[top photo: The team from NUS starting out at the route which follows that of the monk Xuanzang on his journey to the West.]
by Rachael Boon
On his first day trekking across the Gobi Desert, Mr Kwek Chok Ming, 54, was happily snapping pictures of the awesome landscape.
'There was a lot of excitement because the unknown was not known yet. There were rivers, hills and many parts with soft sand,' he says.
But on the second day, he was too exhausted and battered from the tough trek to take further notice of his surroundings. 'After walking through different types of terrain, I developed blisters on my feet, and walking on what they called Gobi pebbles, which kept sinking into the ground, making the trek even more difficult,' he says.
Eventually, he gave up sight-seeing and concentrated on completing the journey.
The senior financial services director was participating in the four-day Business School Gobi Challenge as part of the 10-member team from National University of Singapore Business School, where he had just completed his Executive MBA programme.
First held in 2006, the annual challenge covers more than 110km across the third largest desert in the world, known as Mo-kai-Yen Gobi on the borders between Gansu and Xinjiang provinces in China.
Participants have to cross canyons, mountain ranges and vast sand dunes. Along the way, the punishing desert landscape is replete with rocky cliffs, rock formations and wild plants over 1.7m tall.
According to the organisers China Central Television (CCTV) and China Entrepreneur, the route follows that of the monk Xuanzang or Tripitaka on his journey to the West along the Silk Road during the Tang dynasty.
The challenge was created as an avenue for international business school students to interact and network. The winning teams get a plaque.
Mr Kwek says: 'When you walk along the route, you imagine the merchants from the East and West (of the past). But now, it has turned into a desert and that is sad.'
Mr Yin Xiaohua, 35, team leader of the other team from Singapore, Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, adds: 'You can read and learn about the Gobi Desert from magazines and pictures, but you can't understand what we have gone through until you've experienced it for yourself.'
This year, 10 teams from China, Hong Kong, the United States and Singapore took part, including China Europe International Business School, Fudan School of Management and Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
The China Europe team came in first, while NTU and NUS came in eighth and last respectively.
Associate professor Quek Ser Aik, the NUS team's oldest member at 55, says: 'The last four teams were extremely close. We were last because the team decided to finish the race together after a member sustained an injury.'
The second-time participant adds: 'What all of us felt was the camaraderie and school spirit through a common ordeal. In fact, when we completed the challenge, other teams cheered us on.'
His teammate, Dr Song Zhaoli, 38, assistant professor of management at NUS, sums up the experience philosophically: 'This challenge is very different from a (purely) physical one. The continuous trekking is more psychological or spiritual to a certain extent, to seek the spirit of Xuanzang.'
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