I went with some friends a couple months ago when the crowds were still huge. Despite the huge crowds, it was still an enjoyable experience and I must give props to the organizers for pulling off such a huge event without many problems. The infrastructure of the place is pretty amazing. A new subway line was opened just to serve the Expo. Free buses run around the site to take you from zone to zone. There were plenty of volunteers (most of whom spoke good English) to direct you. The architecture of some of the pavilions was really stunning.
But, as everyone has noted, the big downside is the outrageous lines. On the day we went, it was pouring rain all day. You might think that would put a damper on attendance, but nonetheless, the lines were daunting. South Korea, Japan, USA, China, UK, Spain, France, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia all had lines of more than 5 hours. So we skipped the popular ones and went to the smaller pavilions where the lines were negligible or nonexistent.
Portugal was pretty cool, with a great movie which highlighted their culture.
Here is a picture of the UK pavilion, which is made of thousands of shiny fiber optic spikes which light up and change color at night.
The Italian pavilion was surprisingly not too crowded. We had to wait in line for about 30 minutes. Of course I liked this one because it was filled with Ducatis and Ferraris.
There is one big pavilion which housed all the African countries. Most of them were really similar, showing poor villages, folk crafts, dirt roads, etc. Kenya of course had a poster proudly proclaiming Obama's Kenyan heritage which was pretty cool.
The most interesting thing in the African pavilion was how many of the countries highlighted the recent Chinese investment that has come their way. From the new port in Senegal, to several airports around the continent, to mining sites, railways, and more, lots of the countries were showing off new development projects made possible by Chinese investment. Part of that no-strings-attached investment/aid which China has been spreading around Africa (some say in exchange for access to resources) over the past decade.
The most surreal pavilion was, of course, North Korea. The displays and videos naturally painted a beautiful picture of what it's like to live in the happiest and more prosperous country on earth, highlighting the world-class hospitals, universities, subways, hotels, and stadiums that North Korea boasts.
I snapped this picture of the guy working behind the counter selling North Korean paraphernalia and souvenirs. It's hard to tell from the blurry photo, but I couldn't help but notice the Ralph Lauren logo on his shirt, right next to the obligatory pin of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Talk about opposite worlds.
For many Chinese people who will never have the opportunity to leave China, the Expo is as close as they'll ever get to seeing the outside world. Hence the daily crowds of half a million people pouring in from all over China. For a foreigner, the Expo remains a kind of quaint idea, hearkening back to World's Fairs. Anyway, despite the pouring rain and huge crowds, a visit to the Expo was nonetheless an enjoyable way to spend the day and we had a great time.
It's even better to go now that it's not too hot and the crowds are smaller. I also just received an email from the American Consulate in Shanghai announcing that the American pavilion has opened its VIP entrance to anyone with an American passport, meaning that you don't have to wait in line, so I may go check that out in the next few weeks. Though the American pavilion has been plagued by scandal and lack of funding and uncertainty from the start, I might as well check it out. How could I not? After all, Hillary Clinton gave it such a glowing review, declaring on her visit to Shanghai in May, that, "it's fine."
For far better coverage of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, check out the Expo section of Adam Minter's blog: Shanghai Scrap.