Crippling Fear on a Crumbling Wall – A Great Wall Story by Ashley Dubois

My name is Ashley, and I have a serious fear of heights. Before I tell you my story, I already know what some of you will say: “Everyone is afraid of heights”. “Being afraid of heights is nature’s way to keep you safe”.  If I were only afraid of heights which would injure or kill me, I may be inclined to agree. However absolutely nothing feels natural about being 6 feet off the ground and feeling my body overheat while the sound of my heartbeat roars in my ears and my body feels frozen in place. Unfortunately this fear strikes during the most mundane tasks such as cleaning the windows while standing on a chair, climbing into my loft bed and especially on the giant escalators leading into Shenzhen North Station (where I follow the “hold the handrail” guidelines perfectly).

This year my partner Brian and I decided to visit the Great Wall. I thought it would be a “daring adventure” but that I would be fine because every image of the Great Wall I’ve seen, has a protective barrier between me, and what I imagine is a bumpy fall to one’s death.  “If a barrier separates me from the potential fall” I thought, “I should be able to do this. I’m certainly not missing out on a Wonder of the World because I’m afraid I may fall off it.” So we packed up our backpacks and bought tickets to Mutianyu.

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Mutianyu is one of the best-preserved sections of the Great Wall and I was attracted to this section due to the prevalence of watch towers along the wall (23 in total).  Hilariously, this attraction would also be the cause of most of my struggle.  When we arrived at the bottom of the wall our tour group decided it would be best to purchase the gondola tickets and ride up to the wall instead of walking.  As we began ascending I closed my eyes and tried to play elevator music in my mind. “Just a giant elevator” I told myself, “you ride elevators every day”. Curiosity got the best of me and I peeked as we approached the docking station. The views were breathtaking, I just made sure not to look down.  The wall itself seemed fine at first.  The barrier wall were slightly shorter than I was, and I had very safe-feeling little gaps in the wall to admire the views along the way.  The trouble for me started when we got to one of the watch towers I was so excited to see.

Looking Out

The stairs leading in to the watchtower were surrounded on both sides by a stone guardrail.  However once we were finished looking around inside and wanted to continue walking along the wall I noticed that to my horror, the exit stairs were not. The natural terrain had dipped and the wall was rising and falling to compensate, but this meant that the staircase that I needed to go down was about 8 feet above the ground.

Suddenly there it was, that familiar sound: “THUMP THUMP THUMP”. My heartbeat was speeding up and I felt my cheeks flush both from embarrassment and from the heat wave overtaking me. Brian took one look at my situation and knew this would be an issue. Impatient people were building up behind me and I was frozen by fear in the narrow doorway. He tried to show me the staircase would be “no big deal” by walking down a few steps and extending a hand to guide me down to him. I may have taken it and made it through this situation with a quick leap of faith, but a child pushed past me and I pulled back my hand and gripped the wall “for dear life”. I made the mistake of looking down over the edge and I must have turned as pale as a glass of milk because the old Chinese woman trying to make her way down the steps took a second glance and realized I was struggling.

At first she laughed at me and pointed out to every other person behind me that I was scared of walking down the steps. Even I found the situation a little funny as I heard the group laughing at the silly foreigner, and shouting words of encouragement.  The old lady motioned to Brian and with his extended hand for support and her forcefully taking my arm, I made it down the steps alive.  We all had a good laugh at the bottom, and several locals asked me to look afraid and stand near the steps so they could take a photo.

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