Executive MBA 21 May 2015

NUS Business School takes on the Gobi Desert Challenge

What does NUS Business School have in common with a Buddhist Monk?

The answer? An insatiable thirst for knowledge; the determination to walk the talk; the will to overcome all obstacles to attain their goal; and a shared journey trekking across the Gobi Desert. It was at Mo-Kia-Yen Gobi Desert 1,300 years ago that the Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller and translator, Xuangzang, was chased, abandoned, and almost killed as he traversed the desert to India in pursuit of original Buddhist scriptures.


The annual Gobi Desert Challenge – a 112km trek, which takes place over four days- was inspired by the monk’s journey and has now become an annual event that tests the physical endurance, determination and grit for EMBA students from China and global business schools. Now into its 10th year, the Gobi Desert Challenge 2015 saw a record number of 84 participants from NUS Asia-Pacific Executive Master’s in Business Administration, APEX EMBA (Chinese) programme. 


To prepare for the challenge, our team began training for the event about nine months ago, slowing working their way up to increasingly gruelling training sessions in Chengdu in the weeks leading up to the race. The group has bonded during these sessions. It even had a theme song co-written by Dr Chen Chunhua and EMBA student Zhang Yujuan.

Provost group photo

Who participated this year?

NUS Provost Professor Tan Eng Chye flagged off the race and joined the first day walk with his daughter. The arduous 112km hike began in China’s Guazhou region on May 22, with 84 participants from NUS Business School taking part. Associate Professors Susanna Leong and Song Zhaoli, and Adjunct Professor Ms Chen Chunhua lead the faculty contingent. In addition, members of the administrative team, such as Joan Tay, Patricia Yang Jia, and Brenda Cao participated in the race.  Our Celebrity Baker, Wu Pao Chun also joined the trekking.

Deputy Dean and Assoc Prof Hum Sin Hoon and Director of Graduate Studies Chua Nan Sze were present at the finish line to lend their support.


Conquering the Gobi

This year, NUS teams were divided into three. Since the Gobi Desert is one of the harshest terrains on earth – with its intense heat, sand storms and strong winds – preparation for the race started as early as May 2014, with the organising committee assessing the varying fitness levels, ages and schedules for all the participants. Some ten training sessions were organised to simulate the challenge in terms of distance covered and the terrain. In addition to the physical preparations, the committee equipped each contestant with the necessary gear for the competition.


“Unlike other events, the Gobi Desert Challenge is specially created to test the physical endurance, determination and grit of EMBA students,” says Associate Professor Susanna Leong, Vice-Dean (Graduate Studies), who also took part in the event. “The race is physically and mentally daunting. And like Xuanzang, many EMBA students also harbour an insatiable thirst for knowledge, as well as the determination to overcome all obstacles to attain their goal (or nirvana). Now that we have completed the race, we even share the common goal of trekking across the Gobi Desert. This was a transformational experience for us, as through it, we learn the importance of self-management, discipline and team spirit. I believe we will internalise this once-in-a-lifetime experience and continue to seek our own “玄奘之路.”


“Personally, I have benefitted greatly. The one year of training has seen me change gradually from a terribly unfit person with almost nil exercise to one that embraces out the great outdoor and hiking expeditions. I have lost weight and certainly feel fitter than before. The 4-day expedition in the Gobi Desert has made me realised that really, one’s happiness may be as simple as enjoying a warm cup of mutton soup and rice, and the prospect of resting in a tent after a day’s walk in the desert. It is all a matter of our state of mind,” says the professor.


A Special Challenge

This year is especially meaningful as we celebrate 50 years of Leading from Asia.

To mark NUS’s 110th anniversary and the Business School’s 50th anniversary, the Gobi Desert Challenge will be formally integrated into the curriculum of the NUS APEX EMBA (Chinese) programme from the 24th cohort onwards.


Participants have also used the race to raise funds to support the School’s experiential learning module – 新国大体验式教学之戈壁一堂课. The fund-raising started during the launch of the charity walk in January 2015. Since then they have raised close to S$213,000, all of which will be presented as a gift to the school during the 50th anniversary Gala Dinner later this year.

NUS team came in 21st out of 43 teams who participated. Watch Channel News Asia’s special report here.