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Shanghai Expo: Squat toilets, touch screens

Several million foreigners, including thousands of Americans, are expected to visit Shanghai over the next six months to see the Expo. For many, it will be their first trip to this sprawling city of 20 million people.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Several million foreigners, including thousands of Americans, are expected to visit Shanghai over the next six months to see the Expo. For many, it will be their first trip to this sprawling city of 20 million people.

Here are some tips to help you navigate the crowds, logistics and local culture, both at the Expo and around Shanghai.

EXPO BASICS: Tickets are widely available around Shanghai. U.S. residents can buy them before leaving home for $26 from Peregrine Travel Group at Several subway lines deliver you close to the Expo gates, including Metro line No. 8 (Yaohua Road stop). You'll be searched airport-style as you enter; no liquids allowed.

While opening week crowds have subsided, some exhibits still have long lines and there may be more visitors over the summer, so be prepared to wait at popular pavilions like those hosted by the U.S. and Japan (think Disney World on a busy day). Most presentations inside the pavilions are ho-hum promotional videos or displays of cultural artifacts, but it's also fun to just stroll around enjoying the architecture. There are a few stunners inside the pavilions — "The Little Mermaid" is here from Denmark, and some high-tech displays in the corporate pavilions are a generation beyond the iPhone. But most of what's cool about Expo can be found in the building designs. Stay until after dark when everything lights up in color.

BATHROOMS: Most toilets at the Expo and in many other public places are squat-style. You've been warned.

WEATHER: Shanghai is hot, sticky and polluted.

SHANGHAI SIESTAS: Those people lying down on benches at the Expo with their shoes off are not homeless. The locals have an astounding capacity to nap in public.

POLITESSE: Cut in line at a U.S. theme park and you could be kicked out. Do it in New York City and you might start a riot. But in Shanghai, you will find other guests cutting in line. Get used to it. Other local customs that may bewilder or repulse you: Spitting in garbage cans and gawking at anything out of the ordinary, including Westerners with beards or blonde or curly hair. If you find yourself stared at or photographed, just smile and say, "Nee how!" (Hello!)

DON'T DRINK THE WATER: If it's not canned, bottled or boiled, don't drink it. Avoid ice. Use bottled water to brush your teeth, too.

INTERNET: Sorry, no Facebook or Twitter updates from the Expo! The Chinese government blocks access. You can access Google with limited results.

MONEY: The U.S. dollar is worth about seven of the local currency, the yuan; divide a price by seven to get a rough idea of cost. Major Western banks like Citibank and HSBC have ATMs here but tell your credit card company and bank that you'll be in China or they may block your transactions. Beware of electronic theft; don't use plastic unless you're in a big hotel, store or restaurant.

SAFETY: Violent crime is rare against tourists. But watch out for pickpockets and scams. If you're in People's Square and are invited to tea by a local who professes a desire to practice English, don't go. You'll be charged an embarrassingly large sum for your beverage.

SHOPPING: Bargaining is fun, even without speaking a word of Chinese. If you look at an item in a marketplace or store and walk away, the shopkeeper may start calling out lower prices or discounts. If the person speaks no English, she or he will pull out a calculator and punch in a number.

SUBWAYS: Use them! The Shanghai Metro is easy to navigate, clean, safe, fast, air-conditioned and cheap. Maps and signs are excellent and well-labeled in English. Even the announcements are made in comprehensible English. And the trains are so well-designed and arrive so often that they accommodate rush-hour crowds smoothly. If you plan to ride more than a few times, buy a refillable plastic card inside a station from the staffed service desk. The card fee is 20 yuan, then add a sum — try 50 yuan for a week — to cover your rides. You can also use the card in taxis and on buses. Keep the card handy while on the train; you'll need to place it at the turnstile to exit.

TAXIS: It's easy to hail a cab here but most drivers do not speak English. Many cabs have a cell phone number posted in the backseat that you can call for translation help. But if you get the location of your hotel and attractions on your itinerary written down in Chinese, you can simply show the addresses to the driver. The Lonely Planet "Encounter Shanghai" guidebook lists attractions in Chinese.

TIPPING: Tipping is not customary in Shanghai, not for waiters, drivers or even hotel maids.

FOOD: Needless to say the food in Shanghai is nothing like the takeout at your local Chinese restaurant. Savory dumplings called xiao long bao are a famous local specialty. Two well-known dumpling eateries are Nanxiang in the Old City, near Yuan Garden, and Din Tai Fung upstairs in the Xintiandi mall. If your tummy is homesick, Expo has numerous outlets for KFC and other U.S. fast food, and McDonald's can also be found around the city. You'll find Starbucks here, too; be sure to try the black sesame-green tea iced frappuccino.

CROWDS: How do you feel about Times Square on New Year's Eve? Shanghai can feel that way in some areas, including famous thoroughfares like the Bund, Nanjing Road and the bazaar near Yuan Garden in the old section of the city. Renao, which literally means heat and noise or commotion, is considered a positive value in this crowded city. To get away from it all, try a stroll in the French Concession, a leafy neighborhood of charming, quiet streetscapes that will remind you of a European quarter or Georgetown in Washington, D.C.


Associated Press Writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai contributed to this report.