Staying Fit in Ulaanbaatar

By Katya Cengel | August 24, 2017 | Mongolia

I have this weird thing about needing to move, especially after being trapped in planes, cars and buses for long periods of time. As soon as I am on the ground, my legs are literally itching for activity. Because I tend to stay in budget accommodations (a polite way of saying hostels), gyms aren’t really an option. Luckily, running is free. It is also a great way to get your bearings in a new location – or to get hopelessly lost. I have done both, many times.

I have a different running story for almost every country I have been in. In rural Rwanda, I was a bit frightened when a man with a machete started running toward me. This is before I realized practically everyone in the countryside walks around with a machete. The man was heading to work and simply wanted to run with the mzungu along the way. My running companion in Harare, Zimbabwe was more persistent. A local boxer, he convinced me to add sit-ups and push-ups to my routine – and to buy some of his stone carvings. My running companion in Thailand was one I chose myself; it was our run itself that took a strange turn when we found ourselves in the midst of a race to celebrate the king.

Right now I am in Mongolia on an IRP fellowship. Like most big cities, the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar (locally known as UB) has major traffic issues. Unlike some of the places I have been, it also has streetlights and crosswalks. Unfortunately, cars don’t seem to abide by either. To avoid getting run over, I stick with running early in the morning before too many cars are on the road.

My first day out, I followed a nice yellow strip that ran down the middle of the sidewalk, making me feel as if I was on the yellow brick road. In other parts there was a swath of green on the sidewalk for bikes – which runners, walkers and everyone else seemed to take advantage of, so I acted like a local and did the same.

On my second day, I got adventurous and strayed off the path and into a park where I discovered a mini “outdoor gym.” I have come across several of these outdoor gyms in my travels. Despite the fact that they seem to be populated by pensioners, I often give them a try. I rather prefer the chatting older women to muscle-flaunting gym rats.

In UB, my gym has some of the same strange structures I first encountered in Southeast Asia. There is a makeshift elliptical machine without tension that involves swinging your legs back and forth; a stationary bike, again without much tension; and leg presses without weights.

New to the mix, at least for me, is what I call the ship captain. I have never seen anyone else use this particular contraption. Whether it is correct or not, I turn the two steering wheel-like structures in a way that vaguely seems to exercise my wrists and forearms. It reminds me a little of a childhood play structure, which is fitting because the little gym is surrounded by a children’s park. It also includes some more classic kids’ items, like monkey bars. The adult version is surprisingly difficult, especially if you don’t get a good swing at the beginning to gather momentum.

Then there is my all-time favorite, a sort of treadmill that is also like log running. I have to hold on tight and I never manage more than a few minutes. How much of a workout this little gym provides is debatable, but my legs no longer itch afterwards. In fact, after using the crazy fast treadmill my feet actually feel quite pleasant, almost as if they have been massaged.

See photos from the road on Katya Cengel’s Instagram

View All Posts By Katya Cengel

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