Expo visitors are willing to wait as long as it takes to get inside a pavilion, Matt Hodges finds out why.
Ding Xiaohuo is never going to ski the Alps or see the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace. Like most Chinese his age, he'll never even see a real passport with his photo on it.
The veteran farmer from Sichuan province says he's too old to travel overseas and he couldn't afford it anyway. Even the train journey to Shanghai took 30 hours and burned through his savings.
In light of this, waiting in line for six hours to access the popular Saudi Arabia Pavilion was no big deal, he told China Daily (Ding waited a total of 10 hours to get inside the Saudi, Swiss and UK pavilions).
"I've waited 65 years to see what life is like outside China, so I can wait a few more hours," he said of enduring the long lines. His only regret was not being able to reserve tickets for the China Pavilion and add its stamp to his Expo passport - a badge of honor he is looking forward to impressing his "less well-traveled" friends with back home.
Despite some ugly scenes when the Expo had its trial run at the end of April, Expo visitors have proved themselves to be among the world's best "waiters". Memories have faded of impatient hordes stampeding through one of the Asian pavilions and destroying its exhibits, or almost starting a riot outside the Australia and Thailand pavilions.
That, as the Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination may nod approvingly, is the pace of development in modern-day China. Give us three months and we can educate 40 million people (roughly the number of Expo visitors to date) on international rules of etiquette.
Okay, so you still get the occasional guy who makes a bolt for the entrance, like the middle-aged man I saw outside the Thai Pavilion a few weeks ago. What was curious was that he was laughing good-naturedly (or from embarrassment?) when security guards escorted him back to the end of the line. The guards were chuckling also.
I've asked scores of people exiting the most popular pavilions: "Was it worth the wait?" The answer is usually yes, albeit sometimes after a pause. Their enthusiasm never fails to amaze me. Young or old, from modern Shanghai to provincial backwaters, their curiosity is insatiable and their expectations muted.
Of course, not everyone has the patience for queuing. I certainly don't. I have a press pass, but even walking around the snaking lines and metal barricades leaves me feeling drained, especially when the temperature is in the high 30s.
Many visitors choose to decamp to the corporate pavilions in less-crowded Puxi or settle for photographing the beautiful architecture (the handcrafted Nepal Pavilion being a case in point).
Some Shanghai taxi drivers have admitted to me that they sold their Expo tickets (each Shanghai family is given a free one-day pass from the local government) after being put off by the bad press. Other locals revisit the Expo Garden time and again, and love it.
I asked farmer Ding through a translator why he was so excited to visit the Expo.
"Here I can see real people (from Saudi Arabia or the UK). I can hear them speak," he said. "I can watch how they act. I can see people from all over the world. It's much more real. I can touch things they have brought from their country. I can see for myself what all the fuss is about."
There is also the element of attending the event as a matter of patriotic pride. Why else would the China Pavilion top the list of most popular sites among a people who still have trouble visiting a foreign country?
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