SHANGHAI — Looking for the China of pagodas, farmers in rice paddies and Mao-suited masses pedaling bicycles through grim city streets?
You won't find such scenes here when Shanghai's World Expo opens on May 1.
What you will find: A giant octopus, an alpine meadow and an apple-shaped "green city," among dozens of pavilions in all shapes, colors and sizes featuring a kaleidoscope of visions for the Expo's theme: "Better City, Better Life."
And, of course, millions of other visitors.
Shanghai's Expo is likely to be the largest World's Fair ever, with some 70 million visitors expected to attend in the six months before it closes on Oct. 31. It's certainly China's biggest event since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The huge international show-and-tell will showcase China's status as a world industrial power, giving Shanghai — its biggest city — a long-awaited chance to show off its stunning transformation from crumbling factory town into modern global metropolis.
In this age of virtual reality and round-the-clock information overload, visitors to the Shanghai World Expo are unlikely to find here the kinds of brand new technologies, such as television, that debuted at world's fairs decades ago.
But governments, groups and corporate sponsors, spread over 2 square miles (5.28 square kilometers) along both sides of the concrete banks of the Huangpu River, will be offering myriad ideas for sustainable urban living.
In Pudong, on the east side of the river, where the national pavilions and most big facilities are located, giant white funnels will provide shade, channel sunlight to underground walkways and collect rainwater for recycling.
In Puxi, on the west side, a collection of local and corporate pavilions will demonstrate "urban best practices" focused on sustainable urban technologies and heritage preservation.
Expo organizers say most of the materials used to make the pavilions will be recycled, and they have pledged to eventually end with a "carbon-neutral" impact.
Whether that will really happen is anyone's guess: Officials say they do not have the data on the tons of Expo-related steel smelted and concrete poured or on the energy consumed in the process.
Like the Beijing Olympics, the Expo will leave a legacy of new landmarks, the most eye-catching the 226-foot-high (69 meters) China Pavilion — a scarlet structure some say looks like a mahjong table. Though imposing, it's much shorter than the 984-foot (300 meters) Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Universal Exposition.
A clamshell-shaped cultural center that will seat up to 18,000 people, a vast conference center and a new stadium also will permanently join the forests of skyscrapers lining the Huangpu.
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Several of the old industrial buildings that will house expo exhibits have been refurbished and will remain once the temporary pavilion structures go — to house museums and other cultural facilities, officials say.
Hoping for an escape from the crowds? The Swiss pavilion features a 4-minute chairlift ride above a rooftop alpine meadow.
The United Arab Emirates has a pavilion shaped like sand dunes, Israel's mimics a sea shell, Romania's a green apple, Macao's a jade rabbit lantern.
Craving some octopus fritters? Keep an eye out for a 5-ton, eight-legged sign being shipped in by a famous Osaka "takoyaki" outlet.
Outside the Expo site, the city has built a new airport terminal, subway lines, expressways, tunnels and bridges to accommodate hundreds of thousands of extra visitors a day. No detail seems too small — public signs sporting mangled English have been replaced, new awnings hung on colonial-era mansions and 10 roly-poly baby pandas flown in from western China to amuse guests who venture out to the city's zoos.
By day, once-grimy office blocks and apartment buildings shine under new coats of paint. By night, the city glows with artful illuminations — dots, rainbows, spot lights and strip lighting accenting the city's diverse architecture.
Statues and images of Haibao the "treasure from the sea," a big-eyed blue Expo mascot meant to represent the Chinese character for people, or "ren," adorn practically every public space.
Haibao, like his Beijing Olympic mascot cousins, is Shanghai's "good will ambassador" — an endearing symbol Shanghai deploys at every opportunity — including this year's Rose Parade — to provide a guise of innocuousness for an event posing stupendous logistical and security challenges.
Unlike hyper-controlled crowds for the Olympics, the Expo is meant to be an "open-door" event, tourism officials say.
"We have no restrictions at all. We welcome all visitors from all countries," said Cheng Meihong, vice chairman of Shanghai's tourism administration.
Still, the realities of actually attending the Expo are bound to be daunting.
The $28 (190 yuan) tickets for May 1 opening day are already sold out. Touts are selling them online for triple or more the $23 (160 yuan) price for a non-peak day.
Since there is no vehicle parking around the Expo site, visitors will be navigating security checks and jam-packed buses and subways to get in and out.
The level of crowding, especially on peak days when up to 800,000 visitors are expected, may exceed anything most people have ever experienced — the largest yearly gathering of people in the world, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, draws only 3 million visitors.
Organizers say they will have a system to warn against entering when the area is already too crowded. Anticipating, though, that both visitors and volunteers might at times feel overwhelmed, they will be offering counseling and emergency medical services.
At least the Expo site is spacious — about the size of 990 football fields or four times the size of the last universal exposition, in Aichi, Japan, in 2005.
Universal expos, like the ones in Aichi and Shanghai, are held every five years, with smaller so-called "international" expos held in between. The last international expo was held in Zaragoza, Spain, in 2008.
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