In an extract from our new anthology, Beastly Journeys, Dion Leonard talks about finding Gobi for the first time.
Dion and Gobi in the desert © @findinggobi
As I walk towards the back of the plane, I take my seat next to a woman who can see from the worried look in my eyes that I am nervous.
‘First time going to China?’ she asks.
In fact, this is my second visit to China in as many months. I don’t tell my fellow passenger, but I’m not worried about the long flight. I’m worried about a little stray dog I met over six weeks before whom I promised to bring home to live with me in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am flying back to find her in the city of Ürümqi in northwest China and I have no idea how I am going to do it.
I first saw Gobi as I completed the first of six stages of a 250-kilometre running race across the Chinese Gobi Desert. I had finished the stage in third position out of 101 starters and, whilst the first stage was only seventeen miles long, the weather had been cold, windy and slightly drizzly, which made life tricky as we crossed a terrain composed of rocky canyons, grassy fields and a huge climb over a sand dune known as ‘The Dune of Barkhol’. The stage finished next to the base of the incredible Tian Shan mountain range; it was bitterly cold, yet thankfully I and six other competitors were to share a warm yurt for the evening instead of a traditional tent. I escaped the cold by heading to the yurt, deciding to have an afternoon rest inside my sleeping bag before dinner.
Dion and his fellow running partner, Gobi © @findinggobi
I was heading towards the campfire to prepare my evening meal when I noticed a small, sandy-coloured dog with a funny moustache walking around the fire. I remember thinking to myself as I watched another runner give the dog some food, There’s no way I’m going to feed it. One of the rules of the race was that everyone had to carry all of their food, kit and equipment for the week to survive. I certainly wasn’t going to give away any of my food, especially to a dog.
The next morning I was on the start line for stage two, which was a twenty-five-mile run over the Tian Shan mountain range and down into the Gobi Desert. I put my bag with all my food and kit on my back. With only a couple of minutes until the start of the race I went through my last-minute checks. Sunglasses clean, bag chest-straps done up, pockets zipped. I looked down to make sure my shoes and sand covers were connected – only to see the same little dog from the previous evening’s campfire playfully biting on them. I shooed the dog away, but it thought I was playing a game and continued chewing. I asked if anybody knew whose dog it was, but by then the race had begun. I started running and looked down to see the dog running along with me, still nipping at my shoes.
Running over a cold, wet, windy and snow-capped mountain down into the heat and dryness of the desert took its toll on me. Nearly five hours later I could see the end of the stage in the distance and I was happy to be finishing for the day. To my surprise, there were some crew and runners clapping and cheering me over the finish line, which put a smile on my face. They continued clapping and cheering and I turned around, expecting to see another runner close behind me – but it was the little sandy-coloured dog, who’d managed to run the whole stage right behind me.
I was in complete amazement and disbelief that this tiny dog had run what was difficult for any human being to complete.
Gobi is now Dion's faithful travel buddy © @findinggobi
Dion Leonard is an Australian/British ultra runner who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dion has competed in, and completed, some of the most extreme running races around the world in the most inhospitable locations. In 2016 he was running in the Gobi Desert when a stray dog followed him and this would change both of their lives forever. For more see: www.findinggobi.com.
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