Finding an ultra running canine in the Gobi Desert

23/03/2020 16:52

Written by Dion Leonard

Ultra runner, Dion Leonard, was running in the Gobi Desert in 2016 when a stray dog followed him and changed both of their lives forever.


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.

Dion and Gobi in the desert by @findinggobiDion and Gobi in the desert © @findinggobi

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.

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.

Gobi and Dion running by @findinggobiDion and his fellow running partner, Gobi © @findinggobi

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.

As I started to walk to my tent, the dog followed me and, once inside, collapsed next to me. I started to eat some dried meat and realised it must have been starving – I thus found myself feeding the dog that I’d said I wouldn’t feed. She gulped down what I gave her and then positioned herself next to me and started to sleep. I still remember how bad she smelt, although I can’t have smelt much better considering we don’t shower during these week-long races. I could see that the dog was a girl and had a rash on her stomach; her coat was wiry and matted, and it was obvious she had lived a tough life already. I woke up a couple of hours later with the dog lightly snoring next to me. My tent mates had finished and were surprised to see the dog next to me. They told me it had followed some runners during the first stage of the race, and that’s how it had ended up in the campsite. 

Stage three began just like the previous day with the dog chewing on the sand covers of my shoes as we ran off from the start line together. I wondered if it would run with me all day again or whether the hundred-degree-Fahrenheit heat of the desert would mean she would stop along the way and that would be the end of our unique journey together. As I passed through the first checkpoint, it was clear the dog was on a new journey of her own that somehow involved me, and she wasn’t looking back on her past existence. 

I have a running superstition, which is to never look behind me during a race, but as I entered the waist-deep water of a wide river crossing with a strong current I heard squealing, barking and whining to the rear. I turned to see the dog running up and down the riverbank in complete anguish that I had left her behind. In a split second I decided to go back, pick her up and carry her to the other side. Little did I know this would be the start of a bond that would prove unbreakable. Later that evening, I named the dog ‘Gobi’ after the desert we were running through, and made her a promise to look after her, give her a better life and bring her home to Edinburgh. 

After the race finished, I had to leave Gobi with someone in Ürümqi who offered to look after her while I made plans to take her to the UK. But now she has gone missing in a city of three million people. As the plane comes in to land, I look out to the vast city skyline. 

Gobi the dog by @findinggobiGobi is now Dion's faithful travel buddy © @findinggobi

I have been to the city before, as it’s the closest airport to get to the Gobi Desert for the race, but I never wanted to return as it is a dirty, busy, overwhelming place that feels unsafe. But I have no choice. I am here for one reason: to find Gobi. When I received a phone call to say she had gone missing I was devastated. We’d been through so much together. Gobi had run 125 kilometres of the 250-kilometre race and it seemed my promise to her was broken.

I set about putting together a search team with volunteers who will walk the city looking for her and putting up reward posters in shop windows and on the windows of cars. It starts with one woman searching and quickly grows to hundreds looking day and night. I do local television and newspaper interviews and the story starts to spread on Chinese social media that a man has flown all the way back to China to look for a little dog. Soon the whole nation is looking for this little dog that they’ve never seen for a man they don’t know. 

After an emotional and dramatic rollercoaster ride of ten days searching the city we receive a message from a father and son saying they think they’ve found Gobi in an area we’ve been searching earlier that day. They had noticed the posters put up when the dog appeared and followed them to their home. I walk into the house and before I can say a word, Gobi has spotted me and comes running over, squealing, barking and whining just like she did on the riverbank during the race.

It will take a mountain of paperwork, medical procedures, operations and a considerable amount of money, sacrifice and commitment to get Gobi to her new home in Edinburgh in five months’ time, but it is worth it. We’ve found each other twice and it is meant to be. My promise to bring Gobi home will be kept. 


Read more tales of extraordinary animal travel experiences in our Beastly Journeys anthology:

 Beastly Journeys by Jonathan Scott, David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, Mark Shand and Dervla Murphy

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