Like many millennial travellers, I sometimes pick my vacation destinations based on something I see on the internet. Such was the case with a recent trip to China.
After seeing viral video after viral video of terrified tourists crawling over a futuristic glass bridge spanning a verdant gorge, I decided I had to visit.
Opened in 2016, the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge in Hunan, China is the tallest and longest glass bridge in the world. The walkway sits 980 feet (298.7m) above the canyon floor and is more than 1400 feet (426.7m) long.
It had been billed as both breathtakingly beautiful and thrilling – a place, some might say, to get the ultimate selfie.
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Soon after arriving, I learned a hard lesson in the difference between the glossy photos and videos of travel media and the reality for the average tourist.
Here’s what it was like:
HIGHEST BRIDGES/WIKIMEDIA COMMON
The Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge is located in the mountainous province of Hunan in southern China. It’s a 45-minute bus ride from Wulingyuan, a scenic town at the base of the stunning Wuling Mountain Range, where most tourists stay.
The Wuling Mountain Range is known for its 3000 quartzite sandstone pillars that look like floating mountains on a misty day. While I was excited to see that, I jumped at the chance to see the bridge. It looked like an architectural marvel on top of China’s Grand Canyon.
We arrived at the bridge a little after noon to a very heavy security procedure – x-ray machine, metal detector, and pat-down. It was extremely lucky that I happened to have our passports, which were required for entry, in my backpack. What wasn’t lucky was that the security person informed me (in Mandarin, which I don’t speak), that I couldn’t bring my backpack or my camera.
But the lockers didn’t accept cash or credit card, only WeChat Pay or AliPay, the two ubiquitous mobile-payment apps only open to those with a Chinese bank card. I ended up giving cash to the locker room attendant, who used her WePay account to secure a locker for me. If she disappeared, I would have no way to prove the US$1500 ($2132) camera in C21 was mine. She told me to be back by 6pm – when she got off her shift.
The second time through security was a cinch, but at the ticket window, we found two new problems. The ticket for the Glass Bridge cost 138¥ ($30.90), while the ticket for the Grand Canyon on the other side cost an additional 118¥ ($26.48). Keep in mind that a cheap meal in the area probably runs about 15-30¥.
The ticket counter only accepted cash, WePay/AliPay, or UnionPay (China’s national debit card). We only had enough cash for the bridge alone, which would have been OK except that if you don’t buy the combined bridge/Grand Canyon ticket, you can’t go on the bridge until 4.30pm — 3.5 hours from then — and you can’t buy the ticket until 3.30pm.
The ATMs we found weren’t even plugged in, so we resigned ourselves to waiting 2.5 hours until we could buy the tickets. We strolled through the main building, which reminded me of the building where the park staff live in Westworld or Jurassic Park. The gift shop was surprisingly full of chic clothing, rather than the usual crap.
There wasn’t much to do but stare out the window for a peek at that glorious glass bridge. Fun fact: Officials closed the bridge one month after opening when it started receiving 80,000 (mostly Chinese) tourists per day. The owners improved the facility’s infrastructure and added turnstiles to limit the number of visitors to 800 at a time and 8000 per day.
Everyone who visits receives a time-slot to visit the bridge. But for those only going to the bridge, and not the Grand Canyon, the only time-slot is 4.30pm. That meant there were a lot of people sleeping and scrolling through social media in the waiting room. Yours truly, included.
At 3.20pm we ran to the ticket counter. We got in the line for the ticket attendant we had already spoken to, but as we did, tour guides kept pushing in front of us to pick up 40 or 50 tickets a piece for their group. With the time-slot maxed out at 800, I was worried we wouldn’t even get a ticket.
After muscling our way past the third tour guide, we got the ticket attendant’s attention. It was only 3.30pm but we were late, she said. When I went down the escalator, I saw why. There were already at least 600 people in line waiting, mostly from tour groups. The line circled the the entire building.
When the clock hit 4pm the tourists in line bum-rushed the turnstiles. It was mayhem.
We were packed into a new line like sardines. The line passed through a outdoor stretch, and continued into another building just outside the foot of the bridge, where it snaked up and down several times. It would have been adrenaline-inducing for any claustrophobic thrill-seekers.
Before going out onto the bridge, we were handed a pair of rubber-padded booties to put over our shoes. It was at this point that I learned why I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera. Apparently, officials were worried that any large objects (cameras, drones, backpacks, etc) might crack the bridge. I suspect the large crowds had something to do with it as well.
Once you have your booties, you walk up stairs into a kind of amphitheatre looking out onto the bridge. Admittedly, the bridge is pretty spectacular. It was designed by Israeli architect Haim Dotan and Chinese engineer Zhi Dong Cheng.
But before I could get on the bridge, I had to put on my booties. The bridge’s floor is made of 99 panels of multi-layered glass 23.6 inches (59.94cm) thick. The booties protect the glass from scuffing … in theory.
At US$74.6 million ($106 million) to build, the bridge is beautifully designed. It tapers from 50 feet (15.2m) at the ends to 19.6 feet (5.97m) in the centre. The narrowing was achieved by curving the main support cables inward, allowing the smaller cables to splay out in its iconic butterfly formation. It’s all very cool … but even with only 800 people allowed on the bridge at a time, it feels packed. Few people are simply walking on the bridge or taking in the view.
Just about everyone is trying to do the same thing – take a selfie on the glass-bottomed floor so it looks like they are floating. You are constantly navigating around the people sitting or laying on the glass. Which means, you can’t do much looking through the glass before someone comes and sits down on the open space.
Not to mention that the glass panels are scuffed up to the point where you are mostly looking at scratches and reflections when you look down anyways.
The panels directly in the middle of the bridge (the highest point) were covered up. I’m not sure if its because they were working on them, or if they are always that way. Below the centre, there is a platform for “the world’s highest bungee jump”, but I didn’t see anyone opting for that thrill ride.
The scenery is gorgeous. There is little like China’s granite mountains carpeted with lush green vegetation.
When I got to the far end of the bridge – where the panels were slightly less scuffed – I got a bit of the vertigo-induced sweaty palms-feeling that I thought would be my dominant experience at the bridge. It was a trip.
I can’t say enough about the view. It was a perfect day — breezy, sunny, and around 72 degrees (22.2 degrees Celsius). But we were there in April, and peak season for Zhangjiajie is during the hot, humid summer months when the temperature picks up to 83 degrees Fahrenheit (28.3C) or higher. I can’t imagine it then.
I sprinted back to the locker room attendant to pick up my camera minutes before 6pm. The next day, at the breathtaking mountains of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, I regretted that I didn’t just spend an extra day exploring the magical stone pillars that far outshined anything the glass bridge had to offer. It should have been obvious from the viral videos, but this was one big tourist trap.