‘Milk is for babies. When you grow up, you have to drink beer.’
Ulaanbaatar is the city of gyms. There seems to be at least one on every block. Perhaps it’s because pulling on the runners and hitting the pavement when it’s thirty degrees below zero outside is not appealing. Perhaps it’s because while there’s a gym on every block, every second shop sells deep-fried khooshur and there are whole supermarket aisles dedicated to lollies. Perhaps it’s because the masculine aesthetic ideal appears to be tree trunk arms and abs you could play like a xylophone.
Matt and I decided to join a gym. In close proximity to our apartment there is Gold’s Gym (presumably a franchise of the Venice Beach institution where a young Arnie used to train), Golden Gym, and Goldish Gym. The one we choose has t.v. screens that flick between bodybuilders posing in shiny underwear and Russian cage fighters. The personal trainers who stroll the gym floor are enormous. On our first day, one of the trainers takes Matt aside for a body composition analysis. Matt explains he’s a cyclist, keen to maintain a hill climbing physique. Therefore leg muscles ok. Weight anywhere else is not. The trainer nods. Measurements are taken and the verdict comes back. ‘Your legs are very strong, and you aren’t fat. But your arms… you really need to lift more weights.’
There are a few quirks of Mongolian gym going which have us a little perplexed. The first is the shoe situation, which Matt and I have now mastered. Presumably for dirt control and hygiene reasons, we aren’t supposed to wear outdoor shoes into the gym. This poses some difficulty for us as we only have one pair of runners each – runners which we also use for trail running in Bogd Khan park and horse riding. So we jog over in our sneakers, stop outside the building and change into sandals, go inside and swap the sandals for gym-issue rubber thongs – grey for guys, blue (and way too small) for girls – then change back into our sneakers before starting the actual workout. When we leave the gym we dance the whole swap-shoe-shuffle in reverse.
Also perplexing to us is that the hygiene concerns do not extend from the floor to the benches. As Matt has alluded to previously, a towel is about the most massively useful thing one can have. You can wipe down the equipment you have just used after using it. You can wipe down the equipment you want to use before using it. And, of course, you can dry yourself off with it if it’s still clean enough. Unfortunately, such towel use does not seem to have caught on.
While these things seem odd to us, we probably look odd to everyone else. Actually running on a treadmill. Wearing shorts. Using the pastel plastic dumbbells they keep buried in the corner. If we wanted to blend in, Matt would be sitting around on the benches chatting up girls, occasionally hefting his bulk up to go and lift an enormous weight. When he’s done that for all of twenty seconds, he can go back to chatting up girls or knock back a dubious looking smoothie, safe in the knowledge that ASADA won’t find him here.
I could follow the ladies into a group fitness class: show off my lack of co-ordination in Zumba, or try to touch my ankles while the yoga instructor bends her spine until she looks like a pretzel and somehow manages to talk out of her feet.
Perhaps the most peculiar quirk of all is that my change-room is full of naked gladwrapped women. I believe their aim is to sweat out the fat. This involves wrapping your limbs in clear plastic wrap – the kind you put over potato salad – donning a ‘waist-training’ corset, then pulling on warm leggings and a hooded jacket. If you can still move after all that, you go for a brisk walk on the treadmill, possibly backwards. I am tempted to suggest that a light coating of snake oil under the gladwrap would be extra beneficial, but unfortunately my Mongolian isn’t quite up to scratch yet.
Like what you’ve read? We also have a blog about cycletouring in Europe. Check it out here: https://journals.worldnomads.com/katescarlett