Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shanghai World's Fair: Day 3

When our guide picked us up at 7:30 I almost wondered if she was slightly amazed at our willingness to navigate the metro to get home the previous night. She'd offered to get us to our hotel, of course, but we didn't want to force her and the driver to work around our prime-the-pump schedule. Moreover, we crave our independence when traveling, and we felt a little guilty about accepting any degree of hand-holding. That said, we had to admit our appreciation about having a ride this morning. We'd paid for a little convenience and were determined to enjoy it. Gradually, as we motored through those jammed streets under increasingly blue skies, Shanghai landmarks became more recognizable to us. Soon enough we'd be touring the city on our own; it was nice to get a basic awareness of how its structures and spaces fit together.

Returning to the line at the security tent, waiting to enter the fair for a second day, we fell more comfortably into the routine. Our complexions and demeanors continued to attract attention, but we felt the calm of having been here before. We'd tossed our extraneous survival guide notes, we had our plastic folding chairs and cardboard fans. We knew the score. The heat - again, supposedly a lucky break for foreign visitors hoping to avoid the fair's famously protracted lines - inspired the crowd to bubble into tiny cones of community. Nearby, a guy flicked his fan to thump cool air toward an elderly woman. At the same time my own burden of heat lightened a bit when a neighbor lifted his umbrella high enough to cover us both. Whipping out my fan, I waved in broad strokes, making sure to send extra breeze his way. Now and again we would smile at each other in quick glances, advancing in broken waves to the entrance.

After passing through the security queue we took the metro to the Pudong side this time, alighting near the national pavilions. Checking our directions we fast-walked toward our goal: the UK Pavilion. I'm glad we did. The line had already stretched past the 20 minute mark when we arrived, and it quadrupled in size while we waited. We felt pretty good about our progress up until the very last moment when our section of line was set to enter the pavilion, only to be stopped near the door for a maddening delay of 20 minutes. We sat and stewed and then, without a hint of explanation, were finally admitted.

Andy in front of UK Pavilion
Describing the UK Pavilion is just about as difficult as photographing it. A giant cube of waving acrylic tendrils, rising 60 feet over a weirdly curved foundation of "Don't Sue Us" playground-rubber flooring (an "urban park" described in promotional materials as "wrapping paper" for the British gift to China) the thing seems like a blurry vision in even the most sharply focused pictures [Check out the Virtual Exhibit]. The pavilion's centerpiece is something called the Seed Cathedral, though it's more commonly nicknamed "the hedgehog" or, especially by Chinese visitors, "the dandelion."

Seed Cathedral Interior
Wags at the Daily Mail dismiss the thing as a pricy "pin cushion." Yet thoughtful reviewers worldwide have concluded that The Seed Cathedral may be the most impressive exhibit at the fair, not to mention the most impactful. Each of its 60,000 transparent rods, you see, contain seeds. Standing inside the cathedral, you are surrounded by walls of them, all aglow with light streaming from the outside. The scene is almost reverential. And when the expo closes for good, the seeds will be distributed to schools across China and the UK as a sort of distributed bank of biodiversity [Check my blog for more pix].

Receiving henna tattoos at the Mauritania Exhibit
From the UK we strolled a short distance to the Africa Pavilion where 42 countries and the African Union had come to exhibit aspects of their cultures and industrial might (Did you know that Sudan is the world's "prebiotic basket"?). Why were so many nations stuck under one roof? Turns out that many couldn't fund their own buildings. In response, China, determined to make this expo the world's largest, simply footed the bill. Inside the so-called "Gift Box" building, each country got space in a sort of open-bazaar mall filled with trinket tables and passport stations for the fair's tireless stamp collectors.

Shopping in the Africa "Gift Box"
After being stopped by a couple of guys who asked me take pictures with them, Jenny and I took silly snapshots of our own at designated photo-spots: a camel, an ape, and even giant faces of African people, including, supposedly, a version of the famed "Lucy" fossil. At the Mauritania Exhibit, Jenny sat down to receive a henna tattoo, while an endless stream of Chinese fairgoers snapped photos. The Africa building, perhaps being most famous as the one pavilion you could enter without standing in line, satiated our need to visit countries separated by feet rather than miles.

Netherlands Pavilion seen from UK Pavilion queue
Heading back outside, we marched straight to the Netherlands Pavilion, one of the expo's quirkier displays. Known as "Happy Street," the figure-8-shaped exhibit is a walking tour of Dutch culture that rises like a roller coaster of looping pedestrian paths. Happy Street is a collection of houses, each built on stilts, that become peepshows for a cheerily eclectic assemblage displays that range from clocks and Van Gogh artifacts to a purification plant that serves water through fuel pumps and a creepy teddy bear whose eyes follow your movements [That last one is called "Social Eyes" - get it?].

Stairway to Happy Street
Nearby, polyester/fiberglass sheep graze upon fake grass, fascinated visitors peer into a greenhouse packed with tulips, and crowds line up at a Dutch restaurant that distributes tiny wooden clogs with each combo meal. Jenny and I joined a throng of resting, lunching fairgoers among the sheep, appreciating a shady respite from the sun [Some version of the sheep, by the way, is supposed to go on sale sometime in the near future].

Plastic sheep at the Netherlands Pavilion
Departing Happy Street we turned toward the fairground's southern edge in search of the Chile Pavilion. On the way, we were approached by a man who commenced to remind us in broken English that tickets for the China Pavilion are rare, that reservations are required. I knew the pitch, having heard that scalpers were combing the streets in search of suckers, so we ignored this guy and kept walking [That evening I read that fair authorities were beginning to replace paper pavilion tickets with plastic versions, complete with computer chips, to reduce counterfeiting].

Inside Chile we explored a fascinating inquiry into urban life. A rolling view of suburban living is augmented by a disembodied voice that asks, "What is a city?" An upside-down apartment complex invites visitors to consider the koan, "If no one knows anyone… then why live in the same city?" Nearby, a chasm of video monitors creates a Blade Runner vibe. And toward the end of the show, a "Well of the Antipodes" presents viewers a chance to gaze downward onto a video display of life on the other side of the planet.
Looking down the Well of the Antipodes
As afternoon began turning toward dusk we ambled through a few more sites. The Cuban pavilion offered a Mojito bar but otherwise was a disappointment, suggesting (though hardly proving) that the island nation is good for nothing else but rum and cigars. The Pavilion of City Being, another one of the expo's five theme sites, offered an excuse to duck out from the scorching weather with its life-sized rail station (called Vigor Station, for some reason) and a 360-degree cinema vision of how plazas contribute to urban vitality.

Buying trinkets at a souvenir shop
Best of all, a nearby mega souvenir shop fulfilled a world's fair fantasy of mine, the chance to flip through row after row of postcards, booklets, t-shirts, and other collectibles. I can't time-travel back to 1939 to stock up on New York World's Fair baubles. But at least I could bring home plenty of memories from Shanghai for the next generation of expo aficionados.

China Pavilion
Back outside we crossed wide avenues to get closer to the China Pavilion. The streets were thronged with electric buses and small non-electric cars. Pedestrians, in the usual fashion, crossed wherever they pleased. They say that bigger vehicles outrank smaller ones in China, and that pedestrians rank lowest in the urban scheme of things. That's right: You get hit by a car in these parts, it's your own fault. Even so, Jenny and I found ourselves increasingly bold in our excursions, barreling across the broad boulevards with an I-Dare-You glare. The slogan for our crosses, a stupid choice on retrospect, was, "You're not gonna look for me? I'm not gonna look for you."

Expo 2010's "Axis of Evil"
Feeling suitably tough, we boarded an expo bus for the northeast edge of the fairgrounds, headed for the "Axis of Evil." So far no one knows precisely who thought it'd be literally perfect to place the Iran and North Korea buildings next to each other, but the convenience of the choice has surely attracted every American expo visitor. In Iran I felt especially welcome, receiving a piece of rose flavored candy when I handed our passports to the stamper (none of the other folks received a treat for some reason).

Adding to the friendly atmosphere, the exhibit displays Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a smiling pose, professing his love for humankind and his confidence that city life is living for each other, not just with each other. A scale model of a nuclear power plant showcases the country's peaceful application of atomic power, without the tiniest hint of weaponized potential. I joked with Jenny about being a CIA agent and that we were secretly gathering intelligence on Iran's nuke plans.

Iran nuclear plant model
Our next stop, North Korea, presented a more stark mood. The pavilion features a miniature "Juche Tower" (standing for the country's practical necessity of Self Reliance) and some videos illustrating the "Paradise for People" sign that hangs, dimly lit, from the ceiling. Mostly I remember images of North Korean athletes, which, presumably, did not include North Korea's ill-fated soccer team. A guy stamping passports looked almost emaciated. In contrast, the women at the souvenir stand were positively aglow under vertical edifices of hair.

North Korea doesn't quite get the concept of subtlety
Most intriguingly, these folks seemed more focused on selling stuff than almost any other pavilion we'd visited. Shelves offered books containing Kim Jong-il's writings on everything from economics to opera, stamps highlighting stalwart soldiers bayonetting Running Dog Americans, and postcards depicting various heroes of the revolution ("No, that's Kim Jong-il's uncle," I was helpfully informed). The most thoughtful item: cold water that had been once "gushing out from the rock formation of granite on Mt. Kalmae in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province." That's South Pyongan Province - none of that North Province swill!

I packed a spine-bending bag of souvenirs (anticipating a delightful conversation with a San Francisco customs official upon our return) and returned with Jenny outside, where the temperature had dropped to a mere 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We dropped by an information station, though by now we'd long gotten used to the pleasant green-shirted, English-speaking volunteer guides having no clue how to interpret our questions. Having had some luck with the bus getting to the Axis of Evil, we climbed aboard again, anticipating a quick ride to the area where the U.S. Pavilion is lumped.

Haibao reminds bus-riders to be courteous
Yep, Haibao was on the video screen again. And we recognized our general direction. And then we started heading under the river, traveling through a tunnel back to the Puxi side. By this point, we didn't mind. It was a free opportunity to check out the expo's World's Fair Museum. So we exited on the other shore, stopped for a quick bite at a Papa John's Pizza place ("Papa John's" in name only) and joined a queue to take another bus further down the road. A guy tried to cut in front of Jenny, only to be shoved backward, first by Jenny and then by an old guy who started smacking the would-be line-jumper on the arm. We felt almost like locals at this point.

Famous expo theme buildings (and the Statue of Liberty)
The World's Fair Museum was nice enough, though it seemed curated by someone who had only a glancing awareness of the concept. Mostly I was worried that my camera had almost entirely run out of battery power. I tried the one outlet I could see, but it didn't work. I didn't try a second time at the museum because a guard started looking warily at me. Conserving the one or two minutes of power remaining, we toured the largely empty exhibit and then returned back to the boat dock for one last ferry ride.

Our evening would conclude at the China Pavilion, that new symbol of the PRC's 21st-century might. But first, we trudged around the U.S. Building, with no intention of joining the two-hour line for a pavilion universally panned as a disappointment, before catching a bus heading toward that huge, red inverted pyramid. We got close enough, and I sat up the tripod and furiously composed the shot, the camera's power indicator blinking rapidly - and then off.

Frustrated, Jenny and I walked into a tiny mall of restaurants and shops, looking for a power outlet. Nothing, not a single place to power up. We thought about giving up until we stepped into a pleasantly titled Official Merchandise Store. That's where I spotted an outlet behind a display of Haibao dolls. Over the next 20 minutes, Jenny and I "looked at souvenirs," while the camera sucked some juice (how happy I was to have packed a converter this time!). We'd bought so many expo souvenirs over the past two days, I felt OK about the subterfuge.

Finally I got some decent photos and video of that bold, tacky, and gloriously confident China Pavilion. Getting inside was never an option, of course. Lines were said to stretch for hours and hours. You'd have to arrive at the gates earlier than five in the morning just to get a chance to run toward a reservation desk in hopes of snagging one of 30,000 tickets. Yeah, that would happen. No pavilion is worth the eight hours I'd read this one would take to enter. Eight hours!

Last night at Expo 2010
I'd heard that some countries were purposefully stretching their waiting times as a sign of prominence. If it takes a half day to see Saudi Arabia, that country's got to be important, right? Then there's China's ultimate goal of making this the most heavily attended expo in history, with an expectation of 70 million attendees. Some critics whisper that the government is doing more than give free tickets to Shanghai locals, that they're threatening the salaries of regional officials who fail to meet quotas. For China, an economic behemoth still sometimes laughably called a "Developing Nation," Expo 2010 is that big a deal. Nonetheless we were happy to see its signature pavilion from the outside.

We snapped our last pictures, took a walk along the Expo Axis, and made our way to a bus promising a quick ride to a nearby metro station (the wait for the ride to start was interminable, but never mind). Walking under the arched bridge with its animated, blinking colors, our eyes were drawn forward to that city of 20,000,000 people that stretched beyond the fairgrounds. Amnesty International reports that 18,000 households were evicted to make room for the world's fair, but we see no signs of that strife tonight. We only see the towering ambition of a nation shoving the past aside for a glittering tomorrow.

Sometimes we are dubious, sometimes we are amused, and sometimes we are horrified. But always at the fair, always, we are amazed. That night back at the hotel I expect to hear a cacophony of voices in my ears; there's no way I can sleep after our adventures in China's glorious future! Still, I drift away immediately. We've toured ourselves to near-exhaustion in only three days - and our Asian adventures are only just getting started.

See More: Check out my 2010 Expo Video!

Day 2 | Day 4

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