside but it's about 1.5 hour wait." No thank you very much.
We strolled down the Expo Boulevard, past the giant, glowing globe inside the Taiwan Pavilion, past the eight-hour point for Saudi Arabia and eventually found ourselves outside Sri Lanka. It's somewhere I've always wanted to go and there was no wait so in we went to see craftsmen making beautiful silver jewelry, hand-carving wooden statues of elephants, polishing gemstones and making delicate lace. The rest of the exhibit showed some photos and models of temples and historic sites but had it not been for the craftsmen, it would have been disappointing.
Just across the way was Nepal. Shaped like a temple and covered in prayer flags, and with a seemingly free-flowing queue at the entrance we made our way in. This would be the first pavilion we'd entered that reflected the country in its architecture, the others all having been box-like warehouses and in this instance, the architecture turned out to be the main exhibit.
The continually moving queue snaked up a ramp that led around the outside of the temple-style dome, prayer flags fluttering above, and to a small room at its apex. Inside was a small Hindu shrine viewed through a window around which a small crowd was gathered, throwing coins for good luck. From there, it was back down the ramp and to the interior of the ground floor where arts and crafts were on sale. Although there wasn't much to actually see here, it did succeed in creating a sense of place and identity.
Break on through to the other side: Puxi
It was getting on for late afternoon and we'd already covered a lot of ground but were keen to see what was happening on the other side of the river. We took the ferry across and, on alighting my first impression was that it somehow felt more atmospheric over here, more like I expected an Expo to be. With its bright lights and giant video screens, I felt more drawn in than in Pudong, where pavilions were very self-contained and internalized.
We discovered at the Space Home Pavilion that the two-hour wait was only for the 3D movie but if you were prepared to skip that, you could head in directly. Holograms of space shuttles and astronauts—this was more like it! You could even have your picture taken as a space man. The next floor was a homage to satellite technology of the future saving us from natural disaster and war and left me feeling a little unsettled. It was starting to get dark as we returned to reality outside and the bright neon lights and music of Coca-Cola's "Happiness Factory" next door beckoned. An 80-minute wait was enough to make us walk on by and hop on a bus to head out to the very farthest reaches of the site and the city pavilions.
Here there were no queues. In fact, there were hardly any people at all. It was incredibly quiet though all the showcases were still open for another few hours. We went first of all into Joint Pavilion 1 where Suzhou, Hangzhou, Cairo, Venice and Pondicherrywere cozied up with Liverpool. Being a Brit, I was intrigued to see what Liverpool had to say for itself. I don't know the city myself and didn't feel very enlightened after my visit, the bulk of information requiring you to pick up a pair of headphones and watch a video introduction, which for most visitors is too much of a time commitment. A quick penalty shootout in the "Beat the Goalie" corner was much more of an attention grabber and cemented the image of the UK as a football-loving nation.
Our other stops here were Alsace, where plants and a waterfall covered one exterior wall and inside corridors lined with images and items from everyday life in the region, and Rhone-Alpes. Here we found a darkened room with a video cube in the center and loungers in each corner. Dropping off to sleep after two minutes in the loungers we realized it was time to go home. Our feet were sore, our brains overloaded and our bodies exhausted. It was 8 p.m. and there was still so much more to see, but Expo had beaten us.
In just one day we'd managed to fleetingly experience something of most parts of site without waiting in line for more than 10 minutes but nothing had blown our minds. It was amazing to see the sheer size and scale of the site and the number of visitors. That alone is impressive and it was almost enough to just wander around, gazing at the buildings and all the people, taking in a live performance here and there. But at the end of the day, we were left with little more than aching bones and a nagging feeling that there must be something more impressive beyond the lengthy queues, something that was worth the wait. Based on what I've already seen, would I go back to find out? Well, let's wait a while and see…