(part 3 of a 4 part series on China)
The World Expo was the reason I decided to travel to China. There were quite a few other destinations I had in mind, but the Expo was the crucial factor that made me decide to go back to China and travel.
It wasn’t till I got into the country, though, that I realized what an ordeal the Expo would be. In retrospect, it’s something I should have expected – there are crowds everywhere for anything worth seeing in China. But as people I met in Beijing and Xi’an started recounting their tales of hours-long waits and complicated reservations processes to get into any reputable pavilion, I began to get a little worried that I might not see anything. Fortunately, I did muscle my way into some of them (having a good book and an iPhone loaded with movies makes your time in line feel a lot faster), whereupon I realized that a lot of them mostly repeated the same “we’re awesome, we’re green, come visit us and give us your money” message. Almost all of the pavilions were extremely heavy on video screens and movies, and extremely light on the one-of-a-kind cultural experiences and technological feats that used to typify World Expos.
Nevertheless, I did find quite a few pavilions that didn’t disappoint, and that made the tedium worthwhile. Some of the most noteworthy pavilions include:
Saudi Arabia (4-9 hour wait) – the most expensive pavilion in the expo, and the second largest after China. Its claim to fame is being host to the world’s largest IMAX screen. No chance of catching Avatar in it though – the projectors are set to loop ultra high-res scenes and aerial views of Saudi Arabia, to breathtaking effect. It’s no surprise that the lines for this pavilion are quite possibly the longest in the entire Expo!
China (2-4 hours WITH reservation – I didn’t bother to try getting in). From what I hear, it’s thoroughly average inside, but the building is quite stunning at night. At least this one is a permanent exhibition, so anyone coming to Shanghai can come and see it even after the Expo has ended.
The UK (1-hour wait) – probably the best bang-for-buck in my opinion. Short wait for such a major country, and host to the Seed Pavilion, probably the most striking piece of architecture on site. Mad props to the Brits for resisting the temptation to load up on video screens and conveyor belts, and on spending their money on a beautiful building and an open courtyard with great views and pulsing British techno music instead.
Canada – gets points for having stuff to do outside the pavilion, without anyone having to line up to get in. If you hang out long enough in the open courtyard, you too can have some fun with the Canadian mimes!
Philippines – the first one I visited, partly because I’m from here, and partly because there was no line.
Above, the Stamp Stampede, a distinctly Chinese phenomenon where hordes of people rush to get their Expo passports stamped at the soonest possible moment after entering the pavilion, often before having viewed any of the exhibits, before rushing out of the pavilion to the next one to grab another stamp. After a while, I realized that many of the stamp stampeders were there not to see the actual pavilions or learn about their host countries, but cared more about grabbing the stamps to take home to their friends and family to show just how much ground they “covered”. This annoys many of the pavilions, to the point that some of the more understaffed and/or easy-to-enter ones have stopped stamping passports altogether. Quite a few of the stampeders have huge stacks of passports, to bring home in varying states of completedness for their friends and family who couldn’t make it to the expo. Like many other distinctly Chinese things, it’s great fun to watch… until one gets caught up in the pushing and shoving.
Above, some of the thousands of volunteers who keep the expo running. They’re all extremely friendly and try their best to be helpful, in spite of the language barrier.
Phew, that was exhausting. The Expo is an extremely tiring experience, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood (East Asia), it’s definitely worth checking out, though not for the reasons you’d think. I know some of you are thinking of going, or will be going, so e-mail or comment if you’ve got any questions about the event!