Horror stories from the gym, in Kunming, China.

Our good friend Jonah moved to Kunming, China in January. He joined a gym. It’s been an experience. It’s better he tell you about it than us. You can also check out his blog here.

* * *

After moving to China, I found myself with a lot more free time than I previously had in my Canadian life as a full-time worker. For the most part, my only commitments have been the 10 hours of Chinese lesson and 4-6 hours of English tutoring I’ve had each week. With all that time on my hands comes a sense of responsibility to do “the right things,” which of course includes finding a gym and staying healthy. Finding a gym in Kunming is not that hard, but as is the case with most things, you more or less get what you pay for.

After a month of settling into Kunming I started my Chinese classes and was able to meet a fellow expat who was also looking for a gym. He did the scouting for both of us, and the price range for gym memberships was about ¥888 (~$160 CAD) for 1 year to ¥3000 (~$550 CAD) for 6 months. Considering that we were both unemployed expats, living off savings from our previous jobs, we decided to go with the budget gym at a cost of about $160 for the year. Overall, it had everything we needed – a squat rack, some benches, and heavy things to lift. Sure, it was a little dirty, the bathroom smelled and nobody put their weights away, but that seemed like a small price to pay. That was only the beginning.


There’s nothing more distracting than having someone wildly kick a heavy bag right in front of where you’re squatting.

During the initial two weeks I couldn’t help but be amused by some of the quirks. Before I keep going though, I don’t mean to shit on the good people who showed up there to try and improve their health. Sure, they might have had some unorthodox or even questionable ways of doing so, but showing up is more than a lot of people do, so good on them. With that said, the gym etiquette (a term used very loosely here) was a big departure from what you might expect in the west. Most people showed up in whatever shoes or loafers they were wearing before their lunch break started. Jeans were also quite common, but shirts were optional. As for the people who did change clothes before working out, a fair number of them chose to do so in the actual gym.

A nice seating/napping area.

A nice seating/napping area.


Exhibits A, B and C.

Living in China, you get used to the smell of cigarette smoke just about everywhere. In restaurants, office buildings, elevators, hospitals. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I smelled it walking into the changing room. I think the only thing moresurprising was seeing the smoker posing naked in the mirror, then quickly acting natural when he realized he was spotted. Of course smoking isn’t just limited to the changing room; people are often smoking in the front foyer, and sometimes on equipment in the gym. Cigarette butts and ash next to a dumbbell is not an uncommon sight. If the smell of cigarette smoke while you’re exercising is a bit off putting, there’s a simple solution – go during lunchtime. The smell of smoke will be overpowered by the restaurant’s kitchen just below the windows.

Speaking of lunch, I was initially impressed when I found out this gym has its own restaurant. I also thought that the goldfish-filled pond was a nice touch too, until I noticed a few of them floating belly up and motionless. The restaurant also became less appealing when the large goldfish disappeared from the pond and the smell of cooked fish started coming from the kitchen.

The site of the former in-house restaurant.

The site of the former in-house restaurant.


The site of the former fish.


The changing room in its death throws.

I was getting used to the gym’s quirks after the first two weeks, so when I came in one day and there was no power, I figured it’s just another day in Kunming. Then there was no power the next day. Or the one after that. Around the fourth or fifth day the sound of a generator could be heard from down the hallway. At no point did this seem like a good sign, but at least there was electricity. In addition to electricity, there were also a lot of fumes, being that it was a gas-powered generator. This effectively cut the usable area of the gym in half for a few days until someone clued in that maybe we were better off without any power. It was only when my girlfriend Coomi’s mom came home one night and asked which gym I go to that we figured out what was happening. It had been on the news that the gym was closing and moving to another location in June, and a few people were upset. I wasn’t as upset about that so much as the fact that they didn’t tell me. Even after bringing Coomi the personal translator with me, details were difficult to ascertain. We were just told that the new gym would be “better”.

High security for a very important branch.

The most noticeable effect of having no power or running water has been the smell when you enter the gym. It’s one of the worst, most overpowering smells I’ve had to deal with. I don’t want to get too graphic in case someone with a light stomach is reading this, but most bathrooms in China stink with running water, so imagine what one without it smells like after a few days/weeks/months, then add the smell of sweat, stale smoke and not ever being properly cleaned to that equation. After the gym I crave nothing more than clean water and soap to wash my hands now. On the plus side, the number of members has drastically dropped, as most of them have probably already found a new gym or gave up on their already halfhearted attempts. The fitness classes are also almost all cancelled, except for yoga, which apparently does not require lights or terrible C-pop blaring out of a stereo. I do, however, miss watching the most uncoordinated man alive struggle through the belly dancing class.

Just one dirty corner of the abandonded portion of the changing room.  I decided to leave out the picture of the bathroom in order to prevent this post from becoming NSFW.

Just one dirty, blurry corner of the abandonded portion of the changing room. I decided to leave out the picture of the bathroom in order to prevent this post from becoming NSFW.

Back to the bathroom topic: one person must have found the lack of running water equally.  distressing, as he (or she) decided to take a shit in the stairwell between the third or fourth floors and leave it there, where it remained for about 3 more weeks before being cleaned up. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed this, since the gym is on the third floor, but for some reason the rickety elevators don’t stop on the third floor, requiring you to go up to the fourth floor, then walk down a flight of stairs. Of course, you could just use the stairs in the first place, but they have a tendency to provide less and less head clearance from floor to floor. I’m not sure if that was an intentional part of the design or just someone’s way of improvising on the construction of the building.

My favourite post-workout/anytime meal in China, 饵丝 (pronounced kind of like "arse").

My favourite post-workout/anytime meal in China, 饵丝 (pronounced kind of like “arse”).

It didn’t take too long to get used to not having any power though. There is ample natural light that gets in, and I’ve never been a fan on running or cycling in one spot. What has been a little more difficult to get used to is things like walking to the other side of the gym and back multiple times looking for the other 20-kg dumbbell, finding that dumbbell, discovering it has rolled over someone’s spit (and maybe ash too, for good measure), and then returning to the bench you were going to use to find someone sitting on it texting, playing a game, sleeping or having his girlfriend take pictures of him.


Another strange scenario was when my friend was finishing a set of squats and had seven other Chinese guys stop what they’re doing and watch him, all while commenting in indecipherable Kunming dialect. After that, one of them stepped in and tried to do the same weight. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but mostly annoying. It’s also not unusual to see someone decide to abandon his shirt mid-workout and start blatantly posing in the mirror for most of his remaining session. This usually sets off a chain reaction, leading to a situation where most of the guys in the gym are shirtless, flexing in the mirrors between sets. In all fairness, I’m not going to judge if someone wants to check themself out while getting a pump; whatever motivates you, right? But for a lot of them, the only thing they seem to have pumped in the last few months is their guts, which makes me think maybe they should work harder, smoke in the gym less and stop imagining how ripped they are. Just a crazy idea.

A move called the "weighted nap".

A move called the “weighted nap”.

The current state of the new location.

The current state of the new location.

Yup, this must be the right place.

As of July 2nd, the gym was still in its original, utility-less location, although more and more equipment was lying on the floor in pieces, signaling that a move was in preparation. I figured this must be good! I took a picture of a sign at the front desk to bring back to Coomi for translation. By this point I already figured out that people selling you things in China will sometimes say anything to make the situation better. If their claim is true or turns out to be true, that’s just a bonus. June was more or less the hopeful estimate for a new location, but I had even heard some rumours from the expat circle that it would be December. In any event, I managed to find the “new location”, which ended up being locked. Upon calling them, I found out that the new location is actually only a new temporary location before they move to the new permanent location. Even more convenient is the fact that this new temporary location won’t be ready until September, if all goes well. In Chinaspeak, this means “September, but not September, because if we told you when we really think it’ll be ready, you’d be mad and I don’t want to deal with that, so I’ll make something up and hope it doesn’t come back to bite me or that I’ve found a new job by then”.

So that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest gym membership available in China. The facilities can be questionable, some of the people can be questionable, the staff can be misleading, but the experience is priceless. Actually, no. The experience is about ¥888/year, of which your membership will be on hold for two months until the new temporary location is ready, if everything goes well.


About threeheadedblog

Three gentlemen, writing.
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