I meant to write this long ago, primarily to warn away other English-speaking tourists tempted to shell out $15 for the 2011 International Horticultural Exposition in Xi’an. It’s too late for that. I can’t recall when the closing ceremonies are scheduled for, but it can’t be long. Oh well. But here are my observations from back in early August.
We rolled the dice and spent our final day in Xi’an at the 2011 International Horticultural Expo, a 30 minute bus ride away in the never-ending Xi’an city outskirts. The expo is being promoted heavily throughout the city in advertisements of all shapes and sizes and via souvenir stores on nearly every block. We were put off by the 100 RMB ($15) admission fee, but we decided to go for it. After all, I have a graduate degree in sustainable agriculture and I’m married to a former landscape designer. It wasn’t a no-brainer, but it was close.
One thing we’ve learned these last two months is that the typical Chinese tourist is a different animal from their American counterparts. Where we want solitude and absence of a human footprint, the Chinese want a nearby tour bus with the air conditioning running. Where we desire unspoiled beauty, the Chinese want a photo of themselves they can show their neighbors. We want to savor the experience, the Chinese want to rush off to make sure they’re not late for dinner.
At the Expo we (naively) hoped for a display of modern landscape architecture (a web search in advance of our visit revealed the involvement of a few Western design firms) and perhaps a few greenhouses full of flowers. Instead, it was a uniquely, and at times painfully, Chinese attempt at a World’s Fair exhibition. Plus, it was clearly hastily erected, bizarrely executed, and offered nothing at all to attract the foreign tourist. In fact, among the thousands upon thousands of Chinese we encountered, we only glimpsed one other obvious foreigner, a middle aged man of African descent who seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere else.
The vast site boasted a few cool-ish modern buildings, but the lines to enter them snaked for hours, far too long to stomach. Some of the landscaping was utterly laughable with paths to nowhere and others that sloped off unexpectedly and dangerously, all bordered by seas of hastily assembled marigolds and petunias. Of course there were hundreds of trees transplanted in the peculiar Chinese style: branches lopped off until the tree resembled a telephone pole and then thrust into the ground. Some of them had IV bags inserted under their bark. Seriously.
Many countries had pavilions, but most were ill-conceived or clearly outsourced to Chinese firms and many had nothing at all to do with horticulture. The “French” pavilion was a Persian carpet store. The Thai-style Buddhist temple incongruously housed a Dico’s, a Chinese KFC competitor. Only the North Korean pavilion was on-theme as it housed a few dozen orchids. The gift shop most interested us though. How we passed up the postcards of flowers loved by Kim Jong Il is simply beyond me.
Myanmar also seemed to have taken their building seriously and filled it with all sorts of tourist curios. The salesgirls even looked the part. I was fooled. Me: “Mingalaba.” The droll salesgirl in English: “I’m Chinese.” Her eyes added, “moron!”
Did I mention it was unbearably hot? The oppressive mugginess was exacerbated by acres and acres of needless pavement and mist sprayers that promptly shut off every time we approached. When we finally got close enough for a cooling shower, the water struck us as having been recycled from the nearby bathroom. Our only respite came in the form of delicious mango puree pops. I ate at least three. At some point we lunched in an air-conditioned KFC in what may have been a German beer garden. We were marooned somewhere in “Europe.”
Towards the end of our giant loop of the park we finally came across some Chinese-style traditional gardens, one for each of China’s 33 provinces. (Bonus points if you can name more than 5 or 6 of the provinces in the comment section below.) Here, with naturalistic rock formations, tastefully selected plants and some unique features, someone knew what they were doing. Weariness prevented us from giving them more than a cursory glance though. We wanted out.
On the bus ride home a college student asked me what I thought. I said the Expo was “very Chinese.” He nodded furiously.