Finding Gobi

How two outsiders found their way into each other’s hearts

By Dion Leonard with Craig Borlase from the book finding gobi Published Dec 13, 2021 20:24:31 IST
2021-12-13T20:24:31+05:30
2021-12-13T20:24:31+05:30
Finding Gobi

JUST like the start line of any race, everyone was doing their own thing to cope with the nerves. I tried to distract myself by looking at the other100 or so competitors. It was June 2016 and I was in northwestern China to run a race: 250 kms over the course of a week across freezing peaks and then the scorching Gobi Desert. I’d be attempting about one marathon a day for four days, and two on day five.

Only three days earlier I’d kissed my wife, Lucja, goodbye in Edinburgh—she was an ultramarathoner too but couldn’t get the time off for this race—and after the long trip, I was exhausted, which isn’t how I wanted to feel this close to my biggest race.

It's hard to think of a more brutal test of mental and physical toughness; ultra-marathon runners go through agony, shedding sometimes even 10 per cent of our body weight during these races. But finishing is one of life’s most rewarding experiences.I was 41, and had started doing ultramarathons only three years ago.I’d run the fabled Marathon des Sables in Morocco twice, running with1,300 others; the route is through the Sahara in 51-degree Celsius temperatures. The first time, I placed 108th;the next, I was 32nd. But at my most recent race, in Cambodia, I’d finished with my hamstrings in agony. I felt I may never compete again. But I’d recovered enough for the Gobi race.

The thought of never competing again made me feel queasy—and this time, I wanted to reach the podium.Because I didn’t like being an outsider. Not since I was a kid in Australia and life changed forever.

It was a sunny day in 1984 in my rural hometown in Queensland, just one day after my ninth birthday. That morning, I’d finally perfected somersault on our outdoor trampoline, and after lunch Dad and I went out with our cricket bats. He taught me how to hold the bat and hit a ball so hard it sailed beyond our property's boundary. That evening, Mom left for an aerobics class, Dad watched cricket on TV, and I went to bed. Sometime later,I awoke to, “Dion!”

I got up to see what Dad wanted.His breathing sounded wrong. “Go get your grandmother, Dion.”

Nan lived in an apartment attached to the house. As soon as she saw Dad,she called an ambulance. “Garry,you’re having an asthma attack,” she told him in a voice I’d never heard.“Keep calm, Garry. Stay with me.”When the paramedics wheeled Dad out, he was still struggling to breathe,his head shaking.

I’d never see him again.At the funeral, I broke from Mom’shand and draped myself around Dad’s coffin, sobbing, until someone peeled me away. It was as if Mom became a child again after Dad died, crying constantly while Nan took care of me and my little sister, Christie. Then one evening, when Mom and I were in the kitchen, she said out of the blue,“Garry wasn’t your dad.”

I have no memory of what I replied,maybe because of the shock. What I know is that while everything had changed in one ambulance ride, it took only four words to rip my heart apart.

I was ashamed of the truth about myself. My hometown was a small place with traditional values, and it seemed all my friends came from perfect families. I didn’t want to be different, so I started attending church alone on Sundays. Sometimes the sermons made me feel better about myself. But the way people looked at me, whispering, as I hovered near the cakes table afterwards made it clear that I didn’t belong.

One Saturday when I went to a friend's house, his mom told me he couldn't come out. “You’re a bad influence, Dion,” she told me from behind the door. “We don’t want you coming around.” I walked away devastated. I didn’t swear or act out at school; I was polite, kind. But I was becoming aware of my place in life:on the outside.

As the years passed, my mother spent days in her bedroom, leaving me to make the meals. Christie and I couldn’t do anything right. If we left crumbs around or I didn’t do my gardening chores right, my mother nagged and screamed.

“You’re useless!” she’d say. I’d yell back, and soon we’d be swearing at each other. Mom never apologized.Nor did I.

By the time I was 15, I’d had enough. I said I was moving out, but Mom didn’t seem to care. A friend and I rented a room in a hostel filled with drifters and drunks. I was still at school and pumped gas to pay rent; I managed to keep up with my school-work, but my teachers showed no sign of caring about how I was coping.

I became a pain-in-the-ass loud-mouth, riling the teachers and getting thrown out of class. At the final assembly, when the headmaster greeted each of us with a friendly word about our futures, he could only say to me, “I’ll be seeing you in prison.”

But when I hit my 20s, life got a lot better, and I met Lucja. I first tried running when I was 26 and we were living in New Zealand. At the time,Lucja was managing an eco-hotel and I was working for a wine exporter.Both jobs came with perks such as crates of wine and great meals out.People told me I was a big lad, and they were right. At more than six feet tall, I weighed 108 kilos, heavier than I’d ever been. I didn’t exercise, occasionally smoked, and had created a dent in the sofa where I watched sports on TV.

Then Lucja made some new friends who loved running and fitness, and she got onto a health kick. When I realized it wasn’t just a phase, I panicked: the fitter she became, the greater my risk of losing her. Why would she stay with a fat bloke like me?

So I started running, too, and got a lot healthier. For the first couple of years I ran three or four kms at a time,but then I impulsively bet a runner friend that I could beat him in a half marathon. He was so confident he'd win that the familiar fear from my youth—of not belonging—returned. I trained hard, won the bet and haven’t looked back. In fact, my need to prove myself only became stronger.

image-98new_121321081325.jpgDion and Lucja on their wedding day.

At the start line of the Gobi Desert race, I did a final check that my backpack’s straps were snug across my chest. We carry everything we need for the entire week: I bring only a sleeping bag, the clothes I’m wearing, and the minimum food I need, 2,000 calories a day. I’d be eating rehydrated meals, jerky, nuts and energy gels, and I wouldn’t be changing or showering.

I should have been feeling confident; my training had prepared me well. But as always happens at the start line, I began thinking the other runners were fitter, stronger. I struggled to ignore that familiar voice: Who am I to think I can do this?

The horn sounded, and a crush of people surged down the middle, wanting to take the lead. I’d put myself wide.I didn’t want to trip, and I could maybe get ahead before the course narrowed and dropped into a canyon. My plan worked and soon I was behind a favourite to win, Tommy Chen of Taiwan.

The rocks were slippery from the dew, and I struggled to keep my footing. A twisted ankle would mean a whole lotof pain or, worse yet, a ‘Did Not Finish’.

Halfway through the day, I saw a dune towering ahead. It was steep,and easily 300 feet high. The sand gave way with the slightest pressure, falling like weak clay, and I had to use my hands on it for extra grip. Tommy and I weren’t running up it; we were scrambling.

Up top, we ran along its narrow peak stretching almost a kilometre. “Look at this view!” Tommy shouted. “Isn’t it magnificent?” I said nothing. I’m scared of heights and had to move cautiously.

Tommy was surprised when I over-took him on the descent. We ran side by side for a while until a Romanianrunner, Julian, caught up. The three of us traded the lead from time to time,and we ran across muddy fields, overbridges, and past villages that belonged in another century, I became hopeful that this race might not be my last after all. I was flying.

Back in my yurt that afternoon, I laid down and thought about my performance. I was happy with third place,and there was only a minute or two between me, Tommy and Julian. I ate some jerky and dozed in my sleeping bag, waking an hour later when my tentmates returned from their runs.

“Whoa! Dion’s back already!” said an American named Richard Henson.I smiled, and congratulated them on the first stage.

“Are you here to win?” asked another.“Well, I’m not here for fun,” I replied.Richard laughed. “We got that impression. You’re not exactly sociable, are you?”

I laughed too. I liked this guy. “Yeah,it’s just how I get through these races.”

At 6:30 I wandered outside carrying my bag of dehydrated chili. At the fire where water was boiling, I made up the meal. Everyone was sitting around chatting, but all the seats were taken,so I crouched on a rock and ate. After scooping the last traces from the bag, I got up to head back to the yurt and turn in.

That’s when I saw a dog. Sandy co-loured with big dark eyes and a funny-looking moustache and beard, it was walking among the chairs, getting upon its hind legs and charming runners into parting with their precious food.

Clever dog, I thought. There’s no way I’d feed it.

Just before 8 the next morning, I shivered in the cold as I took my place on the starting line. The ground was wet, and the Tian Shan J mountains ahead were covered in dark clouds. We were already at an altitude of 7,000 feet, and today would take us up to more than 9,000. I focused only on the challenge ahead; I couldn't afford not to. Then my concentration was broken by laughter and a little cheering behind me.

“It’s the dog! How cute!”

I looked down and saw the dog from last night. It was standing by my feet, its tail wagging, staring at my bright yellow gaiters I wore to keep sand out.

Then it did the strangest thing. It slowly looked up, its dark eyes taking in my legs, then my yellow-shirted torso,and finally my face. It looked right into my eyes, and I couldn’t look away.

 “You’re cute,” I said softly, “but you'd better be fast if you’re not planning to get trodden.”

I looked about; someone had to get it out of our way. “Does anyone know whose dog this is?” I asked as the countdown began. None of the locals or staff noticed. Nine, eight, seven....

I looked down. The dog was still sniffing my gaiters. “You’d better get away, little doggie.” Five, four....

“Go on,” I said, nudging it. But it only took a playful bite of the gaiter, jumped back, then dove in for another sniff.

The race began, and as I set off, the little dog came with me. The gaiters game was even more fun now that they moved, and the dog danced around my feet as if it were the best fun ever. But the last thing I wanted was to trip over the pooch and cause injury to it or myself. I had to stay focused on keeping pace, so I was thankful when, next time I glanced down, the dog wasn’t there.

The forest fell away as the path climbed into the mountains. I kept up a six-minute-mile pace, concentrating on a short stride and quick feet.

Then I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I forced myself to look down for a fraction of a second. It was the dog again. It wasn’t interested in my gaiters now; it seemed happy just trotting beside me. Weird, I thought. What's it doing here? I liked dogs. Lucjaand I had had a Saint Bernard named Curtly, but after he'd died, we didn’t get another; neither of us wanted to go through that kind of pain again.But my only concern with this one was that it would trip me or make me lose focus.

I pressed on and attacked the incline. Zeng, the Chinese runner in the lead, had pulled away from me a little, but I couldn’t hear anyone behind me. It was just me and the dog, side by side, tearing into the switchbacks.

When the path was interrupted by a three-foot culvert, I leapt over the fast-flowing water without breaking stride. The dog stayed behind, barking and whimpering. But I didn’t look back. I never do. The dog probably belonged to someone back near the camp. It had had a good workout, conned some runners out of food, and now it was time to head home. I kept my head in the race and pushed on.

Suddenly there was a flash of brown, and the dog was back. Determined little thing, I thought.

Soon the track became even steeper and the temperature dropped. The air numbed my face and fingers, and the altitude made my breathing tight and my head a little dizzy. Every step became a battle.

When a checkpoint finally came into view, volunteers and organizers called out the usual encouragement. But this time, they shouted a little louder. “There’s that dog again!” I'd almost forgotten the little dog at my side. While I’d been struggling uphill,it had kept pace, skipping along as if running 2,500 feet into the sky was the most natural thing in the world.

image-101new_121321081517.jpgDion feels that, in many ways, by finding Gobi he has found more of himself.

At checkpoints, runners refill their bottles and medics ensure we’re okay.But this time the dog got far more attention, and volunteers took photos.When I headed out, I expected the dog would stay here in favour of a better meal ticket. But it joined me again.

If the run-up the mountain had been tough, the eight-km descent on a path of rocks and loose stones was its own unique sort of pain. It was brutal on the joints, and I struggled to hit anything close to my maximum pace. Tommy glided past me, followed by Julian. I was annoyed with myself for giving too much on the ascent, but finally the path flattened and I picked up my pace. I wouldn’t catch Tommy,Zeng, or Julian that day, but felt good to still be on pace for third overall.

People were cheering for the brown mutt and I as we crossed the finish line side by side. I could swear it was playing to the crowd by wagging its tail faster. “That dog, man!” said Tommy.“It’s been following you all day!”

Someone found a small bucket and gave it some water, but I stepped back,wanting to get away from the crowds.When the dog finished drinking, it looked up, locked eyes on my yellow gaiters, and trotted over. It seemed determined to follow me.

As soon as I sat down in the tent,the dog curled up beside me—and I started thinking about germs and diseases. It’s crucial during these races to keep as clean as possible because without any access to showers or sinks, it’s easy to get sick from anything you touch.

I had a few hours before my 6:30meal, so I pulled out some nuts and jerky. The dog’s stare into my eyes was unbreakable. With a piece of meat midway to my mouth, it struck me that I hadn’t seen it eat all day. “Here you go,” I said, tossing it half the jerky.I didn’t want its mouth on my fingers.The dog chewed, swallowed, spun around a few times and lay down.Within seconds it was snoring, deeply asleep. Then I was, too.

I woke later to my tentmates cooing like kids. “Ah, how cute is that?” “Isn’t that the dog from last night? Did you hear she followed him all day?”

She. I hadn’t even considered if the dog was male or female. I opened my eyes, and she was staring deeper into my eyes than I would have thought possible. “Yeah,” I said to the guys.“She stuck with me all day. She’s got a good little motor.”

Some of them fed her, and she gently accepted, as if on her best behavior. I told them I’d guessed she belonged to someone at the last camp.“I don’t think so,” said Richard.“Some of the others said she joined them on the dune yesterday.”

I was staggered. She’d run almost 80 kms in two days on those little legs.“You know what you’ve got to do now, don’t you?” said Richard.“What?” I asked.

“You’ve got to give her a name.”The next morning, I stopped running just 1.5 kms in, cursing my stupidity. I’d put on a jacket as it had been cold, but suddenly the sun came out. As I stood packing the jacket, Tommy, Julian, and two others passed. Then one more runner approached, and I smiled.

“Hey Gobi,” I said, using the name I’d given her the night before. “You’ve changed your mind?”

She had spent the night curled up at my side, but once I got to the start line, she’d disappeared among the crowd. I’d been too focused on the weather to worry about her. But there was Gobi, looking up at me as I fastened my bag. She was ready to go. So was I.

Sometime later we reached a fast-moving river at least 150 feet wide Julian had already traversed it, and I waded right in. The water reached my knees, and there were slippery rocks underfoot. One misstep and my race could be over.

I was so focused I didn’t considerGobi. I guess I assumed she’d find her way across, like yesterday. But with every step I took, her barking and whining became more desperate. I was a quarter of the way across when I did what I had never done before in a race. I turned around.

Gobi was running up and down the bank, looking at me as I made my way back. Would this lose me a place on the podium? I tucked her under my left arm and waded back into the cold water. She was much lighter than I imagined. Using only my right arm for balance, I edged forward. I slipped more than once, one time going down hard on my left side, getting Gobi wet.But she didn’t wriggle. She stayed calm, letting me do my job and keep her safe. There was a moment when her face was level with mine that I swore she gave me a look of genuine love and gratitude.

I put her down on the other bank and she scrambled up it, shook herself off and stared at me. “You’re ready, aren't you , girl?” I said, unable to stop smiling. 

“Let’s go, then.”

That’s when I looked up and saw an old guy on a donkey. He was watching us, expressionless. What must this look like? I wondered.

I was behind the leaders but pushed to catch up. Whenever I started to tire,I only needed to glance at Gobi. Just by being there, and being determined,Gobi made me want to keep going.

Later, a couple of kilometres from the finish, I made a series of sprints to catch up to Tommy and Julian. My lungs burnt, but Gobi thought it was great fun, pushed me hard—and we passed the leaders. I crossed the line first, Gobion my heels. The sound of the finishing drum couldn’t drown out the cheers from organizers and volunteers.

Days four and five were going to be gruelling sessions on the black, hard-packed Gobi Des-ert under a cruel sun. I decided this would be too much for Gobi, so she'd travel to the next camp in a volunteer’s car. I made sure that person was going to keep her cool and hydrated, but I felt a shiver of worry. Gobi had attached herself so clearly to me; would she be okay with strangers? Or would she set off on another adventure?

Day four was brutally hot, with temperatures in the 37-degree range.I stayed in front for a long time, but that meant I had to navigate the route and suck up the vicious headwind. I missed Gobi biting at my gaiters to speed me up. My legs felt like concrete and my head drifted into familiar thoughts. Maybe I’m all washed up.Maybe coming here has been one big mistake. By the time Tommy, Julian,Zeng, and another runner overtook me, I was past caring. In the final kilometre, all I wanted was for this whole thing to be over. I could imagine Lucja telling me to sleep on it, that I’d feel better after some rest and food, but another voice was telling me to give up running completely.

Then I turned the final bend and saw Gobi sitting on a rock at the finish line, scanning the horizon. For a moment she stayed motionless, and I wondered whether she’d recognize me. Suddenly she leapt from the rock,a blur of brown fur tearing toward me, little tongue flapping.

For the first time that day, I smiled.In the tent, with Gobi curled up at my side, I drifted in and out of sleep.I was missing Lucja. I relied on her in so many ways at races. Whenever I became frustrated, she’d take the sting out. One of my favourite memories of running with her is our first Marathon des Sables. On day one, I’d almost quit. But I improved, and as I neared the end of the final day, I was happy I’d place near the top 100. Then, a few hundred feet before the finish, I spotted Lucja, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked in my direction.

“What are you doing here?” I asked when I reached her. She should have reached this point an hour ago.

“I wanted to finish with you,” she replied. We crossed the finish line hand in hand. She could have placed much higher, but she chose to wait for me.

I needed Lucja. But today had taught me something else. I’d missed Gobi, and would miss her again the next day. She was a great distraction during hours of running and she inspired me. She didn’t know anything about running technique or race strategy; she was a fighter who refused to give up. After only two days of running with Gobi at my side,I realized I enjoyed watching her little legs power through.

So while day five, almost two marathons long, was even hotter—we'd moved on to the Gobi’s black sand, and temperatures soared to 52 degrees—I kept the lead. And when I really started to struggle, I pulled my secret weapon from my bag: an iPod. I’d saved it for a moment when I needed a boost, and my rocket fuel was Johnny Cash. When that baritone filled my ears with lyrics about outsiders and the kind of men everyone writes off, my spirits lifted. He was singing just to me, calling me to push harder, to prove the doubters wrong.

I was utterly depleted as I neared the finish, and there was Gobi, just like the day before. She dashed out to run the last 200 feet with me and we crossed the finish line together.

I was on a high. My overall second-place podium position was all but secure; the final day would be a symbolic 10 kms, followed by a celebration feast. I had proved to myself that my running career had some life.

“What are you going to do about that little one?” one of the runners asked later, pointing at Gobi.

It was a good question, one I'd been asking myself. Did Gobi have an owner on the edge of the desert? 

Everyone I asked thought it was more likely she was one of China’s countless strays. I didn’t want to leave her to fend for herself, but there was more:Gobi had picked me, out of so many others. From the time she started nibbling at my gaiters, she had hardly ever chosen to leave my side. She had trusted me to help her, and given everything she had to keep up. How could I leave her behind?“

You know what?” I replied. “I'm going to find a way to bring her home.”I hadn’t spoken to Lucja for a week,and when I finally got to call her I was a little nervous. How would I tell her I wanted to bring home a stray dog from China?

But before I could say much more than hello, Lucja asked, “How’s Gobi?”

I was stunned. “You know about Gobi?” “Yeah! Some of the runners mentioned her in their blogs. Pretty little thing, isn’t she?”

“She is. I wanted to talk to you—”“You’re bringing her home? As soon as I heard about her, I knew you'd want to.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as we’d hoped.

I left gobi at the home of a trusted volunteer in the regional capital,Ürümqi. Back home, I returned to work, and Lucja and I researched the steps for bringing a dog to the UK.Gobi would have to be quarantined four months at Heathrow Airport.But first, as we learnt from a helpful woman named Kiki from WorldCarePet Transport, a Beijing pet-moving service, Gobi would need a rabies test in Ürümqi followed by a 30-day wait in that city. Then she could fly to the UK for her quarantine—but only from Shanghai or Beijing. To fly to either of those cities, she must be accompanied by the person who would be taking her out of China.

Could we really bring Gobi home?The total cost could be several thousand dollars. So we decided tocreate a crowd-funding page, setting the limit at $6,500 [`4,85,000].Two days later, the Daily Mirror got in touch, and 24 hours after they published, “Heartwarming bond between ultra-marathon man and thestray dog he refuses to leave behind,”we’d surpassed our target. World wide media coverage followed, and we had enough funds to bring Gobi home.

There was only one problem: She had gone missing.

Gobi had somehow gotten out ofthe volunteer’s home days earlier. Lucja and I agreed: if Gobi had a chance of being found, I’d have to return to Ürümqi. My employers at the whisky distiller where I’m a business manager were very supportive I felt desperate, but my desire to find Gobi was as strong as any I’d ever had.

When I landed in Ürümqi, I met the search committee that Kiki had organized, led by a dog-loving woman named Lu Xin. They’d been putting up posters and knocking on doors.I was blown away by the kindness of strangers who had jumped in to help. But I couldn’t see how we’d ever find Gobi in this city of more than four million. We’d have to knock on thousands of doors at countless apartment blocks. And she’d been gone several days; if Gobi had decided to head for the mountains in the distance—if she made it through the dangerous traffic first—she could belong gone. It seemed impossible.

It was late when I got back to the hotel after my first full day searching with the team. I was jet-lagged and had not eaten since breakfast so I ordered room service, took a drink from the minibar, and tried calling Lucja.No reply. I waited, and took another drink. Then another.

When Lucja called back, a surge of sadness flowed out of me, like water down a drain. All I could do was cry.

When at last I caught my breath,Lucja told me she’d talked with Kiki,and they’d agreed we needed local media coverage. She had arranged a TV interview for the next day.

“Maybe it’ll kick things off, like the Daily Mirror did,” she said.“I hope so,” I said quietly. “But Lucja, she could be a hundred kilo-metres away.”

“You know what I’m going to say,don’t you?” Lucja replied.

I did. But I wanted to hear it anyway. “Sleep on it. It’ll all look different in the morning.”

The TV reporter wanted to know why a guy living in Scotland would come all the way here to search for a dog, and he knew the search was being led by locals. The coverage worked; the next day we had more volunteers, and interview requests from across China. One sent a crew to follow me for a live broadcast of the search.

We needed the coverage to help convince locals to care about a little dog,and we did get more tips, though so far all were dead ends. But I’d have to be careful with media, especially international outlets; we were advised to never be critical of the state. If authorities felt China was painted in a bad light—say,as dog-eating barbarians—we could lose their cooperation. One article had speculated Gobi was snatched for the dog-meat trade. (I dismissed this;locals told me the practice wasn’t common in this region.)

On the fourth day, I was excited when Richard, my tentmate from the race, arrived. His work took him around China, so he offered to help search. I didn’t know it at the time,but Lucja had asked Richard to look after me. She knew I was stressed and not eating properly. We went for a much-needed run; I’d had my eye on the mountains and Richard helped me hand out posters in villages there.

Still, I despaired as we searched Ürümqi’s streets daily. I couldn’t stop doubting our chances, and feeling the pain of knowing I was losing Gobi.We’d followed up on some 30 tips, going to see dogs that were nothing like her, dashing my hopes each time.

On day 14 of Gobi being missing we got yet another tip. Someone who had seen our poster spotted a stray they thought was Gobi and had taken it home. They texted a photo, but it was blurry, and the dog had a deep scar on its head. I was doubtful, but we went to check it out.

We drove to a gated community and parked. I stepped into the house, and suddenly a streak of sandy brown shot across the room and jumped up at my knees. “It’s her!” I shouted, picking the dog up and thinking that I’d slipped into a dream. She was making the excited, whimpering, yapping sound she'd made when we were reunited at the finish line. “This is Gobi!” She burrowed into my lap like a puppy.

I rang Lucja. “We bloody well found her!” I said the moment she picked up. Both of us didn’t say much for a while. We were too busy crying.

image-108new_121321082110.jpgGobi’s first run on the beach in her new home, Edinburgh, Scotland.

I couldn't risk leaving Gobi alone in China again. Also, she must have been hit by a car: in addition to the gash on her head, she had a painful dislocated hip and needed an operation. So Lucja and I decided I'd stay. I’d be with Gobi during the 30 days following the rabies shot, and then my little dog and I could do a three-month quarantine together in China and avoid her going through four months of that alone in the UK. I feared my employers would think I'd lost the plot, but they were again fully supportive, refusing my offer to resign.

“I guess this is where we start our new life together,” I told Gobi when it was decided. She stared back at me, big eyes locked on mine, just like during the race. I was convinced she was telling me that whatever the next adventure was, she was all in.

We relocated to Beijing, where I rented a small apartment. The rabies test came back negative, and then Gobi had her hip operation. She was up and about just days later. We spent lots of time outside, walking along the canal on nice days. Gobi and I soon learnt that the best street-food stalls served jianbing, a crepe with egg inside. We couldn’t get enough of those. We even found a cafe where the staff didn’t mind us sitting at an outdoor table; for a city that generally doesn't allow dogs in taxis or buses,and has only since 2015 allowed guide dogs on subways, this was a major score.Gobi seemed happier than ever,holding her head high, eyes bright. It was impossible to tell she’d recently been a stray. Sometimes I’d slip out to the gym or grocery store, but Gobi didn’t like being left alone. Whenever I returned, she’d spin and sprint and yelp with pure excitement. I’d pick her up, and a deep calm would fall over her, just like at the river crossing.

Life in Beijing got tougher in November: that’s when the government turned on the heat nationwide and pollution worsened.The apartment was a furnace, but Idared not open the windows and let dirty air in. We couldn’t go for walks.The end of December couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally, though, after four months of waiting in China, we could go home.

“Wow!” says Lucja as the three of us charge up Arthur’s Seat, the steep grassy mountain dominating Edinburgh’s skyline. “Look at her energy!”

It’s my 42nd birthday—the day after Gobi and I arrived home—and the three of us are on our first run together. Gobi turns around, tongue out, eyes bright, chest puffed. She and Lucja had bonded the moment they met, and it’s as if she understands exactly what Lucja had just said.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Isay, pushing the pace to loosen the strain on Gobi’s leash. “She was like this in the Tian Shan mountains.”

Gobi is a true climber, and with every step we take, she’s more alive.Soon her tail is wagging so fast it blurs,her body bouncing with joy.

This little dog has changed me in ways I think I’m only just beginning to understand. To be trusted so much by a living creature, and to be on the receiving end of that kind of love and devotion is a powerful thing.

Love. Devotion. Attention. Affection. Those all disappeared from my life for a whole decade when I was growing up. Now I was getting the chance to treat someone vulnerable in the way I wanted to be treated back then. In many ways, by finding Gobi,I’ve found more of myself.

Gobi turns again, pulling on the leash, and I swear she’s grinning.Come on! Let’s go!

Lucja and I look at each other and laugh as we run, enjoying the moment we’ve longed for: To be together.

image-95new_121321082305.jpg

From the book FINDING GOBI by Dion Leonard with Craig Borlase. Copyright © 2017 by Dion Leonard. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Nelson.

 

 

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