Going On Beyond, Indefinitely!

Ok … monkey god, air-con rides or midnight beer-(illicit)-and-watermelon party, which would you like to know first?

Air-con rides, right? I knew it!

Well, the one back to the hotel (it looked like the one in the famous Chinese “Dragon-Door Guest House” movie), at the end of the 4th day, must be in the order of 110 km, with even a brief stop (at a place called “Melon County”) to stock up on ice-cold soft drinks, beers and ice-creams. To own the truth, the air-con was nearly-stuffy weak, but no one was complaining—Einstein would call it Relativity, and his analogy of the contrast between the company of a hot fire and a pleasant partner would not go far amiss. And it made sense though, come to think of it, for that being the rough distance of the return journey.

Because it was about the length of the onward journey, on foot, along part of the legendary Gobi.

How is the desert, made famous by Genghis Khan and the monkey god, like? I don’t know, actually, or at least I know only a very small part of it. The only horses I saw were the ones prepared by the rescue crews supporting the trek; there was nary a camel in sight. I read that there is the white Gobi (maybe the sand-dune type with camels?) and the black Gobi (more on this later). The whole desert is just a wee-bit bigger than Pedra Branca, without the Middle Rocks; but don’t let Xuan Zang know this! He was the Venerable, born around 600 AD, who brought the 130 of us to repeat his near-death footsteps, along what later became part of the Silk Route. Here’s a brief on the official legend—the monkey-god version later. This “I would rather die going to the west than live by staying in the east” monk had this vision that the best Buddhist sacred writings were to be found in India, after they had their origins in Nepal.

There was just this wee-bit of inconvenience—he couldn’t convince any of his disciples to accompany him on the quest! The rulers of the day also forbade his travel, not wanting to open up a spy route from the west; he had therefore to avoid all the guarded oases. Saner than he, his disciples were equally convinced that it was a journey of no return, or rather early end. The Gobi, even back then, had this reputation of swallowing up whoever challenged it unofficially. Even his most faithful disciple escaped back after starting for only a few days. Ok, ok; he had a horse (always white in the monkey-god version; a black one would have absorbed too much heat and shriveled) that didn’t know better.

This part is really brief: he bumped into a kind border guard who gave him some water and asked him to skip two guard stations to resupply at his buddy’s post. He toppled the water bag further on! Backtracked about 10k in despair, turned west again, really shriveled without water for days, saved by his horse’s sharp nose for a water source in a chilly night, got to another ruler’s domain, and was helped all the way to the west (mid-India, I think), although nearly half of his escorts died along the treacherous journey. He was eventually away for 17 years.

In the monkey-god version, the famous Chinese classic Journey to the West endowed Xuan Zang (named “Tang (dynasty’s) Three (scriptural) Receptacles” in the novel) with 3 powerful, if not entirely smart or wise, humanoids: the clever but unwise monkey god, the not-even-clever pig god, and the downright dim-witted shark (without his fins, I think) god. Their foes, other than the devouring Gobi, were powerful demons motivated by a taste of Tang’s immortality-endowing flesh, so all the good guys were challenged to the extreme, but they got to live happily ever after. I am sure some Hollywood movie, like the Lord of the Rings type, would tell this much better. In any case, the above are at best paraphrased impressions of the official and story-book versions, the current story being more concerned with the modern May-2008 version of dim-witted (or insane!) people.

10 top Chinese Executive MBA programs, including NUS and NTU, were invited to take part in this third Gobi Challenge; 9 showed up. The trek was only for EMBA alumni and students of those schools (all captains of industry; a guy from Fudan was there for the third time!) and their school officials. This is really a collection of the best of the breed anywhere, including the top programs from Beijing and Shanghai, so afforded the most excellent networking opportunities, if everyone had not been nearly always so busy.

Some teams seriously showed up with insignia-ed tents, not to mention a whole suite of matching indoor and outdoor wears and gears—just like any Olympic team lah! We … er … managed to scrap together one English Asia-Pacific Executive (APEX) MBA alumnus, Phua Lee Ming, who now works in Shenzhen and Suzhou, and, well, me. Insignia-ed hat, checked; insignia-ed jacket (not suitable for Gobi), checked; insignia-ed t-shirt (not Dri-FIT variety), checked. That was it. Gore-Tex? No. High-quality tents? Well, they were both selected on price. The one from Shenzhen was ok—it held up against strong winds in the night. The one from Mustafa bought late in the night before I left turned out to be a beach tent without walls! So we used it as an extra ground sheet for the other tent that we shared. It kind of helped, really. When you were lost in the campsite, just look for the cheapest-looking erected framework.

Some participants trained for months; one reportedly ran 5k daily. I was trying desperately to help with interviews in the weeks leading to the trek, so the only training I had was wearing the boots during BBA interviews to break them in. We had 6 others originally. Three were stationed in Chengdu, so were variously valiantly involved in earthquake disaster reliefs (I understand another Sichuan alumnus not connected with the Gobi Trek was somewhat injured in the leg). Two were taken ill at the last moment, and one alumna had a young child that was not adjusting well to a recent move to Singapore. Lee Ming and I got on very well—we were the only people who spoke English with each other during the whole trip.

The first two days were practice treks, at your own pace. They were used by the teams to form their competitive groups for the last two days. On the third day the average time of 6 designated members for each team was recorded. The fourth day, the slowest time of 6 designated members was recorded. Teams with up to two females received bonus points. The competition produced quite a wee bit of stress and some frictions.

I prayed quite a bit during the third day of 33k. I understood afresh how, when pushed beyond the extreme, people could just collapse and die while walking. It was a purely cardio-vascular thing. Your heart could not keep pumping at the high rate for protracted period, so your brain kept urging you to shut down. You were repeatedly yawning while you walked briskly, as your eyes just wanted to close. All blood flows were directed to your legs, so everything else, including the all-important drinking function, was a very conscious act. You had to move your lazy hand to raise the tube to your mouth to drink, because your brain told you this would keep you going. You could not gulp because this would stop your breathing for a while, so you swallowed a bit at a time between breaths. If you sat down, you tended to fall asleep.

On that third day, our competitive group was split into 2 sub-groups of 3. I was partnering two very fit NTU alumni. Their punishing pace was very hard on me. But I was the oldest of all 100+ participants, so they took very good care of me till the campsite was in view. Then, for competitive reasons, they zoomed off. I felt bad holding them back for so long till then. For the last 5k or so, although in the midst of a completely flat section, I couldn’t see anyone around.

I believe 100 or so of us (some had dropped out earlier) started off around 9:45am on that third day. The first person came in after 4pm; the last around 10pm, basically in the dark. There were many more drop-outs; they were somehow picked up by support vehicles. It was very possible to be disabled while not near any support—you just have to be careful. We were highly encouraged to walk in pairs at least, but this was not always practicable. One trekker got really lost, emerged on a road, and ended up having to hitch a ride to the Melon County (phone and walkie-talkie signals were intermittent throughout). Another took one big round, did at least 4k more than anyone else, but still ended up as one of the leaders on that third day. On various days, a lady had to stop because of a heart condition, while another person aborted just 1k from a campsite because of high blood pressure.

Those who didn’t force themselves to eat some energy food along the way became weaker and ever slower at the end. I understand this is natural. You see, our body is like a reserve bank for energy—i.e., we all have fat. Like all bankers, our body exerts a penalty when you have to quickly draw from the bank, after you had used up your store of recently absorbed carbohydrates—only those who had not gone through dieting wouldn’t understand this. So you needed to eat even when your exhaustion had made you not hungry. The ancients were not joking when they said the army marches on its stomach.

Besides that, you had to put up with all manners of discomfort. The jacket and wind-breaking trousers had not been changed for the whole trek—no showers; sorry! You were constantly grinding your blisters. If your shoes were a little short (me! me!), one of your toes would decide to be hero, and stick out just a little to be stubbed at every step. A blister would form, puncture, and form again, in rounds, while you had to continue walking. All pains somewhat numbed after you had walked a distance, but your muscles were constantly trying to lessen the pain by adopting an unnatural step. After a while those muscles rebelled, and you limped. The first few steps after a rest were always painfully slow, because the numbing subsided while you rested. Some people were afraid to rest because of that.

Your backpack, carrying only what you needed for walking (camping equipments were transported from campsite to campsite), induced a gnawing shoulder or back ache when you had it on for too long. Your sweat made the backpack heavier.

When a trekker broke wind, even a camel—bless its soul—would saunter away. To appreciate this, you got to know how hardy the creature is. Its staple diet is a misnomer of a grass that had figured out how to produce the maximum number of pointy and brittle 2-cm thorns per surface area. How any mouth could get around that bundle of pricks I would never figure out, never mind the tongue! I am sure the grass tastes just as unpleasant. How I knew the camel would try to escape? Well, surely there must be some mystery that is mine to keep! In any case, I don’t profess—a professor never does—to understand the workings of our alimentary system under a diet full of veggie and uncommon seasonings, and with an opening at the bottom that did not much see the latrine (more on that later). I did wonder how the camel managed to survive unless it devised a way to constantly run away from itself … oops! Hee hee!

110k provided a long time to think about a nice phrase whose acronym is GOBI, the second best one that I came up with was “Go On Being Insane!”. For the best, you have to read to the end.

There was also the Red-Bull Extreme Challenge (the energy drink Red Bull was a major sponsor, so cans are freely available during the trek) on the third day: walk all 33k without resupply! Only 18 out of 92 completers managed that, but 7 (1 not in our team’s competitive group-of-6) came out of the NTU-NUS combined team. I brought 10 bottles of water—5 in the water bag and 5 spare—and was really pushing it in the end; there was never enough water. Why did it? After all, the extra weight and the constant risk of heat stroke argued against it. It also doesn’t help with speed, thus neither the team timing. But someone in the team started with “I will do it” and the rest was history.

Some kind “farmer” delivered the watermelons and forbidden beers, for a “small” consideration, to facilitate the in-camp impromptu celebration by our NTU-NUS team after the arduous third day. We all knew another day of competition was ahead, but we were all glad the worst was over. We felt close to one another.

The terrain itself could be a real bugbear. We had actually walked through some farmland around streams (hey, there were oases!), and got to pass some farmers up close. They had the hard-worn farmer look, just like on TV. We did not find it possible to get any useful directions out of the country folks (believe you us, we tried!). They didn’t speak unless you greeted first (the endearing appellation to use was “old country-side”). I found this strange. If I were eking out a living there, and some guys with sophisticated-looking backpacks and telescoping walking sticks came alongside, I would at least tease with a “hi”; but there was clearly a social or cultural thing there that I missed.

We also crossed about 10 fences with a straight barbed wire on top. The area was zoned into different preserved and military regions. Some fences were very close to each other; others very far apart. Each presented a different challenge. Because I had been largely in front (for various technical reasons), I didn’t benefit from any previously breached fences, except for one. If you could find a large enough depression below a small section of a fence, you could crawl under while your companions stretched the hole bigger—those were the easiest ones. Some you could just get a heavy guy to stand on near a fence support, to kind of compress a big enough hole to go through. The hardest was the type that required physically breaking the wires (by using the cork screw on a Swiss officer’s knife to induce metal fatigue) to create a hole. Surprisingly, practically all the fences were brand new. There must have been an annual re-construction campaign after the trekking season, or very few people actually trek the way we were asked to—yonder pointed the GPS: beeline ahead! We actually left a trail of destroyed or disfigured fencing as we pushed on; one of them had a round green badge with my name printed on it—the official identity badge was conveniently used to fasten a small red flag to the barbed wire to alert those coming later to go through the breached fencing.

There were a few small rivers. One was very clear and fordable, so, off with the boots, and let the water attack your blisters while your feet got the only cleaning during the 4 days. After that you wore back your socks with feet muddied on the bank, which defeated the washing. The other rivers all required some sort of existing “bridge”. I remembered reading that clear water could be too poisonous to support life forms, while green rivers have too many organisms to agree with our digestive system, so I didn’t drink from any river. Along one river a dressed-the-part shepherd was herding sheep—they were really timid. I tried to take a shot with the camera that always hung in front of my chest, but did not know that I failed, either because the trigger was not fully depressed, or the focus was not yet set so the trigger wouldn’t engage.  I was so tired, I couldn’t check. It would have made the National Geographic. Many other shots taken along the way had similarly failed because I had simply held up the camera, just depressed the trigger and tiredly let go.

The flat type of ground with black pebbles was probably the black Gobi. They tended to just stretch without end, but you could probably see features up to 7 or 8 km away. The third day’s camp site was on such a “plane”. You began to think you see something along the direction of your GPS, maybe even 10k away; but, you could never reach, the sun was terrible, and your water (conjuring up Xuan Zang’s blurry image here) was fast running out! You realized why cars were invented, and you longed for the soft beds of Marriott’s Hotels.

The worst kind of terrain was the salt beds! They were so lumpy (lumps were about 15cm high), you really had to watch every step of your way. A false step could lead to a twisted ankle and end of trek. You bopped up and down as you progressed slowly. The dark ground was sprinkled with white salt, at about the density of a vigorous application of white pepper on a well-done steak. The camel grass was here aplenty, as they largely formed the lumps. They poked at you everywhere, and you learnt to ignore little gnawing pricks on your calves and hands that you used to clear your way. After crossing that river mentioned earlier, I managed to get one thorn into my sock. It kept poking at my left big toe. No time to remove it, so got used to it after a while.

There were stretches where the dry vegetation became almost man-high, so you could get lost quickly if you were not holding the GPS, because your leading teammates could disappear if you didn’t keep up. If you became disabled here (and maybe also in the salt beds), only the horses can reach you.

The sandy parts were very energy-sapping to traverse, because your shoes found little traction. When the wind blew, sand clouds rose from the ground and the fine grains quickly found your eyes, initiating your reflex action to pull up your bandana to cover part of your glasses. Walking when there was a strong sandy wind had been tough, even if you were not the NUS-flag bearer (Lee Ming and I took turns).

The rolling mounds, on the other hand, were disconcerting to scale—you were always hoping that the next mound would bring some comfort in a supply vehicle (with water) or maybe even the campsite, but were most often disappointed. You also needed to meander in order to avoid climbing too much. This was the predominant terrain for the last day.

Oh, there were ruins scattered all over, some rather tall and with small windows at different levels. You could just about imagine spears and swords clanging all around them all those years ago; but for the day, you had no energy for the rich heritage.

At the campsites, there was only water for drinking, not for any kind of washing. You either relied on wet tissues, or waited for all stickiness to eventually just, well, go away. Some did use some bottled water to clean, but this was considered anti-social.

The most interesting part was the latrines. I believed both the ladies and the gents were similarly constructed. Dug four oblong holes in each of two rows; not even staggered but facing one another. Nothing to hide from each other: we all had the same anatomy. That’s it. You see others’ past meals right there (I am sure a doctor could tell whether one had consumed more iron while a next might be anemic). While you were thus well positioned, a piece of stained toilet tissue could fly into your face from the opposite hole—I won’t tell you whether one actually hit me. When the sun shines, or when torches were used at night inside the latrines, you could see clear silhouettes on the shoulder-high cloth walls. The latrines tended to be dug far from activity areas, so they could be painful to get to when your thin-sole campsite footwear (both Lee Ming and I had hotel slippers) had to negotiate the sharp stones on the way there and back. I saw ladies trudging hand-in-hand to the latrines at night. They switched the positions of the ladies and gents at the last campsite; that night, I nearly … (I learnt later that, when the terrain was flat and barren, a female trekker on the move would ease herself merely by facing away behind the heels of her fellow male trekker.)

Reveille was at 6:30am. It was supposed to be at 3:30am on the last day, so that trekking could start at 5am—marching towards dawn; but the stragglers the night before scuttled the plan, much to the delights of all of us. On the morning of the second day, I rose at 5am as one of six pioneers (gathered from the fraternal grouping of Shanghai Jiao Tong, NTU and NUS) who left early to raise two hydrogen balloons as markers for the journey end’s hidden campsite.

After the air-con ride back, I blocked the shower drainage with the scum that accumulated for 4 days. Maybe the bar soap was the culprit. Where were my free L’Oréal samples?

Some of us were limping in our slippers up to the airplane when we left Dunhuang. A bunch cried during the closing dinner the night before, albeit probably under the influence of alcohol. I was warmly hugged so tightly and for so long during the celebration by a guy in another team, a fellow pioneer I walked with for quite a distance during the second day, that I thought I was going through another test. The trek was an experience like compressing 22 months (or 30 when I did mine) of army into 4 days, with any of the training regulations (e.g. compulsory rest after a fixed distance) only optionally self-imposed—the competitive spirit forced us to go on-and-on with few breaks.

In the end, the NTU-NUS combined team of 13 trekkers could just fill a team of 6 on the final day. The other 7 had all taken a support vehicle some of the way in previous days. Out of the 6, we had 3 limpers, not able to carry backpacks, right from the beginning of the day, having been variously injured during the days before. They were the sorts of injury, even minor versions of which would have excused a soldier from training. So we were crawling (relatively speaking), and cardio-vascular stress was greatly reduced (not quite a walk in the park, but one of us could actually sing between breaths!). In the end, although the official distance was 100.4k as the crow flies, we probably all walked closer to 130k along the fringe of the Gobi, given the meandering, the ups and downs, and the getting lost. We were overall second last of 8 teams for the whole trek; but all would agree that our spirits were indomitable!

BTW, I assiduously shaved every morning—and was once caught on a camera doing so. The organizers for this Trek were CCTV (China Central TV) and China Entrepreneur magazine. The number of telephoto and long-zoom lenses you saw around the starting and finishing areas (and occasionally elsewhere) was actually quite unnerving, especially when they stuck out of jeeps just when you were not at your cosmetic best while trudging along. Sometimes you could almost see the glee in the eyes of the video or camera men (and women!) as they zoomed in on their prey (“Hmmm … I could make a tidy sum with this shot if she ever runs for Mayor!”). I have the morbid fear of the kind of career-destroying caption below a hirsute Osama-without-a-headgear shot of me on the web.

Did I lose my paunch, and had hair sprouted through the balding patch on my head? Not really. I heard you need to do a 14-day trek in Nepal (in cold weather) to achieve those. It looked like I lost around 2 kg (new wardrobe?) and 3 toe nails (turned dark and miserable first, before dropping off in the weeks following); Lee Ming lost 5 … of the scaly type.

Those who wish to go on the tour (with air-con rides) next year should quickly apply—vacancies are filling up as I write. The only qualification being that you must have something to do with our EMBA programs, either as an academic or administrative staff member, an alumnus or alumna, or a student. However, sanity, as well as having less than 2 functional legs on average, is a disqualification. Every extra gram of fat on you, except on the soles of your feet, is a handicap (I even stopped carrying my passport from the third day). Don’t forget to train those leg muscles, while not neglecting your heart and lungs. Make sure you bring along some cosmetic-quality sun-block (mine said SPF 130, but probably carved those crow’s feet!) for the benefit of the worldwide Chinese CCTV network—you might still need to force a smile when the lens is pointing at you.

Xuan Zang had got a point, though; and there was that camaraderie with like-spirited movers and shakers, especially folks from NTU and Jiao Tong. Without belaboring His Venerable’s point, mortification of the flesh now and then—air-con rides notwithstanding—can be good for the soul. I plan to be there next year seeking enlightenment, incognito.

PS For the best phrase making up the GOBI acronym, please scroll to the very top … in the title lah!

Web site for trek: http://www.bizchallenge.net

Facebook group: http://fb.com/home.php?sk=group_90648651276

Kaixin group: http://kaixin001.com/group/group.php?gid=934702

Pictures for the following year, 2009:



A monk wasn’t even staring up at the menu when he lined up at the Pizzeria. When he was at the head of the queue, the counter attendant stared at him in amazement. The monk finally said, “Make me one with everything.”

“You sure you wish to be at one with even the pepperoni, salami, ham and all that, Reverent? I mean, wouldn’t being familiar with those be quite a change for you?”

The monk merely smiled and repeated, “Make me one with everything.”

If you were trekking along in the Gobi desert, even if only at the fringe of it, and you happened to be quite alone, either because you hurried ahead or lagged behind, and there wasn’t another soul in sight, you would have to feel at one with the vast expanse, a sensation tending towards enlightenment.

Or you had to wonder why on earth you are fighting the desert’s natural hostility, a feeling more given to pending insanity.

That’s how Gobi beckons, come every May; and it doesn’t matter which way—tempting enlightenment or insanity. You still get well over 200 people braving the blistering heat with blistering feet.

Together with 30 or so alumni and students (and also Xiaohui), four of our NUS colleagues (Pat, Angel, Zhaoli and Jane) were there in their official capacities in 2010. And then there was me on my own, quite the laggard, in Gobi again for the food … well, actually for the wonderful warm mutton soup at the end of a long day of trekking. Really, many of us went back for seconds; some would happily exchange the main course for a few more bowls, if the queue wasn’t always so long.

“That would be $13.79, please, Reverent.” The monk handed over $20. The counter attendant rang the cash register and said “Thank you. It will take 20 minutes. … Next-in-line, please; what would be your order for today?”

The monk stood surprised; and finally asked “Where’s my change?”

“Change,” smiled the attendant enlighteningly with a pregnant pause, “must come from within.”