SHANGHAI — Authorities have put out the welcome mat for the World Expo now open in Shanghai, touting world-class pavilions and entertainment, but there's a basic problem: Many of these things are difficult to actually see.
The reason? Crowds — hundreds of thousands of people every day — are creating monstrous lines that make Disneyland on a summer weekend feel like a waltz in the park.
So overwhelming that it's been called the biggest planned event in human history, the World Expo is expected to be visited by 70 million people in its six-month run. While crowds in the first few weeks in May did not measure up, that had changed dramatically by the first week in June. Attendance routinely exceeds 400,000 a day, often 500,000, and lines at star attractions are untenable.
During a visit in mid-June, typical wait times of up to five hours kept my wife and me out of the Japan Pavilion. Lines of two to four hours or more prevented us from visiting pavilions of such major countries as Russia, India and the United States and highly praised pavilions such as those from Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
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Easily the Expo's top attraction is the China Pavilion, an enormous red inverted pyramid that dwarfs all other national pavilions and — we're told — has marvelous things to see inside.
But only the hardiest souls can get in. All the tickets to the China Pavilion are handed out first-come, first-served, and are gone within five to 10 minutes of the 9 a.m. opening time. When we dutifully arrived at one of the eight main gates to the Expo at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, it was obvious from the serpentine line that it would take us at least 30 minutes just to get in once the gate opened.
A security guard told us that one needs to arrive at 6 or 6:30 a.m. to have any chance at tickets. In other words, you wait three hours, and maybe you can procure tickets.
We had two days left to attend the Expo and we took a pass on trying for the China Pavilion, especially after reading in the English-language Shanghai Daily about dangerous stampedes of people racing through the just-opened grounds in quest of tickets or early entry into other crowded pavilions.
Such is life at the World Expo. The Shanghai Daily even ran a story detailing people's strategies for dashing in for the coveted spots. It quoted tips from various websites, including one suggesting that "those who are good at long-distance running should target the Saudi Arabia Pavilion, which is about 800 meters to the nearest entrance, while short-distance runners should choose the China Pavilion, which is close to the No. 6 entrance on Shangnan Road."
Visitors have also picked out the quickest running routes to various pavilions, the newspaper reported. One visitor suggested "those who want to dash for the Japan Pavilion enter the site from the leftmost turnstile at the Bailianjing entrance."
We did not travel 6,500 miles from California to wait hour after hour in lines. So we settled for the second- and third-tier national pavilions and still had a good time over our four days at the Expo, once we got over the realization that we were unlikely to see the inside of the top attractions.
We ate national food from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Germany and Morocco. We saw remarkable displays and exhibits of ancient cities in the Urban Footprint Pavilion. In corporate and other theme pavilions, we took in exhibitions of China's relentless building of ships and a bullet train network. We witnessed the incredible architecture of all the buildings, walkways and bridges, which took on a brilliance after dark when their innovative LED lights shone.
And there were other benefits to our decision. By refusing to stand around for more than about 70 minutes in lines, we got to many more pavilions than we could have otherwise. We toured national pavilions from Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Denmark, Spain, New Zealand and many other countries — including such U.S. antagonists as North Korea, Iran and Cuba, and other authoritarian governments such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Libya. We walked into some of these with no wait at all. Others were five to 15 minutes.
It was fascinating to see how these countries portrayed themselves to the 95 percent of Expo attendees who are Chinese. Iraq, for example, glossed over its current woes and focused on its glorious past, touting ancient Babylon and "Tales of the Arabian Nights."
The Expo also offers lots of entertainment, but that, too, takes a real effort to see. A ticket office at the Cultural Center was closed when we reached it. Expo officials told us it's open only until about 10:30 a.m. each day, when it runs out of tickets. We wanted to see the China Oriental and Performing Arts Group show at the center, which resembles a giant flying saucer on a pedestal. So we entered the gates the following morning and headed straight for the ticket office, securing the prized tickets for an afternoon show that day.
We then rushed to a reservation machine to get tickets that allow you to bypass the dreaded lines at some pavilions. But this turned out to be only for the four theme pavilions, not the national pavilions where the lines are so long. And, it turned out, we could reserve for only one theme pavilion a day. Nothing in the Expo maps and schedules tells you any of this. Finding out is a matter of trial and error and asking a lot of questions.
Another somewhat frustrating side of the Expo: The Chinese people, accustomed to crowds everywhere they go simply because there are 1.3 billion of them, tend to be very aggressive in line. As the queues wound along the metal rails, many people would push and shove their way past us anytime they could. The Expo is the trip of a lifetime for many Chinese who have poured into Shanghai from far-flung parts of the country. While their zest is understandable, the line-pushing seems over the top to a Westerner.
Counteracting the brash behavior were the Expo volunteers, mostly college-age men and women; they were a breath of fresh air. Clad in their telltale green and white shirts and jackets, the volunteers were eager to aid the few Westerners on the grounds. Many relished talking to Americans, claiming they spoke English but really just wanting to practice. They were friendly, happy, knowledgeable and helpful — and thankfully ubiquitous.
The World Expo was planned as a grand event for China, a follow-up two years after a spectacular Olympic Games. Officials created a huge site along both sides of the Huangpu River, housing stunning pavilions, beautifully lit walkways and bridges, and an array of restaurants, stores and toilets.
It's a shame they did not limit the daily crowds to a more manageable 300,000 instead of the 600,000 limit. Why not do that and extend the Expo to a full year instead of six months? (Expo officials have said recently that they won't do that.)
There are many reasons to visit China, a vast and fascinating country brimming with change and energy. But unless you like standing in lines for hours on end, the World Expo is not among them.
THE WAITING GAME
How long will you have to stand in line to see a pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai? It depends on the country or theme.
—Short waits (under an hour): Indonesia
Aurora (focus on jade)
—Long waits (one to two hours): Canada
Pavilion of Urban Footprint
Space Home Pavilion
Information and Communications Pavilion (Dream Cube)
—Crazy waits (at least two hours): China (by reservation only)
United Arab Emirates
China National Petroleum