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Fiona Finally Visits World Expo and Sees a Cactus Play Guitar

For months I have had 10 Shanghai World Expo tickets sitting in my drawer, unused. You know I was never really looking forward to Expo, both for the disruption it caused before it began and the way I thought the site would be run, and there always seemed to be a good reason not to go – it was too hot, it was the weekend, it was too daunting to battle the crowds. Busy days were seeing more than 600,000 people, with queues of up to 8 hours for the most popular pavilions. Oh God, I thought, I can’t bear to go into a place even more crowded than the streets of Shanghai.

But I finally did it. No more excuses. It’s only open for the next 18 days, so it was now or never.

The first thing to tackle was the entry queues. But where the heck was everybody?

As it turns out, they were already inside, queueing for the German Pavilion, the Swiss Pavilion (with a chairlift!), the Belgian Pavilion (with free chocolate!) and the UK Pavilion. For three hours at a time.

Standing forlornly wondering where to go first on a site about the same size as LAX, including all the runways, we realised the Expo parade was about to start right in front of us! So that was the first sight we saw, and I have to say it doesn’t get any weirder. Imagine a Disney style parade with canned music, floats, and cheesy costumes, and ramp it up to eleven. Then totally Chinese-ify it. Have Chinese whirling dervishes, Chinese American Indians (in cut-off denim fringed shorts!) and Chinese Africans.

For good measure, add dancing Chinese bananas, a Chinese Uncle Sam, and finally, a host of dancing Chinese cactuses playing the guitar. If I didn’t live here, it would have made no sense whatsoever. But it sure had a lot of COLOUR and plenty of DANCING.

After all that excitement, it was time to see some pavilions. Only we couldn’t get into any except Australia, and that was only because we took our passports with us. And would I queue up to see it ? No….(where is my patriotism??)
Anyway, I’ve heard many of the pavilions are just as good from the outside. Spain (above left) is covered with woven wicker panels,  Russia (centre) is like a snowflake lit from within, and the Netherlands (above right) is a higgledy-piggledy house of the imagination. The UK pavilion, also known as The Seed Cathedral, has 60,000 perspex rods, the tip of each embedded with seeds sourced from all over the world. This pavilion alone is worth every cent of the entry price (160 yuan). It’s astounding.
Instead of queueing, we embarked on an international food tour of the Expo site. The restaurants and cafes can be freely entered at any time, so we tried meat pies and lamingtons at Australia, Dutch frites and beer at the Netherlands, Canadian waffles drenched in maple syrup, and ice-cream at the UN. This was the most fun for me, and next visit I’ll try some Turkish food and Thai food.

As the night drew on, we dragged our weary selves to the centrepiece of the Expo site, the China Pavilion. It is absolutely impressive from without, and the inside I can only imagine – because I’m unlikely to ever see it. The only way to get in is with a special Reserved Ticket, and the only way to get one of these is to start queueing at 5am, to be first in line to sprint through the entry gates at 9am and crash tackle one of the volunteers giving out the day’s quota of reserved tickets. All gone by 9.01am.

Of course, if you want to pay between 200 and 800 yuan to jump the queue you can ‘purchase’ a ‘VIP Ticket’. We’re not living in a democracy after all – this is China, land of the entrepreneur.

So will I go back? Good question, but in the end I’ll have to – I’ve still got seven tickets to get through.

Shanghai Expo Starts in One Week! Oh no!

Shanghai International Expo begins in exactly a week. I haven’t been ignoring it, it’s just more like a state of denial. Expo has become such a pervasive influence on my daily life, I kind of hate it before it’s even started. The endless Expo topiary, building construction, roadworks, repainting and disruption has gone on so long it’s become part of the fabric of Shanghai life for me. And now it’s nearly here.

Like Beijing before the Olympics, the city has undergone a massive ‘clean-up’ both literally and, well, ‘morally’. Here’s how I see it, from a ‘small-fry’ man on the street perspective:
1. All pirate DVD shops are now closed. For foreigners like me, these shops are a lifeline of current release movies and old favourites unavailable elsewhere. Except, of course, that they’re not really closed. Last week I walked past a regular haunt, it was shut, padlocked, windows completely curtained. And then a familiar face appeared from a doorway and said “need some DVDs?” I felt like a crack addict looking for my next high. Furtive phone calls were made, then a guy with some keys appeared and opened the padlocked doors. He turned on the lights and inside, all was exactly as it had been before. Including all the up-to-date new releases for 10 kuai each. And then we were locked inside by the guy with the keys, from the outside. Now I really felt like a drug addict. I chose my DVDs (Crazy Heart, first season of Glee, District 9), paid, then after several more furtive phone calls we were unlocked and released. Bizarre. Except that everyone’s happy – the DVD guy, the police, the customers, and even better, it looks like there’s been a major crackdown. Perfect.
2. All intersections in Shanghai will now obey Shanghai Official Traffic Rules. Previously, intersections were a confused tangle of cars, bikes, motorbikes, trucks and buses, all honking their horns and driving on the wrong side of the road. Traffic lights, particularly red ones, were regarded as an advisement only. But everyone knew the unwritten rules,and so it all ran quite smoothly. For example, taxis always go through red lights but honk their horns as they do so, to let everyone move out of the way. Buses stop for nothing and no-one, not even police. Pedestrians and cyclists know that zebra crossings are meaningless. And scooter drivers always drive on the wrong side, whilst smoking a cigarette and talking on their mobile phones. These are the rules.
Now, all intersections are patrolled by two policemen and four traffic guards, plus or minus four Expo volunteers with small red flags and fluorescent armbands. Now everyone will be made to observe the road rules as they are written down.
And the result? Chaos. Everyone is totally confused. What are those red light for? Are you serious officer? I have to actually stop and wait?? Intersections have become places where policemen argue with scooter riders all day about why they can’t get around a red light by driving on the footpath. And the poor pedestrians, accustomed to crossing when there is a break in the traffic, are being held back at corners until the little green Walk man appears. Emotions are running high.

3. Whenever I go on the subway, I have to pass through a security check, including a bag X-ray. A friend had a highly dangerous bottle of red glitter nail-polish confiscated, yet another walked through with a recently purchased kitchen cleaver, unstopped. Perhaps there’s a gang of nail-polish wielding graffiti artists roaming the subway painting small but subversive slogans on the walls. Who knows?

4. On a positive note, there are now five thousand Expo taxis. They’re clean, they’re cute, and they have seatbelts in the back seats. All the rest of Shanghai’s taxis have no seatbelts in the back seats, although sometimes there is a seatbelt but nothing to plug it into, or a plug but no seatbelt. Intriguing. Of course, in the Expo taxis, you don’t have to actually buckle up. It’s not illegal to not wear a seatbelt. But they’re there. And they look good to foreign visitors, even if nobody actually uses them. And that’s what counts.

I’ll be in Beijing for the next few days. Catch up soon on all the news from the North.