IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

China’s ice swimmers splash through winter

Harbin,  China,  is a hot destination when it’s cold, drawing millions of tourists each year to witness ice swimming.
A man dives into the icy Songhua River near Harbin, in northern China, on Saturday. Swimmers take to the frigid water as part of a twice-daily show where performers ham it up before splashing down.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s so cold it hurts to breathe, but Wu Jing wears only a purple swimsuit and ruby-red high heels as she struts around a pool cut into river ice two feet thick.

In minutes, she will join a dozen other swimmers in the frigid Songhua River, part of a twice-daily show where performers ham it up on diving boards made of ice blocks covered in hemp sacks before splashing into an 80-foot by 30-foot hole cut in the ice.

Wu waves to warmly dressed people who paid the equivalent of $3.50 each to watch the show. It’s zero degrees Fahrenheit under the morning sun.

“How are you today?” she calls, smiling and tossing her long black hair as the spectators snap photos. “Welcome!”

Harbin is a hot destination when it’s cold, drawing millions of tourists each year to a winter festival whose highlights include replicas of world monuments painstakingly modeled out of ice. Think Arc de Triomphe and Big Ben lookalikes.

There’s an ice carving competition, a Siberian tiger park, sledding and a restaurant made of ice, where customers cook meat and vegetables in boiling broth at the table.

Then there’s ice swimming in the Songhua.

Growing popularity
Winter swimming began in China in the late 1940s and has unexpectedly taken off, said Lin Senlin of the China National Swimming Association’s Winter Swimming Committee. He said there are now about 200,000 registered amateur ice swimmers in China — mostly retirees — although there are likely more unofficial participants.

“It’s become more and more popular each year,” Lin said.

The purported health benefits are the main draw, he asserted: “Through practice, diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease can be eased, even cured.”

There are annual winter swimming championships and even international competitions that spotlight interest in ice swimming in parts of the United States, Canada, Finland and Russia.

Unlike other Chinese and foreign cities where people get together informally for “polar bear swims,” there’s a fee to watch the swimmers in Harbin.

With an announcer yelling a running commentary through a megaphone, the show is short — and a bit anticlimactic.

The swimmers, mostly aged 50 to 70, jog out from a rundown building, stretching and flailing their arms. Some wear white swim caps with the Chinese flag. Others have canvas shoes and rubber gloves.

A brief, chilly show
One by one, they jump, dive or slowly climb down a ladder into the water. They dip their faces in, blowing and sputtering like whales.

They climb out after swimming a length or two, staying in a minute and a half at the most. And the show is over.

“It’s not that great but the participants are old, not young. It’s very touching,” said Zhai Shanshan, a 30-year-old tourist.

The Harbin swimmers perform between December and March, and are paid 75 cents for each show. One of the rare times the show was disrupted was in November, when a toxic chemical spill polluted the Songhua, forcing officials to cut off running water to the city for five days.

Wu Jing, the 52-year-old “Queen of Ice Swimming,” said the activity helped her get over a divorce and realize her lifelong dream of being in the spotlight.

“At first, it helped me to get rid of my bad mood. Then I felt it was good for my health and good for society,” said Wu, who wears thick mascara and a slash of bright red lipstick.

‘It gets the adrenaline going’
She said she got her nickname from Russian ice swimmers when she beat them in a competition in the 1990s.

For 78-year-old Fan Xuetong, ice swimming is the best way to “raise the body’s resistance.”

“It gets the adrenaline going, it makes me feel good,” said Fan, who bundled up in a thick towel after the show. “We are all healthy. We don’t get sick.”

Yuan Hongbo, 70, has been ice swimming for 20 years, and drinks warm milk before going in.

“It heals people. I used to have rheumatism,” said Yuan. “When you first get in, it’s very cold. Then after a while, it feels comfortable.”