China tourism: Crossing the new glass bridges.

Tourism sites in the central Henan and Hunan provinces have been constructing vertigo- inducing skywalks in a bid to attract visitors. And it seems to have worked, attracting thrill-
seeking tourists and locals, all wanting a chance
to experience a bird’s eye view of the Chinese
countryside. One of them is student Li Shu Zhen, 19, from
Hangzhou city. She shared with the BBC her experience of
climbing the Brave Man’s Bridge in Pingjiang
county, Hunan province. “You look down and feel a sense of fear, but
you quickly recover from that and enjoy the
scenery,” she said. “It was beautiful, almost as if one was walking
on air.” The fully transparent bridge, which measures
300m long (984ft) and 180m high, first opened
to the public in September. It is one of the more popular bridges, with
events – like mass yoga displays – often being
staged on it. Local officials say that glass panels were
designed to withstand high winds and
earthquakes, as well as the “weight of 800
visitors”. Glass bridge fever has also spread to
neighbouring Taiwan, where a 179m-high
bridge opened in Nantou county. ‘Even if the glass breaks’ Construction on the latest bridge, touted as the
world’s longest glass-bottomed walkway, is also
nearing completion. Standing at 300m high and stretching 375m, the
bridge will hang above the Zhangjiajie grand
canyon, also in Hunan province. Gearing up for the bridge’s 2016 opening,
officials have even enlisted the public’s help in
naming it. One of its engineers, Yang Guohong, from
state-owned China Railway Major Bridge
Reconnaissance and Design Institute, said
contractors had taken extra safety precautions. “No matter how the tourists jump on the
bridge, it will still be fine,” he told the People’s Daily newspaper. “The steel structures beneath it are incredibly
dense, so even if the glass breaks, visitors won’t
fall through.” But architects who spoke to the BBC said that
such glass bridges were often “primarily a
novelty, built as visitor attractions rather than
commuter bridges”. Architect Keith Brownlie, who was involved in a
glass bridge for The London Science Museum,
said that the appeal was “thrill”. “It is the relationship between emotionally
driven fear and the logical understanding of
safety,” he said. “These structures tread the
boundary between those two contrasting senses
and people like to challenge their rational mind
in relation to their irrational fear.” Others felt that the bridges symbolised
extravagance, especially in China. “In architecture, glass has always been
associated with luxury and often as a display of
wealth,” said bridge designer Ezra Groskin. “Glass floor panels, used in the creation of
invisible architecture, are not a new
phenomenon. However its use is often restricted
due to cost and practicality.” Shattered nerves But how safe are China’s glass bridges? An incident in October sent terrified visitors
fleeing in fear after part of a glass skywalk in
Henan province’s Yuntai Mountain Geological
Park cracked, despite only being open for two
weeks. Park officials closed the walkway immediately,
later saying there was “no reason for worry” and
that the cracks had “no impact on safety”. But experts questioned the use of glass in an
exposed mountain environment. “While a glass structure designed by a
competent engineer and manufactured by a
specialist contractor has no greater risk in terms
of structural integrity than any other building
material, glass can be prone to localised
shocks,” noted architect Adam Holicska. “The use of it in a mountain environment where
there is a potential risk of rock impact can
make it a questionable choice.” Architect Keith Brownlie added that the
cleaning of glass panels and lack of slip
resistance should also be considered in such an
environment. “One issue with glass decks is the problem of
grip,” he said. “Glass is slippery and so anti-slip
properties must be provided,” “Please, no more such bridges,” commented a
user on China’s popular micro-blogging site
Weibo. “Judging from this incident, it is only a
matter of time before more serious accidents
and deaths occur.” But glass bridge enthusiasts remain undeterred. “I still would not hesitate to visit other glass
bridges soon,” Ms Li admitted. Other netizens on the site also expressed similar
opinions. “I am confident that officials will step up
additional measures after that happened,” said
one Weibo user. “Thankfully deaths were avoided but one bad
incident should not put one off from
conquering such a spectacular bridge.” Another compared it to other bridges of the
world: “If Sydney’s Harbour Bridge experienced
a crack, I doubt government officials would
close it down. So we should not let such an
episode affect our opinions about our unique
Chinese structures.”

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