Image: Italy Pavilion, Shanghai Expo
Visitors gather around a giant high heel displayed at the Italy Pavilion.
updated 5/11/2010 3:41:13 PM ET 2010-05-11T19:41:13

It's a small but odd world at Shanghai's World Expo, where nuclear problem states North Korea and Iran are next-door neighbors, and visitors can check out such novelties as translucent cement and a curtain made of solar-cell soybean fiber.

The Expo has been drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors since its May 1 opening, and hours-long lines jam around the most popular pavilions, especially the Japanese, Italian, French and Australian exhibits.

While the majestic red China pavilion can been seen only with a "fast pass" reservation system that sells out after just minutes each day, visitors can just waltz right into the nearly deserted North Korean pavilion, which is tucked behind Iran's in the northeast corner of the 5.28 square kilometer (2 square mile) Expo grounds.

The Expo's theme of "Better City, Better Life" allows for a vast range of interpretations by the 189 countries and 57 international organizations participating.

South Korea's pavilion is shaped in characters from its "hangul" alphabet, with some walls covered with colorful tiles embossed with smaller characters. It features the country's most advanced technology and traditional culture.

North Korea, participating in a world's fair for the first time ever, has a much more spartan exhibit, like the impoverished country itself.

Slideshow: Shanghai sights Its pavilion features film clips of life under its "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il — shots of families bowling and visiting parks — and models of the capital Pyongyang's "Juche Tower" and the Taedong River — a winding stream of shiny clear plastic over wrinkled blue sheeting.

A fountain, a few video screens and a counter selling books and other North Korean paraphernalia sum up the rest.

Though both North Korea and Iran remain nuclear trouble spots, they no longer are deemed part of the "axis of evil," as then-President George W. Bush dubbed those two countries and Iraq in 2002, when it was still ruled by the late Saddam Hussein.

With so many cultures gathered in one area, surprises are inevitable.

One recent day, the music blaring from the Qatar pavilion — which is clustered with other Muslim countries Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Oman around the Israeli exhibit — was an instrumental version of "Sunrise, Sunset," a song sung at a Jewish wedding in the film "Fiddler on the Roof."

In a joint pavilion nearby that also houses exhibits from Afghanistan and Brunei, Palestine is displaying an abundance of creches, handcarved crucifixes and other handicrafts for sale.

Image: Switzerland Pavilion
Str  /  AP
Expo-goers walk by the Switzerland Pavilion at night at the Shanghai World Expo in Shanghai, China.
The locations of the largest pavilions seem strategically thought out in some cases and puzzling in others. The eagle-shaped USA Pavilion and Russia's gilden sun-shaped structure anchor one end of the sprawling Expo grounds, Japan's lavender silkworm dome the other. Of course, China, the erstwhile Middle Kingdom, stands at the center.

India's pavilion sits beside Nepal's but well away from Pakistan's. Argentina's is adjacent to others from the Americas, but its closest neighbors are Slovenia, South Africa and Tunis.

One joint pavilion, provided by host China to other developing countries, groups such odd bedfellows as Mongolia, the Maldives, Tajikistan and East Timor — all in Asia, but otherwise about as unalike as countries could be.

Given the Expo's theme of sustainability, many pavilions use recyclable and ultrahigh tech materials, like the solar cell soybean fiber netting around the Swiss pavilion, which is said to be biodegradable.

Slideshow: Welcome to Shanghai Italy's pavilion uses a type of translucent cement that by allowing light to shine through walls can help save on energy, while Britain's has a six-story "Seed Cathedral" formed by 60,000 see-through fiber optic rods.

Across the river are corporate pavilions sponsored by big companies like Coca Cola, Cisco Systems Inc. and General Motors Co. In keeping with the Japanese philosophy that "customer is king," the joint Japan Industry pavilion is drawing attention with its "throne room," said to be the best toilet at the Expo.

But only a few lucky visitors will win the lottery that gives them a chance to experience in that deluxe "comfort zone." Reservations are already full, meanwhile, for the next two months for the pavilion's special "kaiseki" restaurant, where meals cost a mean 3,000 yuan ($440) — or about what it costs to fly to Japan.

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