Jul 2, 2009

Swimming at the Water Cube in Beijing

The famous Water Cube, where Michael Phelps broke so many records, is now open to the public for swimming*. Anyone with 50 yuan can drop by and take a dip. Notice my asterix at the end of the first sentence. I wish the Authorities had been so kind as to have an asterix at the actual Water Cube ticket office so I could have a better idea what to expect. First, allow me to build up the anticipation, and then finally explain the asterix.

The Olympic complex is completely accessible these days. Visitors no longer need a ticket to get inside the Olympic Park. You can take a subway ride right to the middle of the sprawling area containing the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, hop out where the temporary McDonald's was set up during the Olympics, and stroll around to your heart's content. We brought my upgraded Wave Board to the area.

The central walkway of the Olympic Park is massive. It's long and wide like an airline runway, and it's paved the whole way with smooth, white granite blocks. I took my shirt off (the only shirtless guy in the whole place) and took advantage of the reflected sun from the white stone to try and get rid of my farmer's tan. I still have a lot of work to go though.

When you first approach the Water Cube after a 20 minute walk from the subway station, you encounter hundreds and hundreds of baseball cap-wearing peasant-looking tourist groups from rural China, pushing and shoving, and spitting and littering. They've come to the Olympic Park to view the interior of the Water Cube and the other buildings, but not to swim. I doubt if most of them could swim anyways.

You walk around to the western side of the Water Cube, the one adjacent to the Pangu Hotel, and there'san official entrance for people that want to go swimming. As with all things Chinese, the procedure to get yourself from the sidewalk to the water is complex. Here's the algorithm you go through to get inside:
  • To start with, you cough up your 50 yuan per person (cash or Carte Blanche only), and pay that to a guy in a booth. He gives you a souvenir ticket.
  • You line up to go through an airport-style metal detector and x-ray conveyor for your bag. It's all for show. A third grader would do a better job at security than the crack team they've got here. I was interrogated for a few minutes about my Wave Board though. They're afraid I was going to skate around the deck of the pool or something.
  • As you're lining up go through the metal detector, a man with a hand held electronic device will come by and scan the palm of your hand with a laser beam to make sure you're not running a fever (the dreaded pig virus!)
  • You finally walk into the Water Cube building itself, and a young gal checks your ticket again.
  • There's a Chinese doctor wearing a white lab coat sitting at a folding card table with a sign that reads "health check". You're supposed to have this guy check you out before you can go swimming. He probably takes your temperature and grabs your crotch while you cough. We walked by the doctor without stopping, and no one batted an eye.
  • You come to a circular service counter with three more young gals milling about inside. They'll ask you for two pieces of documentation: one, your "deep water certification" card, and two, your "health check certificate". To get a deep water certification card, you go to any major public pool in Beijing, pay 10 yuan, give them a photo of yourself, swim 200 meters, and tread water for a few minutes. They slap together a laminated card that's good for 3 years. If you don't have such a card, you could get one at the Water Cube itself. The health check certificate is what the Chinese doctor with the card table was supposed to provide. We told the girl that we didn't have the health check documents, but we had the deep water certification cards. This was no problem.
  • The service counter girl gives you an electronic key for the locker, and a green bracelet that you wear to show that you are Deep Water Certified.
  • You can now make your way to the locker room, change, rinse off (mandatory), and head to the pool.
Now I'll explain my asterix from the first sentence of this post.

As I changed into my swim suit and showered, thoughts went through my head of the historic significance of the place I was in. Perhaps Michael Phelps had changed his clothes in the spot where I was. Perhaps he had used the shower I used. I made sure to pee in all three urinals in the locker room, just so I can say that I've used the same one he did.

I stepped through the foot bath separating the locker room shower from the pool. I looked around to see a very modern, nice looking fifty meter Olympic pool. But -- son of a gun -- it's not the pool that I saw during the Olympics. Not the pool where I saw Kobe Bryant lounging about on TV. No, this was the warm-up pool, the one adjacent to the competition pool.

The bait (what you think you're getting):

And the switch (what you end up getting):

It's a great pool, don't get me wrong, but I would have liked to know beforehand that I was going through the grief of the body cavity search, the temperature check, the health check, and everything else for the benefit of swimming in the warm up pool.

The real pool is still being used for the entertainment of domestic Chinese tourists. See this article for more details. They have an Astroturfed stage overhanging the starting blocks at the far edge of the competition pool, where dancers will be performing, and probably jumping into the pool to do synchronized swimming. They have plastic banners laser printed with palm trees draped around the edges of the pool. They're trying to make the pool look like a lake surrounded by a forest to complement the dancing performance they have at night.

The warm up pool of the Water Cube is very nice, if you can get a lane to yourself. The air filtration of the building seems really good. The water is crystal clear and seems to not be overly chlorinated, which is impressive considering the large number of swimmers. When I had a lane to myself for 15 minutes or so, it felt really fast. I've swum laps in hundreds of pools over the years, and I can say that this Olympic warm up pool would be great to train or compete in. I'm sure the competition pool is even better.

Most of the time though, you'll not have a lane to yourself. You'll be bumping and grinding with people, and you might even get gouged from someone's overgrown yellow toenail. I wrote about swimming in China a few years ago, and as much as I can tell, nothing's really changed much since then.

One complaint: there were pubic hairs all over the locker room showers. Pubes on the floor, pubes on the shower walls, pubes in the soap dish in the shower, pubes on the towel rack in the shower. How do you get your pubes in the soap dish, anyway? That had to be deliberate. It's just very gross.

Make sure that you keep track of the time while you're swimming. You're limited to exactly two hours from the time they give you your locker key to the time you return it. If you take two hours and five minutes because the showers were crowded, the service desk is going to ask you to pay more money.

In closing, if you're around Beijing, swing by the Water Cube with your deep water certification card. I'd highly recommend this experience, even though there's some hassle and complex process involved. And you might get pubes in your soap. Go and use the urinals that Michael Phelps used, go for a swim in the warm up pool, and take some pictures. You'll have fun.


Blogger Annoyingzhang said...

Stupid asterisk!! I';; defiantly swim int he water cube when i visit Beijing!!

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, would you know the hours for the Water Cube.?How many days a week? From what time opening to closing? Cant seem to find this information anywhere. Also, seems strange to go to all the trouble to make the place a nice tourist attraction and not keep the locker rooms clean from hairs everywhere...???

3:42 AM  
Blogger Valentina said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this! You just saved me an entire day and energy cursing the Chinese.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative article. If you want to swim in a real Olympic Pool, go to Munich in Germany. There, you can swim without any hassle in the original pool, where Mark Spitz won his Gold medals in 1972. Also a great architectural highlight.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Katy W said...

This is by far the most informative thing on the web about swimming at the Cube. Just thought I would update for August 2011:

- buy tickets on the east side (opposite the stadium), booths 7, 8, 9, cost 50Y. These now have signs telling you that you swim in the warmup pool! There are some guys who look like touts selling tickets right by the booths, but they are apparently genuine.
- enter at the south end of the cube and follow signs to the warmup pool.
- *if you want to lane swim* then just before going downstairs, pay 20Y for the deep water certificate "application" (just another ticket that they stamp with the date).
- there's no health check any more.
- give your stamped ticket and photo to the desk, fill in a card, receive a wristband, swim 4 lengths, return wristband, swim anywhere.
- the pool has been divided in half, so there are just 5 lanes for lane swimming now. I went on a Sunday evening and it was not crowded.

I don't know where you get your photo taken, as thanks to this blog I took one with me - but there were a bunch of identical-looking sheets of 4 small photos, so they must be available.

It was open to 8pm with the last admission 7.30pm. The changing rooms were hot/humid, and the showers were crowded, but the swim itself was good.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In all likelihood, Phelps probably peed in the pool more than he peed in any of those urinals. Most swimmers pee in the pool, even when they aren't wearing a Speedo LZR that take 40 minutes to put on and off.

7:54 PM  

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