Born in Italy in 1983, Martina Albertazzi started her career at the University of Rome, where in 2010 she earned a Master's Degree in Journalism. After a few years working as a freelance reporter in Italy and in...
It’s an early afternoon in central Beijing where the first snow hasn’t completely melted and a cold, sharp wind is blowing in from the north. A handful of men on motorbikes arrive at Houhai Lake. They 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. These are the winter swimmers of Beijing. Primarily retirees, some of whom are more than 90 years old, they have embraced the winter swim as a stress-relieving exercise. An informal swimming club, which anyone can join, was created roughly three decades ago, and it continues to operate despite the cold and the risks. If ice covers the water, the swimmers cut holes in the city lakes or rivers 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. 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.