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| On 2 years ago

One-on-one with Travel Enthusiast Scott Tay and Double Cancer Survivor Ellil Mathiyan: Trekking In The Wintry Mongolia Landscape Against All Odds

For the longest time, travel has become the shorthand for unfolding hidden narratives and gaining new perspectives from a foreign land. Globalisation, as well as the rise of Instagram, has transformed the landscape for travelling, with exotic locales and one-upmanship becoming core motivations for many in recent times.

These days, travel itineraries are tailored and planned to perfection, with plenty of photo opportunities for the ‘Gram, visiting popular restaurants, and basking in novelty experiences speckled in between. If anything, travel is, by and large, self-serving in nature. And yet interestingly, a burgeoning group of travellers are starting to redefine the future of travel into a socially conscious one.   

Scott helping to set up a massive bonfire. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

For 28-year-old Scott Tay, the founder of boutique travel agency Beyond Expeditions that provides tours to Mongolia and North India, travelling has become somewhat of an altruistic pursuit. Determined to give back to society—as well as a fitting tribute to his late-grandfather who died of cancer—Scott organises gruelling expeditions annually to places with extreme climate conditions to do good.  

In late-December last year, Scott, along with a group of globetrotterstwo of whom are cancer-survivors and many of the rest are caretakers for cancer patients—, trekked through the wicked frost of the Taiga region in Northern Mongolia to raise awareness and funds for the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS). Entitled, “Beyond Limits: Frozen Edition”, Scott and Ellil Mathiyan, a double cancer survivor, shared with us the challenges they faced along the way as well as their hopes of raising S$100,000 for SCS.

From left to right: Scott Tay, Ellil Mathiyan, Elaine Tan, Aw Hui Zhen, Amal Luqman, and Henry Law. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

Ler Jun: You seem to have quite the affinity with Mongolia. How did you get acquainted with the country in the first place?

Scott Tay: Six years ago, I travelled there for the first time and I was blown away by Mongolia’s beauty. In a sense, Mongolia is a place of calling to me. It feels like home and I feel happy there.

A gathering between the expedition team and the Mongolian guides by the bonfire. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: Part of the expedition was to illuminate the power of human resilience and how cancer patients show fortitude in the face of adversities. Scott, what’s your inspiration behind “Beyond Limits” then?

S: There were many reasons. Firstly, my grandfather passed on because of lung cancer so doing all these expeditions are like a tribute of sorts. I am also partly motivated by Singaporean charity athlete, Jeremy Tong, who climbed Mount Everest to raise funds and awareness for the SCS. Finally, I wanted people to know that travelling or embarking on an adventure is for everyone, even for the physically challenged. Which is why I have trained and brought along cancer survivors on some of my previous charity trips too. 

The team members supporting Ellil. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: What about you Ellil? This is your second time trekking with Scott on a charity expedition. What spurred you on to join “Beyond Limits” again?

Ellil Mathiyan: As a double cancer survivor and someone living with a stoma, the message that I want to send out to all the cancer survivors from these expeditions is: there’s life after cancer and it’s not the end. For me, one of the ways to go about telling this is to embark on an expedition.

Furthermore, patients with stoma, or ostomates, often have difficulty accepting their condition as they felt that they have been denied the freedom to do certain things. As someone with the same predicament, I wanted to show them, through this trip, that there is still so much we can do if we put our minds to it. Let us not consider ourselves as stricken and weak, but as recovered and strong individuals who can still give back to the community

Amal Luqman, 31, a Lymphoma survivor, whose facial hair had frozen as a result of the cold. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: Looking back, what is one vivid memory each of you has of the expedition?

S: When we reached one of the base camps, the first thing I asked the Mongolian guide was where the fire was. I was out trying to navigate the path for the following day and I had been holding onto the horse’s reins without my gloves. My hands and my fingers were so bloody cold. It was so painful that I felt like I was going to lose my fingers. Fortunately, there was a fire nearby and I ran for it.

E: We were navigating across this really narrow path which had a steep incline. It was covered in snow and the soil was loose. The ground did not offer much grip and one misstep was all that it took for the snow to cave in. Because I was already quite physically challenged, I had Scott on my right and Henry on my left supporting me. Then, there was this middle-aged Mongolian female guide who put her foot right to my side, and she told me to use that as a foothold to get across that obstacle. I was very touched by her selflessness.

Singing by the bonfire at night. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: I’m sure there was some camaraderie between one another. 

S: Yeah, we travelled with an awesome group of people. We’ve got the funny ones, the really smart ones, and while there might have been some disagreements here and there, we ultimately had the same end goal and compromised. Otherwise, they were really open-minded and adaptable as well. Throughout the trip, there was a lot of banter!

E: A lot of banter. Sometimes, we even bring in some songs too. But there was also a lot of sharing. I mean some of us are cancer survivors and there are others who are caretakers of cancer patients; there was bound to be an exchange along the way.

Some of the team members climbing across the hills in Taiga, Northern Mongolia. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: As you guys were trekking the wintry terrain, what went on in your head?

S: Honestly, I didn’t really think much because I was so busy liaising around. I didn’t have any time to self-reflect, not even when I was alone in my tent.

E: I am a believer of active ageing, how you should take care of your body, and being independent and self-reliant even as you age. There were a lot of internal motivations going on throughout, and I was constantly reminding myself with quotes, like “If I don’t do all this now, when?” or “At 60 years old, we should age gracefully.”

As the team trudged across the shin-deep snow, Ellil, a double cancer survivor with a stoma, was supported by Scott and Henry at the front, setting the pace of the journey for the team. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: I’m sure you guys were prepared for the terrain.

E: We were definitely more prepared for the cold. We knew it was going to be from -25 to -50 degrees, so we do have all the equipment needed to keep us warm. But we had underestimated the terrain. We had not expected it to be so tough. We had initially thought that Mongolia didn’t have mountain ranges and it was mostly flat. When we were there, it was hilly. Because I’m quite challenged when it comes moving my lower limbs, I encountered problems attempting to traverse across steep slopes.

S: Actually, a few participants almost had frostbites because of the cold. We had to warm the feet of our youngest participant Catherine before we could continue with our trek. But I had expected it to be way colder. Perhaps, it was because we were in a team and we managed to rub off one another, so that may have improved my perception of the cold.

Ellil and the team crossing the frozen stream. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: But you guys did it, so congratulations on that! Scott, you have had experience trekking or kayaking in extreme conditions, was it any difficult preparing and training those who tagged along this time around?

S: Definitely. Doing it alone was way easier than leading a team. It’s as simple as going with the flow and being entertained with some music along the way. To handle such a diverse group of people, with some having no experience trekking in the sub-zero climate even, there were bound to be some challenges. When it comes to Mongolia, I’ve come to realise that it is best not to set expectations.

The ladies having a meal in their tent. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: Why not?   

S: The nomads in Mongolia don’t really talk about time there because they don’t have the habit of planning. There is a huge difference in attitudes between the nomads there and those who live in a developed country. In Singapore, for instance, people tend to have the mentality of doing things quickly and having some assurance for the future. In Mongolia, anything can happen on the road and the people there have learnt to live and survive blissfully with what that comes.

Some of the team members taking a break. Image Credits: Chung Yong Xi

L: What has the expedition taught you? 

S: Happiness is only real when shared. The more we choose happiness, the clearer our intentions in life become; we begin to know the meaning of our lives, notice all the little details, and instead of taking things for granted or wanting so much more, we are able to sit and see the beauty in everything we have. It spreads to people around too.

Beyond Limits: Frozen Edition: Donation Drive

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