Swim today?’ asks Zhang.
It’s a hot sunny day. It has been a hot week. Temperatures have hovered in the mid-thirties during the day, dropping slightly in the evening as thunder rolls in and around the Yan mountains. Sometimes, bursts of heavy rain pound the scorched streets then evaporate to make the night humid.
I know he means swimming in the reservoir. I’ve passed it and looked down on it during walks around Changping’s countryside. It dominates the lower landscape. The last and largest lake in a chain that runs along the floor of the wide valley into the haze and feet of the mountains. It would be refreshing after work and as the sun set, possibly beautiful. ‘Sounds great,’ I reply. ‘I’ll have to go home and get my swimming trunks first.’
‘OK, I meet you there after work. You are good swimmer – need any safety belt or balloon?”
I guess he means a float or rubber ring. I’m not a great swimmer, but in the flat calm waters of a reservoir there won’t be any currents, so I think it’s unnecessary and tell him. ‘No I’m ok thanks.’
I’m late home because a meeting overran, so I quickly change into my swimming shorts and an old tee shirt. I stuff a towel into a small backpack. I haven’t got much time to think about what else I might need. It’s only an hour till dusk -, even if we stop for a drink on the way back our wet clothes will have probably dried before we get anywhere; there’s no need to take a change.
He’s waiting in his car when I leave, the short dash from the elevator to the gate is enough time for fresh sweat to form and the clean tee shirt to stick to my back under the pack. At least in the car it’s cool and the 15-minute drive to the reservoir is a chance to find calm after the rush of the day.
We park behind a short line of cars at the side of the road. I empty my pockets into the backpack and put it in the boot. Zhang gets a waterproof bag out. ‘Do you have a swimming hat?’ he asks, holding up two.
‘I don’t, I say. ‘Do you think I need one?’ He doesn’t reply and hands me a rubbery blue hat which I stuff into a pocket.
‘What about glasses?’ He offers a pair of swimming goggles.
‘I don’t need them.’ It all feels like a lot of equipment for what will be a short dip in a freshwater lake. I wonder if he’ll suggest flippers and an aqualung next.
He closes the boot and we start walking along the side of the road. ‘We used to go in here,’ he tells me, pointing to part of the 3-meter-high fence. ‘But they’ve blocked it now.’ Ahead, along the road-edge the fortifications of thick upright metal bars make a solid impenetrable line. Two rolls of bright razor wire run its length – one at waist height and the other along the top. It looks excessive and very serious. Further along the road there is another man walking, clearly a fellow swimmer. Zhang assumes he knows the new place to get inside, so we follow behind him.
‘I don’t know why they block it,’ he says a little angrily as we walk along.
‘Maybe they don’t want people pissing in the drinking water,’ I say.
‘It’s not for drinking, it is just to control the water so…’ He pauses trying to think of the words.
‘Flood control?’ I suggest.
‘Yes, you are right, control the flood.”
On the other side of the fence it’s tinder dry. The ground is sandy brown with thin weeds dried into straw. Low prickly trees with rough dark bark crouch over coarse shrubs, their leaves dark, dull and dusty. Occasionally, I catch glimpses of the reservoir water a little below. It should look inviting from the hot road, and I should be imagining the delicious cool water on my sweating skin, but I can’t think beyond the meaning of the need for such high security.
‘I will bring some scissors next time,’ he says. I assume he means wire cutters for the razor wire. He seems quite serious, his tone is still a bit annoyed.
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ I tell him. ‘Climbing through a hole in the fence is one thing, but destroying government property is something else.’
‘They shouldn’t make the fence,’ Zhang says, ‘It belongs to the people.’ In the UK, the statement would be comical, an old joke about the coming revolution. In China, I imagine it’s what they’ve been taught to believe, and the fence is the reality. I doubt his argument would be a winner in court; perhaps it’s why he’s angry.
We notice the man we are following has disappeared and we look for the spot where he must have entered. I’m expecting to see a gate, or hole in the fence caused by a few missing bars, at least a gap between fence sections that we can squeeze through. I can’t see anything and look further ahead where the fence turns slightly inwards – maybe it’s an entrance.
‘Here,’ announces Zhang, pointing to where there is a gap in the razor wire beside a tree. He hands me the bag and using a bracket joining two posts together as a step, climbs onto the top, turns and does the same down the other side. I pass the bag through the bars and copy him, trying to be as sure and look as confident as him. My feet are wider than his and only the toe end of my sandal fits on the bracket. ‘Be careful’ he says. It’s an unnecessary caution – I’m very conscious that a slip would leave me impaled on the blunt tops of the steel bars.
Once on the other side, we walk down a steep well-worn path that twists down to the water’s edge. Around us Cicadas scream unseen from the vegetation. I wonder what other biting, stinging insects lurk in the scratchy brush. At the water’s edge, the shore is a chalky white rock and a dead fish lies floating on its side. ‘It’s a bit smelly,’ I say, noting the stagnant odour and the water which isn’t clear and bright like I imagined, like the lochs of Scotland, more like the heavy grey green of a slow river.
‘Let’s go this way’ Zhang suggests. It’s the direction along the shore towards where we left the car, the direction where cheerful voices can be heard. ‘The water is more fresh and the island is nearer’. The island is the nearest part of the opposite shore. There is a line of trees near its water’s edge and a round pavilion towers above them. I recognise it as the site of the abandoned theme park I explored a couple of years ago. To the right, the reservoir fades into the haze of the valley before the purple barren slopes of the Yan mountains rise towards the pale sky.
We walk along the twisting path, up and down the rocky edge. The ground is littered with plastic food wrappers and bags. ‘Maybe its fenced off because they don’t want people dumping rubbish here,’ I suggest.
Zhang doesn’t reply and instead stops and points out two small turtles lying in the shallows. We stand and watch for a minute. ‘I think they’re dead,’ I say.
‘No, I can see them moving,’ he replies. I look a bit longer hoping to see them scurry away. I want them to be alive, I need to see some sign of health. I want to be reassured that the water isn’t a soup of bacteria and viruses. They are still; only their little legs waving. I suspect it’s the slow lapping of the water that makes the movement rather than any life.
We reach the point where a group of young boys are standing in the water, chest deep, chatting. ‘Hello!’ One boy calls out on seeing the westerner.
‘Hello!’ I call back automatically.
Here the rocks slope down towards the water, the edges eroded into parallel lines of jagged blades that disappear beneath the surface. Getting in without skinning some body part will be difficult. I look for a better entry spot and see a shallow inlet a few meters further along with a gentle sloping bank of shingle. ‘There’s a beach there,’ I say. ‘It looks easier.’
‘Where?’ he asks without much interest.
‘A bit further on.’ I point to it further ahead and slightly behind. Zhang is sitting on the rock – I’m not sure he can see it from his position. Maybe I should just go and use it and swim around. It’s not inviting though. There’s a lot of litter and what is possibly more dead fish floating there. It’s a difficult choice; cut to ribbons on the rocks or swim amongst the rubbish.
Zhang removes his shoes and tee shirt and puts them in the bag. I strip off my tee shirt too and drop it in the bag then pass him my sandals. The pale rock feels like rough reinforced concrete, hard and grainy as sandpaper beneath my feet.
‘They’re too heavy,’ he says. ‘The bag wont float, we can tie them on the outside.’
‘They’ll be the same weight,’ I tell him, worried that one will fall off somewhere and I’ll have to walk back bare footed through the thorns, ticks and skin burrowing bugs.
He starts to fasten the bag unmoved by my logic. ‘I’ll keep them on,’ I say. I‘ve swum with them on before. I remember being warned somewhere about stepping on sharp coral and spiny sea urchins. Its better, I feel happier about whatever rocks, bottles and bike frames may lurk on the bed of this place.
Zhang inflates the bag and ties it with a lead around his waist. I squeeze my head into the rubber swim cap feeling like a bluebottle. He shuffles down the rock, then dives in, avoiding the cutting edges at the waterline. I bend down to put the sandals back on, still wondering about using the shallow beach. While I’m occupied, a 2 inch-long dark black bug with thick delta shaped wings lands on my leg. I shake it, expecting the hideous creature it to fly off, but its firmly anchored and unworried about the violent kicks I’m making. Any moment, I expect to feel a sharp stab as it drinks blood or lays eggs and infection into my calf. I bend over to wave it away, but it doesn’t go till I actually hit it. It’s solid, I can feel its strength and weight-on my hand as I strike it; too big to kill with bare hands. I’ve never seen a scarier, uglier beast. It circles around towards my exposed back and I twist and flap at it trying to keep my balance on the rock while putting my shoes on so I can escape under the water. Despite its size and mass, it out manoeuvres my flailing hands easily and makes a couple more successful landings before finally disappearing. I slip the sandals on quickly, unconvinced it’s given up and not hiding on my bare back. I edge down the rock as fast as I dare and belly flop into the water before it comes back or feasts. The dive is so flat I manage to keep my face dry.
The water is warm; there is no shock in the transition from the air. I gingerly place my feet on the bed; it’s rock. The stagnant smell is faint enough to possibly just be imagined. I sense Zhang is keen to impress me with the experience. I know he’s enjoying it, maybe because its free, or perhaps it’s the lack of people or the idea that its exclusive to those who know. I don’t want to spoil it by being too negative.
‘We can swim to the island,’ he says. ‘Then swim to that point.’ He points somewhere further along the bank. ‘It’s nearer to the car,’ he adds. Is the island nearer I wonder? It’s still a fair distance, but maybe its swimmable.
‘OK,’ I say. Maybe there is some doubt in my voice
‘You can take the balloon.’ He passes me the inflated float containing his clothes and shoes and my tee shirt. ‘If you need a rest, you can rest on it.’
I take the bag and tie it around my waist as Zhang had done.
‘Check you can rest on the balloon,’ he tells me.
‘Yep, its ok,’ I say, without trying it.
‘Just check it,’ he says firmly. ‘If you get tired you can rest.’
I grab it in both hands and put my head on the bag as though sleeping. ‘Yep, it’s good.’ I say with what I hope offers finality.
‘OK, let’s go.’ He clears his throat and spits into the water to his side, then leans out into slow crawl towards the island. I follow with my much slower, lazy breast stroke. I never learned the crawl and anyway, I don’t want to put my face under water, I don’t want a single mouthful. I swim steadily, it’s a long way and I’ll need to take it slowly, like a marathon runner, if I’m going to make it. It’s easy going; no waves to interrupt the steady movements, no currents drifting you along the beach – but it’s slow. I turn onto my back, it’s just as fast, but being flatter it uses less energy. I don’t need to see where I’m going; there are no boats to avoid, no people to crash into, no need to watch my depth or for sharks.
Big dragon flies dart overhead ignoring me. I try to concentrate on the swim and conserve my energy, taking gentle kicks and slow steady movements of the arms like a rowing boat. The bank we launched ourselves from has already fallen behind. The Cicadas are quieter, but the island doesn’t look nearer. Suddenly my left sandal comes loose. I stick the foot out of the water and see the toe strap has detached itself from the sole, hanging useless on one side. They are at least 10 years old and I know it’s beyond repair. Swimming with just the ankle strap makes it flop around in the water, the force will pull it off. I’ll have to remove them and tie them onto the balloon after all. While I’m doing this, Zhang swims up. ‘Ok?’ He asks, ‘take a rest if you’re tired.’
‘My Sandal’s broke,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll tie them onto the float.’ It takes some time and effort, treading water while removing your shoes, tying them onto the float securely, keeping my mouth out of the water.
Finally, its done. We head off again and I spin back onto my back. It feels good to be free of the heavy footwear. The bag drags behind me, pulling on my waist with each stroke. It’s a nice measure of forward travel, but it’s also another drain of energy. I can’t kick properly either because my legs hit it. I worry I’ll knock my sandals off. Who knows how deep it is here, if they fall they’re gone. Even though one is broken it will be better than being barefoot later. I experiment with different kicks, but its more effort, I turn over to do the breast stroke again. The island is still far away, I estimate not even quarter of the way complete. After a few more strokes I shout over to Zhang. ‘I don’t think I can make the island.’ I’m not ashamed, there is no sense of failure, I tried, I never said I was a good swimmer. I could probably make it, but then we have to come back. I don’t have the enthusiasm, or the motivation to apply the effort needed, to push myself. ‘It’s too far!’ I shout.
‘Ok, let’s go back.’ He doesn’t sound disappointed.
I turn and head back towards the group of young boys still standing talking. ‘You swim to the island,’ I suggest. I imagine lazing on the bank drying off, protective tee shirt on of course, while he enjoys his achievement and later some praise.
‘No, I don’t want to go on my own. It’s too dangerous,’ he says. ‘Maybe I ask one of the others.’
I wonder what the dangers are. Other than the bacteria and the insects and rocks where we dived in, it feels like the safest place I’ve ever swum. He’s a good swimmer – he’s done it before and what could I do if he ran into trouble? I don’t even have my phone to call the police, to call someone who can speak with the police. I don’t have the spare energy to ask or argue
I continue slowly doing my lazy breast stroke. As I get nearer the group of boys look over, clearly talking about me. It probably looks like I’m doing a doggy paddle. I keep my face relaxed and breathe normally, trying to show I’m not out of breath or struggling. Zhang gets back and I assume he’s asking if anyone wants to swim to the island with him. Eventually I arrive too and I gingerly put my feet on the bottom. It’s surprisingly solid rock and smooth, not the sucking mud I expected. The boys want to know what country I’m from, if I’m a teacher.
The conversation soon dries up and I look to see where I might get out. ‘Are you going over to the island?’ I ask Zhang.
‘I think we can swim to that point’ he replies. He waves to somewhere along the bank towards the distant dam. Maybe he means the rocky bit sticking out. ‘Ok,’ I say.
‘If you get tired just have a rest,’ he says.
‘You too,’ I reply getting a bit fed up with his constant fatherly advice.
Zhang does another throat clear and spit then we strike out again. Nearer to the shore there is more floating stuff. Sticks and drowned insects, a black baseball cap that looks like the round head of a seal and what looked like a dressing from a large wound. I gently glide past, the arc of my arm parting the flotsam and pushing it away from my face and body. Gradually, the bank slips past: a tree with a very white trunk, a warning sign in Chinese, a rock shaped like an amputated leg. Markers of progress gradually creeping nearer then leisurely passing behind. Over towards the island there is a brave lone swimmer on the way out, or coming back, visible by his orange balloon. Suddenly, a fish leaps out of the water. It’s grey, fat and scaly, leaping vertically just like in a cartoon; it probably snapped at a dragon fly before disappearing back below. I’m not sure I’m pleased that other things are alive with me.
Eventually I make it to the point where Zhang is waiting for me in the shallows. This time the rocks below the surface are uneven and I stand with one leg straight down and another bent at right angles. If I’d been on land it would have looked very cool, but in the water its hard to keep balance. “Look at the sun,” says Zhang. I turn to look back the way we came, the sun is sinking behind the hazy Yan mountains. “Very beautiful,” he adds.
“I agree.” We watch it fall behind the peaks, faster than my swimming. I’ve not seen a sunset here before and I expect it to become suddenly dark as the last bit of its shimmering gold vanishes. The light hardly changes, but I feel it won’t be long. I expect we’ll be getting out and heading back to the car.
‘I think we swim over there,’ says Zhang pointing towards the dam.
‘Really?’ I ask. I’m not surprised there is more swimming to do, just to where he wants to head. The dam is long and low, rising from the water in a slope that’s so shallow that it looks thicker than it does tall. It’s grey and solid. Strip lights line a road that runs along the top, closed to traffic. On our side, concrete steps lead up from the water’s edge to what looks like a guard tower. It wouldn’t be out of place in an old World War II movie. I know if we swim there it will just lead to a locked gate or a security guard and we’ll be forced to swim back in the dark.
As we look over, I can feel Zhang wants to go there. Maybe he’s drawn by a desire for exploration or curiosity. A fish jumps in front of us, smaller than the one earlier. ‘I saw a massive fish back there,’ I tell Zhang.
‘Really?’ he asks.
‘Yeah, it must have been about this big’ I indicate the size with my two hands. It’s hard to know if he believes me or not.
‘It’s why the water smells,’ he says. ‘Too many fish.’ I’m not sure if he means the live ones or the dead ones. ‘We swim to that point or we go back,’ he says. The dam is nearer I think, going back is a long way, maybe as far as the island was.
‘Are you sure there won’t be guards?’ I ask.
‘It’s no problem, I think I can see another swimmer there; I’ll swim out and get a better look.’ The throat and spit show he’s made up his mind and he sets out deeper while I wait. I swim over the rocks and climb out of the water while I’m waiting. I can’t be sure, but it feels like something’s nibbling at my legs, like those little fish you sometimes get in spas that eat your dead skin. The bank here has been laid with flat stones and is easy to climb onto. It’s not cold and better than standing about waiting for the bigger fish, the leeches, flukes and flatworms to find me.
He doesn’t take long to make up his mind. ‘Let’s go back,’ he calls. I do another flat flop into the water and begin the long slow rhythmic breast stroke back. Past the baseball cap, and the floating black branch with dark twigs reaching out of the water, nothing has moved from when I swam by earlier. I turn onto my back, and decide to up the pace a bit. Putting a bit of effort into the strokes. I imagine I’m in the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Pull, I mutter as my arms haul myself along, up above my shoulders round and down straight and stiff, just like oars. Pull, I can feel myself cutting though the water like a narrow vessel, the water streaming past my ears in short bursts of movement. Pull, as my arms come around, they push the remains of a rotten fish ahead of them. I stop in horror and the carcass floats onto my chest. It partly disintegrates as I bat it away – It’s disgusting. I roll over onto my front. Better to see what’s ahead.
I don’t rest, I keep up the steady breast strokes, I had no idea I could swim for so long. My legs don’t feel tired, I’m not sweating or out of breath. I pass the tree, the Chinese sign, but I miss the rock. I feel I could swim for ever, then suddenly I’m back. The boys are still there standing in a ring, Zhang chatting with them. There is no round of applause or congratulations as I approach, just the screaming of the Cicadas in the half light. I turn off as I get close into the shallow beach area. I avoid the floating fish, the food wrappers and another green brown turtle and pick my way cautiously out of the water. I untie the sandals and put them on, pull off the swimming hat and stuff it in a pocket, then head up the path toward where Zhang will get out. I have to lift my left leg up high as I walk so the sagging shoe doesn’t snag on the ground and fold under my foot.
Somehow Zhang has managed to crawl out of the water unscathed by the time I get to the rock. He notices the toe strap lolling at the side of my sandal. ‘Oh, your shoe is broken’ he says.
‘Yeah, they’re very old,’ I tell him.
We empty the bag and I put my tee shirt back on. I notice my swimming shorts have brown swirls like weak tea stains and I assume my body is equally unclean. I think I can feel it, like a dull film clogging the pores of my skin. Thankfully the swimming cap kept the fish scales out of my hair. I think about the decontaminating shower I’ll jump in as soon as I’m home then a beer to wash out my mouth as we head back to the fence. Getting over is harder from this side as the ground is lower and I must be careful not to catch my sandal. Finally, we are back on the road and I half shout in relief ‘I’ve survived!’