Expo-goers walk by the Switzerland Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in Shanghai,… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Shanghai — Shanghai likes to advertise its 2010 Expo as the largest single event in human history. This, at first, might sound abstract. But as soon as you find yourself standing outside the Expo gates at 9 a.m., having just escaped a tour-bus traffic jam and surrounded by a growing mass of people, you get the idea.
The wild outlines of the Expo pavilions are visible up ahead, but between you and them are chattering school groups, families and gangs of happy, gangly teenagers. Size them up — for the next 12 hours, these are your companions and competitors at Expo.
Welcome to Shanghai's coming-out party. Open to visitors until Oct. 31, the Expo is this city's version of the Olympics, its chance to announce its arrival as a truly international city.
Under the banner of "Better City, Better Life," Shanghai has spent the last few years preparing to put on a spectacular six-month-long show. And, despite the lack of Olympic sports and relatively little international attention, the city has managed to pull together an event of historic proportions.
It is the largest Expo on record, with 191 participating countries. Shanghai has corralled 72,000 volunteers to work at the park during the summer, with an additional 100,000 put to work around the city. And over the course of the festival, the Expo will play host to international acts from L.A.'s Ozomatli to the Pyongyang Small Bell Dancers. The promise of all this is attracting a sea of domestic tourists each day to see what the world looks like, or at least what the world looks like according to Expo.
Before you get to the fairgrounds, one of the attractions is the city itself. In the years leading up to the Expo, Shanghai experienced a building boom impressive even for China. Six new subway lines are in operation. A new airport terminal speeds your arrival, and new highways smooth the drive into the city. The city's historic Bund, a stretch of colonial buildings along Shanghai's Huangpu River, was refurbished to make way for a park and a grand walkway that offers impressive views of the Shanghai skyline.
These larger construction projects were complemented by a massive effort to beautify the city. Apartment buildings were given a fresh coat of paint, old walkways were redone with new bricks and cobblestones, and flowers were planted everywhere, from traffic islands to elevated expressways. All in all, estimates in China's state-run media put Expo's price tag at about $43 billion, including city infrastructure, beautification and construction of the two-square-mile Expo grounds. If these estimates are close, Shanghai is spending more than twice the amount that Beijing shelled out before the Olympics.
Because there are no sports to watch, visiting the Expo is more like going to a fair where the main attraction happens to be a series of odd, international museums. And unlike the Olympics, the Expo is catering primarily to a domestic audience. It's a chance for the world to introduce itself to China, rather than the other way around. For foreign tourists, the Expo offers a great opportunity to watch China watching us.
Of course, foreign tourists are at a bit of a disadvantage. Although many have not heard about the World Expo until, well, right now, Chinese tourists have been preparing for months. Developing strategies for an Expo trip has become a national pastime. And with weekday crowds estimated at 200,000 to 300,000, this might be necessary.
The Expo grounds are spread across two banks of the Huangpu River, with ferry terminals offering transportation from one side to the other. Big-name architects, such as Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the British pavilion, and Italy's Giampaolo Imbrighi, designer of Moscow's "Rome" metro station, arrived with building designs that would please the eye and attract a crowd.
China's central red pavilion looms over a population of temporary structures, some with unlikely protuberances and elegant latticework, others that simply look like spaceships. The Spanish Pavilion is covered in rattan squares like fish scales. The British pavilion, with its layers of acrylic rods, looks like a futuristic sea urchin.
The first thing to remember when you arrive for the Expo is that, as international as this event is, you are still in China. The operating language is Chinese, although you'll find most of its student volunteers do speak some English. This also means there are huge crowds of Chinese tourists. And huge crowds of Chinese tourists means you will have to stand in line.