A Chilly Fall Day? Perfect for a Swim

The first time I visited Beijing, almost two years ago, I had no idea about the existence of Sichahai, the three interconnected lakes just northwest of the city’s imperial heart. Built more than 800 years ago during the Jin Dynasty, the lakes later became the northern end of the Grand Canal, a 1,700-kilometre waterway that was for centuries the backbone of China’s economy. Today, they are one of the most beautiful spots in Beijing, ringed by willow trees and ancient buildings.

As lovely as they are, though, what makes them so memorable is not the scenery so much as the way they remain the setting for ordinary Beijing life. Walk north along the banks of Houhai, the largest of the three lakes, and you’ll pass by cycling hutong dwellers, people practising tai chi and playing traditional instruments. What stood out to me the first time I visited were the swimmers. It was early March and there was still ice on the lakes, so I was astonished to see a group of men emerge from the frigid water in tiny bathing suits, their skin as red as cooked lobsters.

I was back in Beijing this weekend and, sure enough, a walk around Houhai revealed half a dozen swimmers lingering by the shore, preparing to dive into the water. It was chilly enough for me to be wearing a jacket and a scarf, but they were dressed in nothing but short, tight-fitting swimsuits. One old man’s trunks were so short that, when he started his warm-up by doing some squats, his most sensitive parts were left dangling. (The expression “balls out” might be used to describe anyone brave enough to swim in such cold water, but in this case it took on a much too literal meaning.) After diving in the water, the swimmers did a few quick laps while their friends heckled them from the shore.

Most observers have the same reaction: “Is that water filthy?” Given China’s track record of environmental stewardship, there’s certainly no reason to believe it isn’t. (One of my friend’s fathers, who grew up in the Chinese city of Shenyang, used to swim in a lake in the centre of town until he learned that all of the city’s hospitals disposed of their waste in it.) But the swimmers don’t seem to mind. Winter swimming has taken place in Houhai since the early 1970s, according to the New York Times, and there are now more than a thousand people who do it regularly. “The water kind of smells,” said one. “There are no places that are really clean in Beijing to swim outside. We’ve just gotten used to that.”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday November 16 2010at 12:11 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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