Yasmin Jauhari, recipient of the Further Education Fund 2018

We had been riding our ponies for around 8 hours across the Mongolian mountains, through wind and rain. And just as our expedition got to the top of the hill, one of the ponies’ legs gave way and a man fell off his horse – they called for the medic…me!

Let’s briefly step aside from away from this story and rewind back to my time at the Mount. If I’m honest, I don’t really know why my teenage-self decided to go into medicine. Later, at medical school, the last thing I wanted to be was a surgeon. Somehow, now, I am undertaking a PhD as part of the long road to become a specialist in breast (cancer) and oncoplastic surgery. You get the picture. It turns out, my medical career to date has been full of surprises. And one of the best surprises, without a doubt, is the world of expedition medicine. After 6 months of horse-riding lessons, I was one of the medics supporting a 150km horseback expedition across the Mongolian Altai mountains. What could possibly go wrong?!

Ok, back to the story. The team is the most important part of any expedition, so we’ll start there. Our expedition leader was the formidable and legendary, 82 years young – Colonel John Blashford-Snell.

As a collaborative expedition with the National University of Mongolia, our team included ecologists, archaeologists, dentist and retired army officers. The ages of the team members ranged from 17 – 82 years, and there is nothing like the challenges of Mother Nature to expedite team-bonding. Round 1: mosquitoes masquerading as a ‘cloud of dust’. Swelling and subsequent loss of ‘facial contours’ made us almost unrecognisable at breakfast the next morning. There were 3 ‘open’ eyes between two medics so medics=1: mosquito=0. Round 2, altitude and sub-zero degree nights. Solution to all problems: Mongolian vodka. Last round: no real shower and long drop toilets. Within no time, we were oversharing each other’s washing and bowel habits. And, after being each other’s ‘sniff-test’ barometer of whether a wash in a cold river was required, a life-time of friendship was born.

Each day, three expedition teams of ecologists, botanists and archaeologists explored the region on horseback, guided by our expert herdsmen. The teams documented local wildlife and plants, and a particular success was the discovery of an unmarked ancient ‘deer stone’ adjacent to a burial mound (khirigsuur).

Throughout all this, my role as one of the expedition doctors was to provide medical support and oversee the general health of our team. Despite some solid challenges from our unruly ponies, we got away with very few minor scrapes and live to tell the tale. Noteworthy is the tale of the botanist who fell off her horse and had her leg trampled on by her pony. Before I arrived on the scene, one of the herdsmen had applied a wet handkerchief over the area of impact. I removed this cloth to examine her leg and was relieved to only find some bruising but no major injury. No one thought to tell me at the time, that it was common local practice to apply urine over wounds to ‘minimise bruising’. Words are truly only one part of communication. Much hilarity ensued as the look on my face upon realising that my bare hands had handled the cloth transcended the English-Mongolian language barrier.

Mongolia is vast. It is 4-times the size of Germany and only half of the 3-million total population live beyond the capital Ulaanbaatar.

We moved camp seven times throughout the expedition and would often travel through the idyllic mountains for hours and not meet a living soul. The few local nomads we met along the way showed us a humbling degree of generosity and kindness. Field trips were often joined by curious locals and we were frequently invited into yurts to feast on yaks milk and cheese. Exchanging life stories over fermented food products?

An experience of home away from home. However, by far, the highlight of the expedition for me, was the horse riding. Our herd were sturdy ex-race ponies who transported us safely, sometimes up to 40km at a time; across the mountain terrains.

Local herdsmen do not traditionally name their horses, but mine was uniquely named Shar (yellow). Shar and I were the perfect match. We were the two smallest beings in our respective teams, and my adult 5-foot nothing stature earned me the title jijigkhen (a.k.a. little one) by the herdsmen. If I had to summarise ‘the adventures of Shar and Jijigken’ in one word, it would be “opportunistic”.

Whenever we could, we would gallop across the mountains; and at every moment of rest, we could be grazing on whatever food was available at the time. I was not brought up around animals, so our amazing bond took me by surprise and I was unimaginably sad to leave him.

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You are probably wondering “how does this experience fit into my career plan?” I genuinely have no idea. To-date, I’ve moved house 9 times in 12 years for various training placements and I was once awake for 20 straight hours during a surgical on-call. But, as a doctor, I’ve also once called a bure in a remote Fijian island ‘home’ and spent weeks sleeping in a hammock in the Colombian Amazonas. The younger me was always worried about not having a ‘life-plan’. Life has gracefully taught me that, to a degree, a little element ‘no plan’ is still a plan. More than anything, if the vast Mongolian planes in this big old world is anything to go by, I know that there will always be a place for a jijigken (a.k.a. little one).

Footnote:

Yasmin left the Mount School in 2002, and is now a specialist registrar in General Surgery. She is currently undertaking her PhD as part of the National Audit of Breast Cancer in Older Patients (NABCOP), and has a particular interest in the use of big national datasets to evaluate outcomes of older women with breast cancer. Outside work, Yasmin is a qualified yoga teacher and keen swimmer; side-lines that she describes as an “essential activities” to her busy-life. Follow Yasmin on Twitter @aj_yasmin

The MOSA Further Education Fund awards grants of up to £500 for Old Scholars to advance their career. For further details on eligibility criteria and how to apply please contact Lucy Marsh lmarsh@mountschoolyork.co.uk