Expo’s star attraction

It’s been 22 years since I attended Brisbane’s Expo ’88. That was one of the best experiences of my life, so I was looking forward to experiencing Shanghai’s more extravagant and far more expensive version. Did it meet my expectations?

View from our hotel room

The first problem was buying tickets. We left our hotel around 10 am, stopping by a couple hole in the wall places nearby the hotel to purchase a breakfast of oily fried Chinese pancakes and spring rolls. The hotel concierge has told us that we could buy tickets from a nearby convenience store. No luck.

The same result at a post office; sold out was what they said. So we walked up to Nanjing Road, the famous pedestrian strip in downtown Shanghai. The Expo volunteers pointed us to 80 (or 18?) Nanjing Road. But that was the opposite end of the long road from People’s Square, where metro line 8 to the Expo departed.

We gave up and decided to purchase the tickets from the Expo site itself.

Bags are x-rayed at Shanghai metro stations, but a young child comes in very handy here. With Alex sitting in his backpack carrier I was just waved through by the guards.

Emerging from the Yaohua Road station exit we were greeted by an expanse of concrete and asphalt. The queues for tickets were very short, but it was a bit of a walk to the entrance. Again, bags were x-rayed, but again they waved me through. B’s bag came in for closer inspection. They let his water cup pass, but water bottles were emptied and they queried the torch that we had inadvertently left in the bag.

The we were through into the Expo site proper, standing opposite the big red Chinese pavilion, the real symbol of the Expo. The queues looked horrendous, so we decided to go elsewhere for a while.

The Expo Axis splits the site in half. It’s a confusing multi-level shaded platform with restaurants and shops. We ate a disgusting lunch of oily noodles and meatballs at a very popular cafe. It was so bad that we couldn’t finish it. Alex ate a fair bit. He likes noodles.

Then it was time to see some pavilions! The New Zealand pavilion had the honour of being our first visit. In Brisbane the New Zealand pavilion was one of the most popular, with huge queues, but they were quite reasonable in Shanghai. I didn’t really “get” the interior displays, but I’m not that sheepish. The top garden was quite pleasant, with a fake hot spring.

The interior of the Cambodian pavilion was decorated with fake Angkor Wat ruins, the gift shop at the end sold shiny Cambodian trinkets. That’s what most of the pavilion gift shops sold, so yes, you can go shopping there, but you will probably regret the purchases later, unless you like tacky souvenirs.

Malaysia’s pavilion was right nearby, so we had to go see what B’s country had on offer. The security guard sent us to the priority lane, thanks again to little Alex. The pavilion was pretty boring really, though the cafe outside was selling kuih and other Malaysian food. Pity we had just eaten (they had also sold out of a lot of stuff). For some reason they had a big number 1 on the pavilion. Maybe because they were facing Singapore’s pavilion.

The queues were quite long at the Singapore pavilion and we couldn’t be bothered waiting. Same at the Thai pavilion. They snaked all around Australia’s collection of rusty tins and there was no way we felt like waiting it out under the hot Shanghai sun. I was disgusted to see stalls selling “Australian cookies” outside. They’re biscuits, okay!

Further along was Europe Square, which housed a number of smaller European countries. Many of the queues were very short here. The queue outside the Czech pavilion was moving at a cracking pace, so there we went first. It was a good choice. There were some very impressive lightshows and projections on to weirdly shaped surfaces, giving great effects.

Next we tried Belarus, which was a big hit with Alex. We let him down and he played on the central “light floor”, applauding himself to the Chinese onlookers. Bulgaria was a brief lesson in history, while Hungary’s dangling wood and shiny object were just baffling. Far better were the rooms of San Marino, presenting the tiny principality as a pretty interesting place.

We noticed lines outside many of these tiny countries. It turned out to be Chinese visitors who just wanted to get a stamp in their “Expo passports” rather than showing any genuine interest in the displays.

It was time for us to queue again outside the big wooden slatted Canadian pavilion. The queue actually moved quite quickly for what was a pretty impressive display with lots of lighting and colour, combined with imagery of visions for future urban life (the Expo theme).

B felt motion sick as she climbed around the Peruvian pavilion, surrounded by big movie screens. Alex loved it.

The USA pavilion was predictably crowded, so we travelled to Africa instead. Tunisia was a waste of time, unless you love olive oil, but the big shed of African countries was quite interesting. B wandered around the central stalls (though many countries seemed to share the same crafts and items…hmmmm). Alex enjoyed the statues of African wildlife. The most important item in any African display seemed to be a portrait or message about your dear president.

I loved the “Federal Republic of Somalia” display, considering that it’s just a collection, not a federation, of warring states without any real central government. Inside was basically an example of Chinese colonialism in Africa.

After Africa was Europe again. Alex was hungry, and dining options in the area seemed slim, so we ended up eating spaghetti in an Italian cafe. It was quite nice and Alex wolfed it down. Evening was starting to fall and a cool breeze was blowing.

Luxembourg is a bit bigger than San Marino, but it was difficult to believe that it was worthy of the big and very impressive rusty red pavilion. In an indication of how the world’s axis of power is changing, the reason for the rust was the Indian steel company Arcelor-Mittal, the sponsor of the pavilion. Inside was almost as good as the amazing exterior.

As darkness fell the crazy Netherlands pavilion was lit up like a funpark. But B wanted to see the Italian pavilion, so we joined the long queue. The queue moved fairly quickly, but the real attraction was Alex. The locals went gaga over him, touching, photographing, playing with him. Sometimes it got quite annoying, especially when the older women just thrust out their hands and touched him.

Like in Brisbane 22 years ago, the older women began to irritate me. They would just push in, elbow you out of the way, grab Alex, show no regard or respect for anyone else. I ended up barging and blocking them out of spite. Earlier in the Canadian queue, one was pushing her way along, telling her husband and a couple of others to squeeze in under the side fence. Security saw this and prevented her party from getting in, for which B and I applauded.

I know why the Chinese do this, but it doesn’t mean that I enjoy it. Anyway, the vast majority were really well behaved and seemed to despise the pushers just as much as us.

Italy’s pavilion was all about their art, design and their foods. I think some of the attendants were stopping locals from photographing some displays. If I ever need a giant chair hanger, a size 1000 high heel shoe (only 1 available), an orchestra hung up on a wall or a scooter, I now know which country to visit.

I would like to have visited the fuzzy wuzzy UK pavilion, the bright lights of the Scandanvian pavilions, to have at least seen the exteriors of France and Spain, but it was getting cold and late and they had long queues. Nobody was queuing for the Ukraine and no wonder. It was the most boring pavilion of all.

We let Alex loose in Estonian pavilion, which only had colourful piggy banks everywhere into which visitors were supposed to place ideas for better cities. Not very interesting to visit, but Alex had a ball, climbing steps, running here and there, letting loose some energy after being trapped on my back for most of the day.

As we walked back we came again to the Australian pavilion. This time the queues were almost non-existent. Well, why not, we thought. Blah blah blah First Fleet, blah blah blah 200 years of history (an insultingly small length in comparison with China), blah blah blah, same old parochial stuff. Too much text on the wall when none of the locals bother reading it. We were getting pushed along too fast to read it ourselves.

Suddenly, the crowd came to a standstill. Announcements were made in mandarin, but not English. It was hot and stuffy. I was feeling very uncomfortable. Eventually, I worked out that we were waiting to enter a theatre to watch a show. Couldn’t we just skip it, I wondered.

We entered the darkened circular amphitheater. In the centre a giant sandcastle with toy spade and bucket. Lights shot out across the ceiling and big rounded screens emerged from the central circle. The ensuing show’s commentary was all in mandarin. I mentally translated it was “we give you our dirt, we send you our manufacturing industries, you come buy our property, look, here is what’s for sale!”

Neither of us were particularly impressed with the Australian pavilion, though the show at the end was quite cool.

It was really time to go. B wanted to see the China pavilion, but when we arrived it turns out that you need another ticket just to reserve a spot in the queue and that these are only on sale first thing in the day. Okay for tour groups, but not for us. Beneath the Chinese pavilion is the collection of Chinese provincial displays. Many of these are quite nice, but Alex had really had enough. It was 9:30 pm and long past his Australian bedtime.

I was disappointed not to see many of the Asian pavilions on the other side of the Expo Axis. Then again, my shoulders were screaming with pain after carrying maybe 15 kilograms almost continuously for over 12 hours. Maybe we’ll go back for a shorter visit again later.

We made our way out of the Expo site and back to the Number 8 metro. Our carriage was absolutely packed and old Chinese ladies were again prodding and poking Alex as well as squeezing us in. I was feeling very cranky with them, and eventually Alex just started screaming. Thankfully the journey wasn’t that long. Then we walked back to the hotel along the bright lights of Nanjing Road.

I realised that I could smell on the streets the same stench as our hotel room toilet. I told B that I may even prefer the smell of durian to the stench of Shanghai. Sure enough, I smelled durian as we walked past a tiny fruit shop. The jury is still out.

Was Expo 2010 as good as Expo ’88? I don’t know. It’s difficult to judge because I was only 14 then and had a very different perspective on the world. Shanghai’s Expo was definitely worth the experience of visiting, but I think it may be too big for its own good. The queues were mostly manageable and there was plenty to see. Will it reach its targets? Only time will tell.

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