Beijing, 30 March 2013

There is a famous photo of Chairman Mao swimming across the Yangtze River at Wuhan in the summer of 1966.


He joined the annual Cross-Yangtze swimming competition, which had been going since the 1930s (and continues to this day). Actually, he had already taken part in this competition twice before, in 1956 and in 1958. But this time, the locals really pulled out the stops for the Chairman, dragging this huge picture of him across the river along with a placard wishing him 10,000 years of life (I wonder if they made it to the other side or if they sank like a stone halfway across):


The photo is famous because it signaled the start of that national catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. With this swim, Mao was signaling that even though he was 72 he was still strong and healthy enough to lead the country. After it, he went up to Beijing and unleashed the Revolutionary Guards.

This photo came to my mind last weekend, when my wife and I went for a walk, which after several random turns to the left and right brought us to Qianhai lake, one of the string of small lakes that lie to the north-west of the Forbidden City. There, we came across a group of pensioners (it always seems to be pensioners; I have never seen young people doing it) who were swimming to an island in the middle of the lake and back. The poor fellows were having to contend with pesky pedalos – these in the hands of young people; much more fun than swimming – which swarm over these lakes during weekends.

Qianhai lake swimmer 001

We joined the curious crowds watching the swimmers, and I followed their progress with horrified fascination. Professional deformation made me mentally compute all the pollutants that were probably in the water and what they could be doing to the swimmers. But the waters in these lakes are actually much cleaner than the water in that stretch of canal near our apartment which I’ve written about several times in previous posts. The water there is often of a dubious hue, and the sight of dead fish floating on its surface is common. Yet even here, once the ice has gone and the weather gets a little warmer, a group of pensioners emerge from the nearby housing estate and go for stately swims in the canal.

swimmers in canal summer 2013 004

I usually avert my eyes when I see them, since their fate is too terrible for me to contemplate. On this point, I am moved to insert a photo from the summer of a few years ago in Qingdao when there was a terrible algal bloom. Even the Chinese thought this was a bit much.

chinese boy with algae

Yet the pensioners seem to survive. Come to think of it, when I was a young lad and accompanied my English grandmother on her boat on the Norfolk Broads (I have written an earlier post on this), we used to happily swim in lakes and rivers which were uniformly a brown peaty colour and into which all the boats would discharge their … well, you understand where I’m going with this one. My grandmother lived to a ripe old age and I am still alive to tell the tale.

Even so, I would not swim in the canal or in the Beijing lakes for all the money in Christendom. Not because of the pollution but because of the temperature. The Chinese – again, the older folk, as far as I can tell, not the young – feel that cold water is invigorating. The ice is barely broken that they are swimming. In fact, in the north they take a pride in swimming even when there is ice!

chinese swimming Harbin-1

This is definitely not for me. I am, I freely admit it, a wimp when it comes to cold water. Cold water and I do not mix. I have two memories from my youth, seared into my brain. One is swimming in the outdoor swimming pool at primary school. It had just opened, so it must have been early May. I was among the first to go in. I could hardly breathe it was so cold, and by the time I got to the other end of the pool I could not feel anything in any part of my body. The second memory is of a trip to the North Sea beaches of Norfolk with my grandmother – a day off from sailing on the Broads. Entering the water was like being flailed alive. Years later, watching the film Titanic I could viscerally empathize with those poor people who landed in the icy waters of the Atlantic and lasted no more than a few minutes.

titanic sinking

I find even the waters of the Mediterranean in August cold. My children would mock my skittishness about entering the water during our summer holidays in Liguria. The only time I have ever felt really relaxed in seawater was during a trip many, many years ago to Mexico with my wife and mother-in-law, when we went to Isla Mujeres, an island just off the coast from Cancún.

isla muheres-2

isla muheres-1

My knees go weak just thinking about that deliciously warm water. It was just like taking a bath. Wonderful.


Mao swimming-1: http://www.china360online.org/wp-content/gallery/history/maoswimming.jpg
Mao swimming-2: http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/mao_0.jpg
Swimmer in Qianhai lake: my pic
Swimmer in canal: my pic
Chinese boy with algae: http://www.trust.org/resize_image?path=/dotAsset/2c48ca45-6959-4bc0-8172-15165d151805.jpg&w=649
Chinese swimming Harbin: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/MSNBC/Components/Photo/_new/pb-121217-winter-swim-china-jsa-2.photoblog900.jpg
Titanic sinking: http://0.tqn.com/d/movies/1/0/n/n/Y/titanic-sinking2.jpg
Isla muheres-1: http://www.luxuriousmexico.com/wwwluxuriousmexico/Luxurious%20Mexico/PicsQuintanaRoo/Quintana%20Roo,%20Isla%20Mujeres,%20Beach,%20Playa%20Norte,%20view%20-%20Photo%20by%20Fideicomiso%20Isla%20Mujeres.jpg
Isla muheres-2: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1258/776340728_2b813a7873_z.jpg?zz=1


Beijing, 12 October 2012

How would you describe the scent of water? This evening, as I reached the bridge which crosses my piece of canal a gentle breeze lifted the scent off the water’s surface and wafted it over to me. And I asked myself that question.

Let me take a leaf out of wine reviews and try a little of their purple prose: “I sense a hint of moss, with an undercurrent of peat, perhaps a whiff of algal respiration”. But actually what I was smelling was my childhood. Don’t you find that scents are a powerful trigger of memories? I do: a drift of scent will suddenly have me awash in memories. And so it was that as I crossed the bridge I was suddenly ten years old again, on my grandmother’s sail boat on the Norfolk Broads, moored at her buoy on Barton Broad. The sun has set, a light breeze is blowing off the water bringing me the scent of the Broad’s peaty water, and small waves are slapping quietly at the boat’s hull. A grebe calls out in the night.

I loved the Broads. My grandmother spent most of her summer on the boat, taking her numerous grandchildren in shifts of two weeks. I must have gone five years in a row. The sailing didn’t really excite me; it was kayaking among the rushes and in the little creeks on the edges of the Broads that I loved, watching the wildlife and discovering small marsh flowers at every turn.

But I grew up, and my grandmother grew old, and life moved on.  I stopped going and haven’t been back since. Yet I am sure that the Broads made me what I am today: an environmental engineer who for more than thirty years has tried to push back the tide of waste threatening to wash away the natural beauties that are around us.
pix from: