BEIJING // It is -5C on a sunny Saturday afternoon and Li Xianting, 55, an army officer, is wearing nothing more than swimming trunks, a swim hat and a pair of goggles. After a quick five-minute warm up, he dives head first into the icy waters of a Beijing river, swims a quick lap and climbs out again. "Now for the best part," he says, a smile on his face, his body bright red and numb from the cold.
"The next five minutes are the most pleasant, when the blood rushes back to the limbs," he says, strolling along the river - still dressed only in his trunks. Mr Li is one of a growing number of Beijing residents who take daily dips in the city's frozen lakes. They smash a lane through the ice and then swim in the icy waters. The tradition has always been popular in the north of China, and health benefits are said to range from curing arthritis to insomnia, depression and colds.
"Ice swimming helps fights heart attacks and high blood pressure," says Li Lin, who runs an informal ice swimmers' club in the capital with about 3,000 members. "Cold water stops the blood from clotting." Though scientific research has still to prove such a theory, medically it is thought that the shock of contact with the cold water produces a hormone called beta-endorphin known to enhance well-being.
Li Xianting has been swimming every day - in winter and summer - since 1979 and boasts of never having fallen seriously ill. Like all of the ice-swimmers gathered around the lake, Mr Li certainly looks fit for his age. While the weather this winter has been particularly fierce, with some very heavy snowfalls, few people say it has changed their behaviour. "Most people who bother to come are experienced," says Li Xianting, who can only remember one or two people having died while ice swimming - one who drowned and the other had a heart attack.
There does, however, seem to be a few unwritten safety rules among the swimmers, such as not staying in the water for more than one minute if the outside temperature is below 2C. "Swimming when it is too cold uses too much energy," says Shou Chen, one of the few women who swims. She says she goes out for a swim every couple of days. Ice swimming starts at the end of December when the ice starts to form on the lakes until it thaws in March. Most of the regulars start swimming every day from the autumn to get used to the cold water. "If you are fit and ready, there really is no problem," says Li Xianting, who says he hardly feels the cold anymore.
The police, however, take a different view and have declared ice swimming illegal. Though they often turn a blind eye to the swimmers, they have recently clamped down on popular spots such as Houhai Lake in the centre of the city. Part of Li Lin's job is to deal with the police. "They want the swimmers to swim in a pool but there are only two winter outdoor pools available in Beijing, and the people prefer to swim in a lake, it's part of the experience."
To try to avoid the authorities, Li Lin often sends his members to the outskirts of Beijing, to a lake just outside the Summer Palace, where as many as 100 people stop by for a dip each day. The most popular time is 6am when the water is at its coldest. Though most winter swimmers tend to be older than 50, a younger generation appears to be seeing its benefits. "The activity has picked up in recent years even with younger swimmers as the population starts to feel the stress of a more hectic lifestyle," says Li Lin.
But for many in their twenties and thirties, there is also the element of showmanship. There is always a crowd gathering and shouts of admiration for the swimmer who stays in the longest. Wang Xin, 26, was the youngest swimmer on a recent Saturday and came with his girlfriend, who was taking pictures of his swim. Unlike his elder peers, he only comes once a week and does admit that the first few seconds in the water are "terrible".
As his body hits the icy waters, he is unable to stifle a cry. * The National