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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: August 29, 2011 NO. 35 SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
Fear at the Great Wall


"I'm not going on anything that takes me more than two feet off the ground," Grace was saying. This was classic Grace: She has a morbid fear of—well, everything actually, but in this particular case it was her phobia of heights, heights and cable cars combined specifically.

I was playing host to two of my University friends from England, and taking them on the trip up to the Great Wall. Budget and time meant the choice was between Mutianyu and Badaling. But there was no way you were going to get this girl to the most over-populated fun-fair nightmare of a tourist attraction you've ever seen, which basically left us Mutianyu. And all of Grace's fears with it.

I sighed, rolled my eyes heavenward and prayed for patience.

My friend Grace has experienced any number of fears on her journey with me: I dragged her all the way down to Moscow to come and stay with me—this is a girl who hadn't been further from the UK than France. I exposed her to third class carriages on a Russian train, scorpions, language barriers, high speed car journeys and sub-zero waters; I got her lost in the middle of Ulaan Bataar even. And yet we were still friends, and she had thoroughly relished the adventure. I wasn't going to have her quit at the easiest and most obvious part. Who on earth can say they have seen Beijing without seeing the Great Wall?

Mutianyu had the biggest pay-off: the toboggan ride! Nowhere but China would you find such an attraction, everything about it screams the culture of this country. From the sign as you approach the queue reading "tobogganing is so simple!" to the string of Chinese "attendants" dotted around the tracks, screaming at you to slow down or speed up with their arms raised, jumping up and down as you go slightly over the limit but entirely unable to do anything about it, to the wonderful backdrop of the Great Wall and faintly wet, dusty smell, the entire experience embodies being in China. Grace had never been to China and didn't know when she'd next come back.

I sold her my little tobogganing story and watched her eyes grow bigger with wonder until she let out a long sigh and relented. "Fine," she said, before getting sullenly up from the table and going into her bedroom, slamming the door. Her muffled voice followed. "But if I die from a heart attack then I hope you lead a miserable life wracked with guilt and never recover from it!"

That was a different tune to the one she was singing four days later, legs dangling several meters above the mountaintop from the rickety, chairlift that was taking us to our final destination. More precisely, the tune she was singing was "I'm a little teapot" as she kept her eyes shut and intermittently hurled abuse at Vicky. Thankfully, I'd chosen to accompany the picnic basket in the seat behind. In all honesty, it was probably the best and the worst method to help Grace conquer her fear of heights: best because we were never too high, worst because sitting in those chairlifts is like sitting on a single piece of rusting metal—you don't ever feel too safe. All that is holding you up is indeed a single piece of rusting metal, welded onto a wheelie device that rattles ominously every time you shift your weight.

Clearly though we all survived, and Grace disembarked at the top thoroughly shaken but with a renewed sense of belief in herself. The irony, however, rests in our ill-fated toboggan experience: It was not the wind in my hair, Chinese parading, simple experience I was used to. Instead we all piled up behind someone who clearly did not think tobogganing was so simple—she got the controls stuck and we moved at a snail's pace the entire way down, and all got shouted at close-up for stopping rather than being shouted at from a distance to slow down.

Grace enjoyed it. At the end when she climbed off behind me she said, "Now that was cool! If I didn't have to get that cable car up I'd do it again! You could go so fast!"

The author is a Briton living in China

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