Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Line, line, everywhere a line

I looked at the line zigzagging off into the distance, wrapping its way around the ship-shaped Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and weaving along the sidewalks. A sign near the line’s entrance was written in Chinese, but I could make out the unmistakable numeral that foretold the length of time in hours these people would be waiting. And that magic number was eight.

The night before, I had to decide between seeing this, with an expected queue time of about three hours, or the Japan Pavilion, at only two and a half hours. I’d opted for the shorter of the two. Now, the queue time had almost tripled, leaving me to ponder: How bad did I really want to see the Saudi Arabia Pavilion?

Really, the line’s length – in visibility and wait time – wasn’t a big surprise. I’d come to the Expo expecting to spend most of my three-day visit waiting in one line or another. A line for each pavilion. A line for food and beverage. And probably a line to use the bathroom (although thankfully I didn’t run into this problem too often). That’s what would be waiting for me at the global event set to draw almost 250,000 people a day.

For the most part, I thought the Expo’s queuing arrangement was well organized. Lines wrapped around each pavilion and rarely stretched out into the busy walkways between the uniquely designed and decorate structures. At most of the pavilions, some form of shade provided shelter from the sun. In the close queue quarters, I chitchatted with people around me, especially when children pointed and said “waiguoren! (foreigner)” And each line moved along at a steady pace. I rarely stood for the full time I was told when entering the line.

Over the course of my three-day Expo world tour I was able to see the pavilions I’d wanted to visit – Germany, the United States, Japan and Spain. I knew seeing the China Pavilion would be nearly impossible, since getting a special ticket for the massive red center-piece pavilion would have required me to be in line by 5 a.m. before the Expo opened. Photos aside the pavilion would have to suffice

But the line for the Saudi Pavilion still irked me. Why would anyone wait eight hours to see, well, anything? Eight hours was a full workday. Eight hours is how long I sometimes sleep at night. Eight hours is a flight from America to Europe, and even that can be accomplished in less time.

The more I thought about it, the more the realization set in that these pavilions were more than just buildings – they were gateways to other countries many Chinese simply wouldn’t be able to visit. I remembered the difficulties Chinese friends and colleagues told me about traveling abroad. Paperwork and passports aside, a trip to the United States or Europe could put a serious dent in the average Chinese person’s savings. But a three-day pass to the Expo costs 400 RMB.

Granted, visiting the German Pavilion and visiting the German nation are two drastically different experiences, but the ability to see a nation’s innovations, enjoy its fine cuisine at special restaurants and catch a glimpse at certain aspects of its culture can be a somewhat fulfilling alternative.

Getting your exclusive Expo souvenir passport stamped after visiting each pavilion also adds to the experience of “visiting” that nation.

In this way, the Expo serves two purposes: one is to display China’s growth and innovations, as well as advances from nations worldwide; and the other is to provide Expo-goers the chance to get a first-hand glimpse of cultures from across the globe.

And based on the pavilions and live performances I saw, I’d say it did a pretty good job.

I ended up passing on the Saudi Arabia Pavilion. I just couldn’t bring myself to waiting a whole day for one pavilion when there was so much more to experience. Instead, I used my final day at the Expo “visiting” countries I’d probably never get to see (for political reasons) – Cuba, North Korea, and Iran. And while these pavilions would never be able to truly present their respective nation’s culture and history, they gave me an idea of what I could expect and provided me with some interesting photo opportunities.

ARABIAN NIGHTS: The line for the Saudi Arabia Pavilion averaged 4 hours. But on the Monday morning of my three-day Expo visit, it was 8 hours -- and people were still eagerly lining up. The Saudi Pavilion was one of the main attractions at the Expo, with one of the world's largest interactive IMAX screens inside.

WAITING TO SEE MOTHER: Tourists line up outside the [Mother] Russia Pavilion.

SEEKING SHADE: To hide from the sun, people used umbrella, newspapers, Burger King bags and an assortment of things to prevent sunburn. Most lines had some kind of covering, although it was difficult to hide from the actual heat each day.

EVERYBODY LOVES THE EXPO: More than 200,000 people, on average, visit the Expo each day. But on my three-day Expo stay, that number was closer to 300,000.

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