On a recent trip to China, I went to Shenyang, the capital city of Liaoning province which is in North East China and is not far from North Korea. Shenyang is an inland city that I have never been to before. Would I bother to take my swimming togs? The thought of not swimming for a while was un-inspirational, but alas, I always have to take my togs & goggles, just in case. One never knows what surprises await.
Shenyang introduction – the Rising Capital on the muddy river
The earliest residents of Shenyang lived here 7,200 years ago, just on the north side of a River known as the ‘the muddy river’, – ‘Hun He’ in Chinese.
Shenyang is an old capital (once called Mukden) and the original home of the Manchu people that invaded and then moved west to rule China in the last Dynasty known as Qing. The name Mukden or Shenyang means “rising capital”. It was subjected to invasions from Russians and Japanese around the early 1900s and the Japanese invaded again in 1931. They ruled brutally until they surrendered to the Russians in 1945. They were soon replaced by the Nationalist Chinese Troops, (who were flown in on U.S. transport planes) and the Nationalists in turn were defeated by the Communists in 1948. Shenyang grew economically despite all the turmoil and become an industrial powerhouse. An economic halt in 1990 led to massive factories going bankrupt.
The population is 7.2 million with an urban population of 4 million. This makes it one of the largest cities in northeastern China. Shenyang’s climate is one of hot humid summers and dry cold winters. The average temperature throughout July is 29 Celsius with many days hovering around 35 C, yet winter January average lows are -16 C with the lowest recorded temperature of -28.5 C.
One could easily tell that the Shenyang people are of friendly character and easy humour. They are civil and easy to smile. Their good-natured humour and wit have become well known nationally as North Eastern Humour & accent.
The muddy river – Hun He
It was a very warm July in Shenyang when we arrived. I had much to do as the objective here was not for holiday leisure and we lodged with my brother (Uncle Singlish – who teaches English with singing) just south of the ‘Hun’ River. Although the Hun River translates to ‘muddy’ river, it was not as brown and ‘upside down’ muddy as my home town – the Yarra River.
When going to town we had to cross the river several times. I was delighted to cross the river on the high long bridges and I wondered aloud each time, I must be able to swim there somewhere! The river was about 800 meters wide, but was it safe to swim? Each Taxi driver or local I asked told me, “No, you cannot swim there” each with a different explanation. It was full of pollution, the currents were too dangerous or it was completely restricted to boat traffic.
But it was being fished by locals, so it couldn’t be that bad could it..?
The River Boat Shenyang Icebergers
We walked along the south bank asking all the locals where to swim, but they all said no swimming.
Until in a small hidden clearing along the river bank, there was a small pier, empty of boats except for a Chinese Traditional Cruise Boat all colourfully and majestic parked alongside the pier. The boat had seen better days and it could have once been a floating restaurant.
To my absolute delight, lolling about with grins and laughter were a bunch of swimmers sunbaking and swimming in the river. With much glee, I immediately introduced myself. After some banter, I was promptly introduced to the President and Vice President of the Club. They jovially ceded to my request to be able to swim with them and formally invited me to swim as an honouree guest.
From then onwards I would pass by daily with my goggles and togs to swim with the group. I had to learn the ‘lay of the river’. During the day there were cruise or speed boats driving up or down the river and a close watch needed to be kept before swimming the gap to the island in the middle of the river. We mucked around swimming and I gave some of them swim technique lessons.
游人禁止入内 以免发生危险 Visitors not allowed entry – due to DANGER
In the middle of the river, there was an island. The swim to the island itself was only 300 meters and each day someone would swim over to it and hidden amongst the bushes were some special plants to be watered. These plants were to be harvested for good luck once a year on Dragon Boat Day and then hang over the front door of the home to bring prosperity for the year ahead.
Around the pier, river and Island, there are bait fishermen, but just like swimming around Brighton Pier in Melbourne, they keep a watchful eye on their line as you swam past and you wondered if they were cursing you for potentially scaring off their prey.
There was lots of camaraderie and much laughter amongst the group. When not swimming they paddle some beaten-up skiff with homemade paddles made from float wood or they play table tennis inside the club boat house or play cards or Chinese chess. All around the walls inside the club are adorned notices, mementos’ or small notices which are pinned up daily. The notes provide short advice on health, exercise or general living.
Shenyang River Boat swimmers changing room & having a round of cards on the boat stern.
The water temperature during my time there was about 19c, but the group swims all year round despite the dramatic change in temperature between summer and winter. Of course, the river freezes over completely. During this time they will cut swimming lanes in the ice for their daily swim! There is no sauna or steam room to warm up after the swim, but you’ll be glad to know there is a time restriction on time in the water. The time in the water in winter is restricted to 1 minute per 1 degree Celsius. That is 1 minute at 1C, 2 minutes at 2C and 4 minutes at 4C.
Is anybody coming to the Shenyang winter classic?
The swimming course
There are a number of different swim courses beginning from the riverboat or from other places along the river. They range from 600 m in length to 2 Km or even long ‘super’ courses. The river contains a slow-moving current that is imperceptible; however, there is a noticeable difference in the swim times depending on whether you swim with or against the current. The river current flows east to west.
Shenyang Hun He “Muddy River” Swim Courses 600 m – 10 Km
The Original No.5 River Swimming Team
Most members of the riverboat swim club swim from lunchtime onwards. To my delight once again I was taken downriver to be introduced to the original Shenyang Iceberger group which formed in the 1990s. This is the No 5 River Swimming Team. The group contains swimmers of all ages, male and female that set off swimming across the river and back daily. There are many doing breath strokes and a few dashing across with freestyle.
After a swim, some swimmers will treat themselves to a glass of Bai Jiu – a Chinese very strong White Spirit drink. There are no wetsuits worn, but several swimmers have full-bodied bathers and some swam looking like bank robbers, with a full face cover except the eyes and mouth area cut out.
Some of the Original Shenyang No 5 Swimmers
Although I declined this swim I did set my sights on trying to set a record for the ‘big’ course swim around the middle island. I did this under watchful judges in 33 minutes and proudly declared that I would return immediately after this record was broken to challenge for it again…There was much hospitality and excitement in the group to have an overseas guest join their daily routines. They delighted in testing my speed and watching my swimming technique. They called upon ever younger and faster swimmers to accompany my swim jaunts, but I was very lucky to uphold the group name of the Brighton Iceberger to keep them at bay. The delight at finding other swim partners was mutually terrific and they very happily challenged me to swim up the river to the ‘second’ bridge and then back down again – a cruising 10 K swim.
73-year-old Mr Jiao Qi Kui (the Correct Strength) – Mr Wang (the King) and Mr Sun (the Good Son).ll
Of course, they immediately invited me to return for the winter challenge to swim up and down the ice lanes. During the winter months, the river is frozen and the water hovers just above zero with an outside air temperature of a cool -15 to -10C. I take my hat off to them and thank them kindly for their joyful invitation to swim with them and their hospitality. They are the hardy and cheerful Shenyang Icebergers!….
The hardy & cheerful Shenyang Icebergers – their Moto is proudly displayed on the boat behind them:
“I Winter Swim – I keep fit – I keep happy!”
By John E Scanlon