It’s an early December afternoon in Beijing. The first snow hasn’t completely melted and a freezing wind from Mongolia blows through the traditional hutong alleys. A handful of men on motorbikes arrive at Shichahai Lake, just a short walk from the Forbidden City.
Patches of ice float on the water. In about a month, when the ice will cover the entire surface, Beijingers and tourists will start ice skating. The men chat and laugh while removing their clothes until they’re wearing only bathing suits. Then they dive into the icy water. After another hour, the sidewalk is littered with clothes and towels like an outdoor swimming pool, and there are dozens of men swimming. Primarily retirees, some of whom are more than 90 years old, the winter swimmers have embraced this activity as a stress-relieving exercise.
Anyone can join this informal swimming club, which was created roughly three decades ago and continues to operate despite the cold and the risks. Lakes and streams are all around the city and the swimmers don’t have to bike far to find their oasis if they are willing to jump in polluted waters. If ice covers their pools, the swimmers cut holes to keep their ritual going. Drownings aren’t uncommon, but most shrug it off. “It only happens if you don’t know how to swim well, but we take care of each other” they say. Usually around two in the afternoon the areas start getting crowded. They often clean their swimming spaces, making sure they’re free of leaves and garbage left behind by passersby. While someone handles the day’s cleaning duties, others perform their stretches while smoking one last cigarette before jumping in the water.
Beijing authorities aren’t fond of the activity, but the swimmers are undeterred by the “No Swimming” signs and the police warnings. While Beijing remains obsessed with “modernizing” and consumerism increasingly takes hold, the swimming club and its members strolling around in speedos and diving into polluted waters represent an ode to strong social ties and simpler times in the not-so-distant past.
About the author:
Martina Albertazzi started her career at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, where in 2010 she earned a master’s degree in journalism. After a few years working as a freelance reporter in the U.S. and Italy she began to specialize in photojournalism.
In 2015 she completed the VII Masterclass in Milan, a seven month mentorship for emerging documentary photographers. She’s now based between China and Turkey where she works on assignments and long-term projects.