‘It’s so warm!’ Zhang Jingzhong shouts as he resurfaces. Given the look of joy on his face and the eagerness with which he dove into Qianhai lake, it’d be easy to forget the time of year. A reality check comes in the form of a sign nearby, listing the water and air temperature on this particular day at 5°C and 1°C, respectively.
Officially, winter is about another month away, but Beijing is known for a getting a good head start. Zhang, however, is not deterred. As onlookers in puffy coats snap photos, he swims two laps, back and forth between the embankment and a small island in the middle of the lake, before emerging with a wide grin on his face and again declaring, ‘It’s so warm!’ The only thing more amazing than his physical feat? Zhang isn’t the only one doing it.
The Beijing Winter Swimming Club started around 30 years ago to provide a community for this Chinese tradition. It currently consists of 26 teams that regularly swim over the course of the winter in different locations throughout the city – despite warnings from city officials, who say it is unsafe. The cost of joining the club is nominal at 5RMB a year plus a 20RMB initial fee. Aside from this, there are no set requirements for joining. It is simply ‘advised’ that participants know how to swim and are in good enough health. While foreigners have joined the teams in the past, most of them are here on business and unable to participate regularly.
Zhang, 50, is the captain of ‘Team Hot’, one of the club’s 26 teams. ‘I’ve been winter-swimming for about 12 years, but that’s short compared to some of the other members,’ he says. ‘Many of these guys have been swimming for over 20 years.’ Team Hot has about 52 members, both men and women, mostly aged 40 to 70, but some as young as 27 and as old as 97. Usually, Team Hot meets during the late afternoon around 3pm or 4pm, after the sun has had some time to warm the water slightly, but several other teams choose to swim in the very early morning before the sun has even come up, as a way of kick-starting their day.
The process begins with basic stretching exercises. Not enough to break a sweat, but just enough to get the blood flowing. ‘It’s important that you aren’t too hot before you enter the water,’ emphasises Chen Hao, the Beijing Winter Swimming Club’s deputy director, who started swimming back in ’97. ‘Too drastic a change in body temperature can be dangerous.’ After stretching, they suit up and jump in. No hesitation. They simply dive headfirst into the frigid water.
There’s no competitive aspect to it. Some swim one lap, others two. On average, they stay in the water for about three-to-five minutes depending on how long they feel comfortable. Upon coming out, their skin is a light shade of scarlet. Instead of immediately grabbing for a towel, each member pours a large bottle of room-temperature water over themselves in order to gradually re-acclimatise their skin. They then towel off and run on the spot for another minute or so before finally changing back into their clothes. Constant movement is essential in order to avoid muscles and joints tightening up and becoming numb.
According to director Chen, winter swimming is believed to be healthy. The purported benefits include resistance to the common cold, regulating high blood pressure and arthritis, and fighting cardiovascular disease. Some more fantastic claims have gone so far as to even cite it as a treatment for cancer. ‘I’ve always liked swimming, but I never dared to swim in the winter before,’ says Liu Suping, who has been Team Hot’s assistant captain for the last two years. ‘Then, after I just kept coming ever y day, I gradually began to get used to it, and I found that it made me feel really healthy.’ Aside from Liu, some other members of the team claim to have not had a cold in over four years.
For team captain Zhang, however, just as impor tant are the benefits for one’s mental health. ‘What matters to me is the mindset and attitude that you build up by doing it regularly,’ Zhang says. ‘It’s a challenge that you have to prepare for every day and then overcome. Often, people with depression find that winter swimming helps to raise their spirits. The challenge makes you a stronger person, better able to deal with hardships and live life to the fullest.'
Ultimately, winter swimming is a social activity. ‘Everyone is equal when they swim,’ one member says. ‘It doesn’t matter what background you come from or what your social status is. Once you take off your clothes and dive in, the cold treats everyone the same.’ The smiles on the faces of Team Hot are proof enough for us. ‘Come back and watch when the lake ices over,’ Zhang adds. ‘Then it’s really fun!’
The Beijing Winter Swimming Club has teams that meet at different locations around Beijing, most days at various times. Contact Chen Hao on 136 5104 8360 for more information.