‘Wild Swimming’ in Forbidden Beijing Offers a Refreshing Escape from the Rules

BEIJING. Beneath a curved concrete overpass, behind a wall of green fence, surrounded by traffic noise, a swimming pool beckons in the heart of Beijing.

The water, a thin stream that flows along Beijing’s often congested inner ring road, may not seem like an ideal place to swim. A vaguely oily algae floats on its surface. A little harsh in places.

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

The shore is lined with willows, and the concrete ledge conveniently serves as a diving platform. And some regulars have made the hideout their own, setting up chairs, a cream leather sofa, and even a makeshift shower room made from plastic water jugs tied to a barn beam.

Every day, from early morning until nightfall, two dozen or so people come and go from this unlikely sanctuary, one of several places for what the locals sometimes call “wildlife swimming.” They sunbathe, gossip, eat takeaway – and, of course, swim. The bravest come here all year round, even when the temperature in Beijing drops below zero, with ice picks.

The crowd is mostly elderly, mostly men. But it’s wild, anyone can join.

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

Beijing, this vast, concrete, highly regulated metropolis, is not exactly known for natural sanctuaries or the kind of rule-breaking that occurs in them. Bathing policy in urban waterways is vague unless there are outright prohibitions. But these swimming holes have been an integral part of city life for decades, thanks in large part to long-time Beijingers who simply cannot be kept away.

And during the coronavirus pandemic, when the government imposed controls after social distancing, they have become an even greater refuge. Indoor pools have been closed for several weeks due to a new outbreak in Beijing last month. Although they are now reopened, many have retained restrictions.

Technically the rivers should have been banned too – hence the green fencing that was erected during the new outbreak and remained in place even after the cases dropped. But you wouldn’t recognize him from the crowd.

“If there are no conditions, then you create the conditions,” said the lady. Zhang, who volunteered on a hot Monday afternoon as a swimming coach for her 8-year-old grandson and several of his friends.

Prior to the pandemic, many Beijing parents would not have allowed their children to swim outdoors for fear that the water would be dirty, she said. But closing the pools left no other options, and Ms. Zhang said she was glad that now more children can experience what she had when she was growing up in the capital.

Stopwatch in hand, between barking commands: “Six laps! Head under water, no cheating” – Ms. Zhang rattled off the virtues: it was free, there were no set hours, and swimming under a roof was depressing.

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

In the mid-20th century, an official water purification campaign led to the creation of several “outdoor pools”, some in the city’s lakes. But rapid development, as well as safety and hygiene concerns, eventually led to their closure. In 2003, the Parks Department officially banned swimming in places not designated for this, although even officials are not always sure where you can and where you can’t.

State media regularly publish articles warning about the dangers of drowning, and several people die in outdoor swimming pools each year. Other complaints are more aesthetic: one critic told The Beijing News that swimmers “blocked the view” in the parks, spoiling the photos.

But in this protracted battle, the swimmers proved to be the more determined side. After the 2003 rule was introduced, a professor of Marxist philosophy at Minzu University in Beijing wrote passionate column in the local newspaper.

“City authorities have seriously infringed on the basic right of citizens: the pursuit of happiness,” she wrote. “Everyone says that the ducks swimming in the lake are beautiful. Are the people who bathe in the lake ugly? Aren’t people as beautiful as ducks?”

periodic dismantling makeshift locker rooms and swimmer ladders did little by city officials to keep people from coming back. Announcements over loudspeakers also do not scare away.

Even though China’s tough anti-virus policy has changed almost every other aspect of everyday life… locking residents in housessupercharging government surveillanceshrinking an already tiny space for dissent – the authorities appear to have made little headway in managing these swimming spaces.

This may be partly due to the relatively low rates for water activities by some retirees. But it also speaks to the strength of their stubborn enthusiasm.

Along the Liangma River, which flows through one of the city’s embassy districts, the authorities in May installed not only a fence, but also several metal screens with signs expressly prohibiting swimming. But on a recent Saturday afternoon, about a dozen men were swinging in the water.

One swimmer in a silver cap brought a pipe. The other wore swimming trunks, blue on one arm and pink on the other. Several park guards passed by but didn’t stop.

Further west, at a spot below the flyover, the swimmers essentially included the fence in their adventure. To get from the street to their platform, they drag themselves over the end of a makeshift wall that stretches all the way to the water’s edge, hanging over the water for a moment before jumping off to the other side.

Yu Hui, a wiry retiree who worked in the public relations department, missed this technique on his way to the exit, opting instead to climb straight over another section of the fence. He landed successfully.

“It’s just for fun,” he said of his day. “Nothing to do at home.”

mr. You, who said you swam in Xihai, a lake northwest of the Forbidden City, as a child, explained that different swimming spots have different reputations. This one, under the overpass, was intended for a more down-to-earth audience, while retired high-ranking officials traveled on Bailly Lake. The Liangma River attracted foreigners.

Recently, a once-rare species has become more frequent in and around waterways: young people looking for alternative activities when many of Beijing’s bars are still closed and travel out of the city is restricted. While some of these first-timers dive into the water on kayaks or inflatable rafts, others simply enjoy on the sidelines, having picnics, lounging in the sun, or sipping takeaway cocktails.

Some of the sailing regulars, such as Ms. Zhang said they hope more young people will be converted. A few old-timers lamented that the newcomers would never know how much better it was in their youth, when Beijing was less regulated, less commercialized.

Qi Guan, an office worker in his 30s, pumped up a kayak on Tuesday afternoon, a little further away from the swimmers. Usually the work was too busy and on the weekends he would drive to the big rivers on the outskirts of the city, but since working from home was encouraged due to Covid, he figured he could sneak in for a shorter walk.

That day, he said, was his first boat ride in the city center and was still suspicious of the quality of the water. “I didn’t spend much time on the water in the city because I still don’t trust her very much,” he said. But he couldn’t deny his curiosity after seeing so many others kayaking lately: “They sucked me in.”

Liu Yi contributed to research.