China's most terrifying theme park
At China's Chimelong Paradise theme park, there is a designated “vomit bin” positioned helpfully at the exit of a giant roller coaster, a North American Lumbering Burlesque Show featuring seemingly Russian performers, and a thrill ride called the Sky Drop, whose description wonderfully translates to “the whole trip just likes riding on a super happily jumping frog, amazingly and fantastically”.
Add to all of that a gnawing fear of the country's none-too-healthy record with Occupational Safety and Health, and China's largest amusement park is a completely unique – and terrifying – experience.
Chimelong Paradise is 13km south of Guangzhou, the third-largest city in the People's Republic. The region is better known for its countless factories than its thrill rides, and during the half-hour taxi ride from the city centre, drab apartment blocks rise and vanish from the incessant haze like dull, grey apparitions.
The landscape changes once the taxi turns off the motorway onto the 60-hectare park surrounds. The ever-present haze remains, but in place of the high-rise buildings, twisted, skeletal frames of roller coasters soar.
The massive facility has a crocodile park, circus, safari and a full-scale water park, all housed in separate areas in the facility and all available at extra cost. The theme park itself has more than 60 rides, including a Guinness World Record-holding coaster with 10 stomach-churning inversions,
When I visited, there was no one around. As I passed acres of empty car parks on the way to the large, arched entrance, I felt a bit like the only swimmer left in the water after a shark alert – was there something everyone else knew that I did not?
Running alone up pathways wide enough to hold hundreds, past giant sculptures of white tigers, I ran straight to the front of the line of the first rollercoaster I could find: the Motorbike Launch Coaster, on which the rider straddles a replica motorcycle. As I mounted this strange ride, three words formed in my head – Occupational Health and Safety. Or, rather, China's fairly abysmal record with it.
In 2001, the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were about 90,000 workplace deaths in China, accounting for almost a quarter of the world's work related fatal accidents. And in 2010, a theme park disaster in neighbouring Shenzhen killed six people and injured 10 others.
Just as I was about to back out, a safety harness clunked down and I was launched around the track for the scariest ride of my life.
The scariest, of course, until I rode the Dive Coaster, the big daddy of Chimelong Paradise. I rode in the front of the 30-person car, a decision I regretted shortly after when I was left hanging 80m off the ground, before plunging toward the earth at 120km per hour and through turns that would make a jet fighter giddy.
On exit, the punters have a choice: the vomit bag or the vomit bin. I managed to choose neither.
Those who prefer a less stressful experience are invited to take a seat and witness some of the finest, most bizarre entertainment on offer in the People's Republic: the North American Lumbering Burlesque Show. In this, two teams of suspiciously Russian-looking cowboys and girls compete against each other by throwing axes at targets, waving around large chainsaws and alternating between fist fighting and folk dancing. The promotional material promises the audiences will “harvest limitless pleasures”. It is not wrong.
To see this show, its action-packed sibling Countdown (a sort of live action film, complete with jumping jet skis and large explosions), and the rest of the main attractions, park-goers will need a whole day. There is the Sky Drop, which did not resemble a super happily jumping frog (as the translation read) as much as it did a lurching, pneumatic bouncing ball; the Halfpipe, a pedal-powered see-saw; the Superior Large Pendulum, which hoists people in the air as it spins them around and around high above the ground; and a host of other, more family-friendly rides and attractions.
It is an experience like no other to have free reign over a mostly empty theme park, with hardly anyone around who speaks English, some seriously scary roller coasters and the lurking feeling that the whole thing could collapse at any second. In reality, there is, of course, nothing to fear. Except a little nausea – but then, that is what the vomit bin is for.