How To Survive The Shanghai Expo

My aunt in Vancouver shared a wise Chinese adage recently: "If you don't go to the Shanghai Expo, you will regret it. If you go to the Shanghai Expo, you will regret it even more."

I laughed. There is a lot of truth to the statement. For the price of an admission ticket to the Expo, you will get to witness a great human accomplishment: Over 200 architecturally cutting-edge national pavilions in a 4km exhibition site. At the same time, you will get to witness some of the worst elements of human nature: stinky, slimy bodies pushing against yours in four-hour-long lines, kids peeing in middle of queues, sore feet and debilitating sunstroke. But contrary to my aunt's advice, you can go to the Expo and still have a good time =)

It's been a month and a half since I visited the Shanghai Expo. I planned to blog about the event right after the fact, but like most of my proposed blog entries in July/August, the post got shelved indefinitely as I started doing more adventure-making and less journaling. Now that I am back in Canada and that the dust has settled, I can finally present to you a brief survival guide to the Greatest Show on Earth.

Surprisingly, there isn't a whole lot of literature online for foreigners regarding the Expo, so I hope you will find these random tips helpful. While summer is almost over, the Big Show is still going on strong for two and a half more months and perhaps many smart travellers like you are thinking of visiting during the off-season.

You might think the lines are shorter during rainy days. Unfortunately, the Chinese think just like you.

But first - an important consideration:

(1) Not "How Do I Survive?" - but "Will I?"

Yes, this is a Survival Guide, but will you actually survive the Expo? Before you pack your bags, answer these two questions:

  • Are you a foreigner over age 50, but below 70?
  • Have you been to Shanghai before or often, and have seen all the other sights already?

If you answered ‘Yes' to either question, then you might want to rethink booking that ticket to Pudong International.

First, while the Expo is marketed as a world-class event, it is not really intended for non-Chinese citizens. Foreigners at the Expo were few (relative to the 500,000 daily mainland Chinese visitors) and the handful of foreigners that attended are subjected to long lines, long walking distances, unforgiving weather and local habits that may go against Western sensibilities (I tried to phrase this in the best way possible). This combination of factors is especially taxing for the over-50 demographic (although those over 70 or in wheelchairs may qualify for the express lines). Expect to be standing and walking or straining your calves for most of the day: seating areas are few, toilets are squat-style and sitting on stools while in queue is unrealistic.

Therefore, if you meet the description of a foreigner over age 50, expect to go to the Expo for two days at the most, for a half-day each. I would recommend going in the evenings too, when the weather is cooler and the lines are significantly shorter.

The entrance at 9am. Lines feel like cowpens or a rat race on a sinking ship.

This brings us to a second point: don't just visit Shanghai for the Expo. Shanghai is a dynamic, modern, international city - the "city of the future" (quipped a certain Paris Hilton) - and it is really worth breaking up your Expo visit with trips to the Bund, to Nanjing East Road, to hipster Xintiandi, to ultramodern Pudong, maybe even neighbouring Hangzhou and Suzhou. Believe me: the Expo itself will wear you out after Day One. And if you've been to Shanghai many times already and have seen all these sights, then use your rest days to do the one thing Shanghai is best known for: shop, shop, shop.

Mao and Now: Shanghai's iconic Bund

(2) The Best Preparation

So you've decided to go to the Expo. Now, how do you prepare for your visit?

To make your time in the actual Expo site as smooth as possible, you can do a lot of prep ahead of time: research pavilions, book tickets, talk to friends, make lists of country pavilions you'd like to see - but ultimately the best way you can prepare yourself for the Expo is mental.

That's right. To paraphrase a line from HBO's The Pacific, "to survive out here, you're gunna have to live and think like a [Chinese] ". Because this is an Expo intended for the people of China (many of whom will not get a chance to see the rest of the world in their lifetimes), you have to leave your familiar Western expectations, standards, and trappings at the entrance. Entering the Expo site as if you were entering Disneyland is not going to cut it. When we see a five-hour line, we freak out. When the locals see a five-hour line, they think: "I've lived through the Cultural Revolution, floods, rations and shortages. This is lollipops compared to that!" Some locals push, cut and budge. Play along. Some locals spit, emit awful odours and even pee in line. That's gross, but that's China.

In the end, like the Japanese in the HBO series, the Chinese can be a lot tougher – mentally, physically – than their North American counterparts. And as tempting as it is to complain about the unbearable (or even unhuman) conditions in some lines, ask yourself: Are your neighbours in line grumbling too? And why not? Admire them for their endurance, and learn to adapt.

The Expo site spans both sides of the Huangpu river. Here, the view from the Performance Hall.

(3) The Best Pavilions to See

"What are the best pavilions to see?" This is a good question - and no doubt, a very popular Google search term this past half-year. With over 200 pavilions and such limited time and such long lines, you don't want your day at the Expo site to go to waste.

Ultimately, answering this question starts with you. Ask yourself: If I could go anywhere in the world right now, where would I visit? And don't retrace your steps: if you've been to France, there's no point waiting an hour to see the Fisher Price version of France in the French Pavilion (although still quite beautiful).

Or ask yourself: Which nations will I not get to see in my lifetime? For me, it was the Middle Eastern countries and the rogue states. Maybe like me, you want a semi-authentic preview of these places, too (i.e. the Sudan exhibit had no mention of Darfur). And because the host country is friendly with places like North Korea, Myanmar and Cuba, this may be your one and only chance!

Otherwise, if you have no preference and geography isn't your thing, there are some helpful resources online: the Wikipedia entry on Expo pavilions is quite good. And so is the Chinacities guide, which is the standard that most ex-pats have been using: a nice clearinghouse of Expo resources and the latest Expo info. The blogosphere and commentsphere are also teeming with advice, but the pavilions can be pretty much summed up as follows:

What you don't see in the reflection is the two-hour line from where I took this picture.

The richer the country = the bigger the pavilion = the longer the lines

Richer countries include China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, etc… These are by far the most popular attractions at the Expo. Expect very long lines, from two to five hours on average. Advice: Go in the evening, or choose to do only one large pavilion a day (you may be lining up all day just to see one).

I've only visited the Saudi Arabia pavilion. A visitor from Shandong Province told me that the "general consensus" is that the best big pavilions are China's and Saudi Arabia's. "But because China's pavilion will be here forever," she said, "the only one worth seeing, if you could only see one, is Saudi Arabia's."

So we waited for four hours in line for Saudi Arabia, only to discover that the actual exhibit itself was 10 minutes long. I was still impressed by the display (it also got that ‘wow' factor from my much more discerning older brother) - but in the end, waiting four uncomfortable hours for a 10-minute exhibit simply wasn't worth it.

Catching a breath from behind the UK Pavilion. Standing in lines and walking the 4km Expo site will tire you out.

About that China Pavilion…

The China pavilion is, by far, the largest and grandest pavilion on site. It houses all 22 provincial pavilions (as far and diverse as arid Xinjiang to subtropical Guangdong). Around its pavilion are also territorial pavilions like Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan, for some reason, is also included.

The China pavilion is also a very exclusive pavilion - it is the only pavilion requiring special advance tickets in order to line up. Only 50,000 tickets are distributed daily (or roughly enough to cover 1 in 10 Expo visitors). Tickets are handed out first thing in the morning (9am) at each of the Expo entrances, as well as the Madang subway stop in Shanghai City proper.

We were unable to acquire these advance tickets. They go fast. Plus, we didn't want to wake up ridiculously early just to take a chance to get them. We also suspected that these 50,000 tickets aren't handed out fairly or by merit. Large bus-tour groups, either on official business or friendly with the Expo organisers, somehow all managed to get tickets to the China pavilion. My Taiwanese friend reading Chinese blogs found that a lot of these daily advance tickets are also hoarded by Expo volunteers and staff, and distributed to their friends. Nonetheless, there are some success stories: a visitor from Zhejiang Province told me that he waited at the gates across the river (where the less popular corporate pavilions are) only an hour before opening time and was able to acquire tickets for his family.

In any case, don't expect to see the crown of the Expo - that is, the Oriental Crown. I doubt Charlie Bucket could get one of those golden tickets inside, either. But take hope and comfort in the fact that the China Pavilion will still be standing, long after the Expo is over and after every other pavilion is torn down. So if you don't get to see it in 2010, you might have a better shot at going inside in 2011!

The crowning achievement.

The real stars: mid-sized countries, pavilion warehouses, food and shows, and theme pavilions

You might be disappointed by the heavy hitters of the Expo – the China pavilion and the big ‘brand-name' countries – but you will also discover that there are some real gems.

The Ireland Pavilion: an example of a mid-sized country. You can dance the Irish jig in there!

Mid-sized countries have short lines (10-30 minutes at most) and their displays can be quite beautiful and informative! Three that I enjoyed are: Indonesia, New Zealand and Argentina. Indonesia had a long, snaking exhibit that showcased everything from coral reefs to ruins to culture. New Zealand, while short on the actual interior display, had a roof garden with everything from stuffed animals to endemic Kiwi trees and herbs [the latter were very refreshing to experience, especially at the congested Expo site] . Argentina was a small box of a building with kitsch Maradona and Eva Peron memorabilia inside, but its real highlight was an illuminated catwalk with a 6pm tango show. You'll uncover these gems as you explore the Expo site. Oh, and did I mention that these lines are short?

6pm at the Argentina Pavilion. The Tango show is hot!

Additionally, some countries are too poor to afford their own flashy standalone pavilion. In that case, they rent space in a pavilion warehouse, usually grouped by region or continent. The Africa pavilion reminded me of a college activities fair, with booths and stands for individual countries. These places are also great if you're looking to learn more about a lot of countries in a short amount of time.

Another good way to maximise your time (and to recharge) at the Expo is to attend shows. I only went to see one show, ‘Window to the City', which was quite creative and impressive. The line was short, and we had to get there 15-20 minutes beforehand to get tickets (of which there are plenty). There is another main performance centre near the Oriental Crown which has two Chinese-themed shows at 4pm and 7pm. Tickets to all shows are free. Shows are a great way to break up your day at the Expo site and gives you a chance to sit down comfortably and, possibly, to nap.

Papillon, the chic French restaurant on the roof of the France Pavilion.

Eating at pavilion restaurants is one of the more underrated ways to enjoy and maximise your time at the Expo. Many of these restaurants, housed within each country's pavilion, do not require waiting in the main line or in any line at all. Perhaps part of the reason is the price: the food is authentic, and the chefs are actually from the pavilion country. We dined at the rooftop restaurant on the French Pavilion - called Papillon (‘Butterfly') - and it was a delightful experience: French waiters, French mineral water, fois gras, filet mignon, fusion French-Asian dessert, not to mention a killer view of the river and the Expo skyline. The meal came out to $US36 a head, which is perhaps why the locals weren't queuing in droves.

Still want the ‘wow' factor of the larger pavilions without the hassle of waiting four hours in line? Then check out the Theme Pavilions near the centre of the Expo site. I HIGHLY recommend visiting these. This giant exhibition complex houses five different exhibition halls, each revolving around the Expo's theme of the city and urban living. We visited three of these halls: Urban Footprints, Urban Dwellers and Urban Living. Each of these exhibits are gargantuan in size and the wait times are only 5-10 minutes at most. I particularly enjoyed ‘Urban Dwellers', which followed and compared six different families from around the globe, across a series of amazingly creative and visually stunning rooms - and obviously, the Exhibit A Chinese family was presented as the happiest.

Just one room of one exhibit in the Theme Pavilion.

One important reminder! Don't forget to buy an Expo passport. You can purchase these at any official Expo Gift Store. Many, if not all, of the pavilions have their own official Expo country stamps. So if you're into collecting stuff or leaving with a killer souvenir, it's fun to go around the different pavilions and to collect as many country stamps as you can in your Expo passport. Tip: the easiest way to amass the most stamps is visiting the pavilion warehouses.

A Final Word

Simply stated, the Shanghai Expo is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Maybe it's because, after visiting the Expo, you will probably tell yourself that you never want to do this again. But once October passes and the pavilions are razed, many Expo-goers will be happy that they got to partake in such a world-class event and such an unusual experience.

In the end, I cannot emphasise how important it is for you to travel smart. Mental preparation is key and so is being realistic about how much your legs can handle. Breaking up your visit to the Expo with side trips to Shanghai City, or with shows at the site's various performance centres, or with meals at pavilion restaurants will make the pain of queuing up for hours, well, less painful and more enjoyable. You may be disappointed by a lot of the pavilions relative to their long wait times, but you will uncover some real gems (especially at the mid-sized countries). When it comes to lining up to see what's inside a pavilion, you'll have to kiss many frogs before you find a prince. And believe me, the frogs are inevitable.

Inside the Saudi Pavilion. Don't be fooled by some pavilions' size from the outside; the lines continue inside!

Stephen is a law school student currently living in Toronto, Canada. Tai Chi and Chai Tea is a personal blog of his experiences and travels in his two years since college.

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