Things to do Outdoors in Harbin. Like Swimming.

They breed'em tough in far northern China. This pair of diehards are dōng yǒng 冬泳 or winter swimmers, and they're about to dive into a swimming pool cut directly from the thick ice of the frozen Song Hua River in Harbin, wearing nothing but the scantiest shreds of lycra and a swimming cap. 

Winter swimming is apparently good for your health, but possibly only if you already possess an extremely robust disposition, or you need a full-body shock now and again to let you know you're alive. Just like sticking your finger in a powerpoint, but colder.

I heard about these winter swimmers before I left Shanghai and I felt an immediate affiliation - I mean, I'm a winter swimmer myself! Winter swimmers like to pride themselves on swimming outdoors all through the winter months, because indoor swimmers in heated pools are just babies who can't take a bit of cold. Or maybe they're just sensible. One or the other.

But my winter swimming usually took place in subtropical Queensland, where a chilly winter day was about..oh.. twenty degrees celsius, or in the Pacific Ocean where the water temperature never drops below twenty four degrees. Not exactly a rugged hardship then. More like a summer vacation somewhere a bit further from the equator than Brisbane.

This sophisticated machine keeps the water churning constantly so it doesn't freeze over. Water temperature - minus five degrees celsius.
There are very cold parts of the world like Russia, Scandinavia, and China, where winter swimming actually takes place in sub-zero conditions and they have to employ all sorts of smart techniques to stop the water re-freezing. These guys are truly hard-core and can proudly call themselves 'Polar Bears', which most of them do. They even have a Winter Swimming World Championships every December!

What I didn't realise was just what a tight-knit and unique group winter swimmers are. More of a cult really, if you consider the many winter swimmers who believe that plunging into ice-cold water on a regular basis will bring you closer to God. But then again, most near-death experiences tend to do that.

According to winter swimming advocate Dr Vladimir Antonov  (a prolific writer who has written books on Atlantis and the Atlanteans and Sexology, amongst other learned classics), winter swimming can also cure a whole stack of diseases previously thought tricky to get rid of, like TB. This, from his Eco-Psychology website:

'winter swimming decreases the sickness rate for cold-type diseases 60 (!) times, and for other diseases 30 times....winter swimming can heal many diseases including radiculitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, pancreatic diabetes, chronic gastrintestinal diseases, inflammations in genitals, menstrual cycle abnormalities, dermatoses and so on [32,65]'

Try as I might I couldn't find Dr Antonov's references 32 and 65 anywhere, which is a shame because I'm sure they might have made for interesting reading. He does caution that swimming 'in water with temperature over 8 degrees...may even cause untrained individuals to catch cold'. So take care, and only swim in the really icy stuff. 

Back to China though, where life is much more pragmatic and a whole lot less spiritual. These guys swim in winter, yes, and they do believe it's good for your health....but they're only getting in the water if you pay them quite a lot of money. Totally sensible, like a paid dare really. The rest of the time they're sitting in a cosy heated cabin drinking hot tea and waiting for guileless tourists like us to happen along.

This guy is the official swim pimp. For only 200 yuan (about $30) he said he could arrange for someone to swim for us. We bantered the price back and forth, but when my husband opened his wallet there was only 120 yuan inside. He snatched it quickly and shuffled on the slippery ice back to the heated cabin, to break the good news to the swimmer. 

In the end though, we got two swimmers for our money, a man in his sixties and a younger woman. They strode out of the cabin without robes, looking for all the world like they really enjoyed this stuff, hamming it up with crazy poses and growls of bravery. Neither of them popped a single goosebump the entire time, perhaps an indication they're genetically suited to winter swimming.

I was alarmed to see they were planning to dive from the not-very-sturdy diving platform, a feat worth every yuan of the danger money we were paying. The platform was constructed from tent poles and a few planks of wood, with spindly legs embedded in the river ice, and the whole precarious contraption wobbled and swayed when the first swimmer took to the ladder.

Look at that. After diving in and swimming half a length, not a single goosebump, although I think the involuntary look of pain when he resurfaced after the dive says it all. Extraordinary.

Next, the woman climbed to the highest rung and edged out along the diving plank. At the last moment she took off her plastic slippers, positioned herself and blew us a kiss before executing a perfect dive into the water below. 


I'll make sure I think of these guys when I'm next doing my winter laps back home in Brisbane, sun shining and a balmy twenty-one winter degrees.

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