After reading numerous articles about the over-the-top kitsch, long lines, overpriced food and generally poor organization of the Shanghai Expo, my wife and I have spent the majority of this summer resisting the idea of going. And were it not for my insistent in-laws (who really, really wanted to go), we very well would have not. But in the spirit of filial piety we finally succumbed this past weekend and went along with our daughter to witness “Le Grand Spectacle.”
Don’t get me wrong – it’s always good to get away from the day-to-day, and Shanghai is a nice place to visit (if you haven’t already gone a dozen-odd times before) – but our general conclusion about the expo was pretty much as expected: over-the-top kitsch, long lines, overpriced food and generally poor organization.
Unlike most expo visitors we were among the extremely lucky few to be treated to VIP passes courtesy of the PLA, of which my father-in-law is a retired official. And had it not been for the perks of these passes (a van to shuttle us between pavilions, two tour guides and prioritized “green-lane” access into the pavilions), our visit would have been a far different experience, especially considering that by noon on the day we visited, 450,000 visitors had already showed up (according to our official VIP guide) to languish for hours in lines in the hot Shanghai sun.
Over the course of one night (in which we visited sans VIP passes) and the following day (with VIP passes), we were able to check out 11 pavilions – China, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, The Phillipines, Norway, Greece, Mecca, the “Environmental Pavilion” and China’s “Maritime Pavilion” – a virtually unheard of amount for regular visitors, whose average wait time to enter a single pavilion is about four to five hours (the Saudi Arabia Pavilion, which is apparently popular because it has an IMAX film, has queues as long as nine hours and requires visitors to reserve a spot 24-hours in advance). This basically means that at a reasonable pace, you might be able to actually go inside two, maybe three pavilions in a single 10-hour visit.
The pavilions themselves vary widely in their content and quality – Turkey has some interesting cultural artifacts and Spain features a fiery flamenco dancer amidst a dramatic multimedia backdrop and the now-famous (and slightly creepy) “Big Baby” at the exit. But the rest of the pavilions we visited ranged from the overtly commercial (i.e. the Louis Vuitton booth in the disappointing French Pavilion) to the downright lame – as in poor, bankrupt Greece’s pavilion that features a few video screens displaying humdrum street scenes of Athens and an overpriced Greek snack stand.
The things that all of the pavilions we checked out had in common were long, winding lines, screaming tour guides and jostling mobs of snap-happy crowds, making it virtually impossible to spend any substantial amount of time in any one spot. That and video screens, plenty of video screens … and IMAX screens and loud sound effects and souvenir shops and overpriced concessions including RMB 25 scoops of ice cream in the Turkish Pavilion …
My main take-aways from the experience are thus:
– If you’re a regular visitor (i.e. without VIP passes), don’t go expecting to visit anything beyond a couple of pavilions in one day.
– Go instead if you’re looking to just snap some pictures on the grounds to show people that “I went to the Expo” (which seemed to be the case for many visitors).
– The architecture of some of the pavilions, particularly Spain, the UK and China, is indeed impressive, but it was quite enough just to take them in from the air-conditioned confines of our courtesy van.
– If you can stomach it, three days might be enough time to allow for visits to anything beyond a handful of pavilions.
– Many visitors now like to go at night (many of the pavilions close around 10-11pm), when cooler temperatures, lit-up pavilions and shorter queues make visiting more tolerable.
– Expect to pay out the nose for food and concessions (visitors are not allowed to bring in liquids and bottled water costs RMB 3 on the grounds). Plenty of dining options are available (including overpriced restaurants in the pavilions themselves and fast-food franchises like KFC scattered throughout the grounds).
– The grounds themselves are massive, stretching from Pudong to Puxi – be prepared for long stretches of walking and standing and crowds on the shuttle buses in the grounds.
– For a fee (which I unfortunately did not take down) it is possible to take a tour on small electric powered carts, but you are made to follow a very limited and set route.
– Different pavilions have different “door policies.” Some – i.e Turkey – allow priority access for families with small children in strollers and elderly people, others simply do not.
– This may be old news, but the Shanghai media is still abuzz with controversy over the liberal doling out of VIP passes (which allow for instant access to pavilions) to too many people in “entourages,” as well as other accounts of people being rolled in on wheelchairs (only to be seen standing up and walking just fine once inside) and others even going so far as to “rent” elderly people for the day to serve this very purpose. Indeed, it was a very awkward, if not sheepish feeling, to be hustled into the pavilions as hundreds of people waiting in line looked on.
The expo is probably most attractive to folks from other parts of China who have never left the country (and perhaps understandably so), but more seasoned travelers should be prepared to be underwhelmed by most pavilions, especially after waiting in line for hours.
In short, if you must go, go for the spectacle, not for the experience (and if you’re lucky, try to snake some VIP passes along the way).
Official Shanghai Expo site here.