‘Wild Swimming’ in Restricted Beijing Offers Refreshing Break From Rules

BEIJING — Beneath a curving concrete overpass, behind a wall of green fencing, surrounded by the roar of traffic, a swimming hole beckons in the heart of Beijing.

The water, a slim current running along Beijing’s often-congested innermost ring road, may not look like an ideal spot for a dip. Vaguely oily-looking algae drifts on its surface. In places, it is a bit pungent.

But for those in the know, it’s an oasis.

The shore is lined with willows, and a concrete ledge doubles conveniently as a diving platform. And some regulars have made the hideaway their own: They have set up chairs, a cream pleather couch and even a makeshift shower station of plastic water jugs strapped to the beam of a shed.

Every day, from early morning until dark, two dozen or so people filter in and out of this unlikely retreat, one of several destinations for what is sometimes locally called “wild swimming.” They sunbathe, gossip, eat takeout — and, of course, swim. The bravest arrive year-round, even when Beijing temperatures plunge below freezing, with knives for breaking up the ice.

The crowd is mostly older, mostly male. But this being the wild, anyone can join.

“There’s no ‘allowed’ or ‘not allowed.’ There are no bricks or stairs. But if you have abilities like the Monkey King, then you just go on down,” said Zhang Xiaojie, a retiree in her 60s, referring to the mythical Chinese simian hero — and to the precarious approach to the water.

Beijing, this sprawling, concrete, highly regulated metropolis, is not exactly known for natural refuges, nor for the kind of rule-bending that takes place in them. The policies around swimming in the city’s waterways are fuzzy, when there are not outright bans. But these swimming holes have been fixtures of city life for decades, thanks in large part to the longtime Beijingers who just won’t be kept away.

And during the coronavirus pandemic, as the government has imposed control after social distancing control, they have become even more of a sanctuary. Indoor pools were closed for weeks amid a new flare-up of infections in Beijing last month. Though now reopened, many have maintained restrictions.

Technically, rivers were supposed to be off-limits, too — hence the green fencing, which was erected during the new outbreak and remained in place even as cases fell. But you wouldn’t know it from the crowd.

“If the conditions don’t exist, then you create the conditions,” said Ms. Zhang, who was volunteering on a hot Monday afternoon as a swim coach for her 8-year-old grandson and several of his friends.

Before the pandemic, many Beijing parents would have hesitated to allow their children to swim outdoors, worrying that the water was dirty, she said. But the pool closures had left no other options, and Ms. Zhang said she was glad that more children could now experience what she had when she was growing up in the capital.

Stopwatch in hand, between barked orders — “Six laps! Head underwater, no cheating” — Ms. Zhang rattled off the virtues: It was free, there were no set hours and swimming under a roof felt oppressive.

Open water has always been a precious, and contested, commodity in landlocked Beijing, which, until the 1930s, had only three swimming pools.

In the mid-20th century, an official water treatment campaign led to the creation of several “open-air swimming pools,” some in city lakes. But rapid development, as well as safety and hygiene concerns, eventually led to their closures. In 2003, the parks department officially prohibited swimming in non-designated areas, though even officials aren’t always sure where it’s OK and where it’s not.

State-owned media outlets regularly print articles warning about the danger of drowning, and there are several deaths each year in outdoor swimming areas. Other complaints are more aesthetic: One critic told The Beijing News that swimmers “blocked the view” in parks, ruining photographs.

But in this long-running battle, the swimmers have proved the more determined side. After the 2003 rule was introduced, a professor of Marxist philosophy at Minzu University in Beijing wrote an impassioned column in a local paper.

“The city government has seriously infringed upon citizens’ basic right: the pursuit of happiness,” she wrote. “Everybody says that ducks swimming in a lake are beautiful. Are people swimming in a lake not beautiful? Could it be that people are not as beautiful as ducks?”

The periodic dismantling by city officials of swimmers’ makeshift changing rooms and ladders has done little to keep people from coming back. Loudspeaker announcements don’t dissuade, either.

Even as China’s hard-line virus control polices have transformed virtually every other aspect of daily life — locking residents in their homes, supercharging government surveillance, shrinking the already tiny space for dissent — the authorities seem to have had little success governing these swimming spaces.

That may be, in part, because of the relatively low stakes of some retirees’ aquatic diversions. But it also speaks to the strength of their stubborn enthusiasm.

Along the Liangma River, which runs through one of the city’s embassy districts, officials in May erected not only fencing but also several metal screens, with signs explicitly banning swimming. But on a recent Saturday afternoon, about a dozen men were bobbing in the water.

One swimmer, in a silver cap, had brought a snorkel. Another wore floaties, blue on one arm, pink on the other. Several park security guards walked by but did not stop.

Farther west, at the spot beneath the overpass, swimmers have essentially incorporated the fencing there into their adventure. To get from the street to their platform, they haul themselves around the end of a makeshift wall that runs all the way to the water’s edge, momentarily dangling over the water before jumping down to the other side.

You Hui, a wiry retiree who worked in public relations, skipped that technique on his way out, opting instead to clamber directly over the top of a different section of fencing. He landed with a flourish.

“It’s just for fun,” he said of his day out. “There’s nothing to do staying at home.”

Mr. You, who said he had swum as a child at Xihai, a lake northwest of the Forbidden City, explained that different swimming holes had different reputations. This one under the overpass was for a more down-to-earth crowd, whereas Bayi Lake was where retired high-ranking officials went. Liangma River attracted foreigners.

Recently, a once-rare species has appeared more frequently in and around the waterways: young people, looking for alternative activities with many of Beijing’s bars still closed and travel out of the city restricted. While some of these newcomers hit the water on stand-up paddleboards or blowup rafts, others simply revel on the sidelines, picnicking, lounging in the sun or drinking takeout cocktails.

Some of the swimming regulars, like Ms. Zhang, said they hoped more young people would be converted. A few old-timers lamented that those new to scene would never know how much better it was in their younger days, when Beijing was less regulated, less commercialized.

Key Guan, an office worker in his 30s, was inflating a kayak on a Tuesday afternoon, a little way down from the swimmers. Normally, work was too busy, and on weekends he would go to bigger rivers on the city outskirts, but with working from home encouraged because of Covid, he decided he could sneak in a shorter outing.

That day was his first time boating inside the city center, he said, and he was still leery of the water quality. “I haven’t spent much time on the water in the city because I still don’t really trust it,” he said. But he could not deny his curiosity, after seeing so many others paddleboarding there recently: “They sucked me in.”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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