Before I was in the public eye I was better known in the profession for my specialist knowledge in skin diseases in companion animals. Back in the 70’s I had undertaken specialist training at the Dick Vet College in Edinburgh where I spent 3 happy years studying. I passed the Fellowship examination in Veterinary Dermatology meaning I put FRCVS after my name instead of the usual MRCVS. This was the starting point to a continued interest in skin diseases. The RSPCA Harmsworth was an ideal place to see the myriad of skin diseases that are possible. Right from the start I photographed pretty much everything I saw and over the next 30 years amassed the largest collection of clinical material anywhere. These have been donated to the Edinburgh, London and Cambridge veterinary schools. I started teaching vets about these diseases along with Professor David Lloyd of the London school in 1992. Together we lecture every year in Vienna at the school there and have lectured in most countries in Europe and also last year in Mexico.
The Vienna courses are with an organisation called the European School for Advanced Veterinary Studies (ESAVS). A dynamic German vet called Hans Koch founded this organisation and has extended it into China. David Lloyd and I were the first to teach Chinese vets small animal dermatology and have now given 5 courses, each of one week, on a yearly basis. Other lecturers from the United States and other parts of Europe have added to this. As a result there are a large number of Chinese vets that have been brought up to a very high standard. In China the veterinary education is largely food animal and there is little as yet in small animals in many of the colleges. The focus of these Chinese colleagues is incredible and it is very gratifying to see rapid progress after the lectures. They get a lot of practical classes and case material and learn rapidly. Small animal practice in China is booming and many of these colleagues are setting up practice to satisfy the demand of a rapidly emerging pet owning public.
I have been to Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Xia Men, Shanghai and Kunming over the last 5 years-not including Hong Kong (for a conference and quite different from mainland China).
Each place is spellbinding in its own way. In some of the more remote places particularly Hangzhou and Kunming we were a novelty and we had countless requests for pictures taken with the locals. All smiles and handshakes. My initial impressions of China were the immense size of the large cities. Huge apartment blocks reaching for the skies. Massive traffic and pollution, which is causing the government a problem, and I am not sure how they will eventually sort it. Cars are everywhere and driving chaotic. Getting into taxis was a problem as they seem smaller and I kept bashing my head. Once in I kept my eyes shut at times and hoped for the best!
We had on each trip a team of interpreters who looked after us in the evenings. I have eaten just about everything imaginable, including snake, but in general found the restaurants to be superb and my chopsticks skills have come on no end. In the cities the overall impression is of a booming economy with a growing affluent middle class. The restaurants, extremely large by our standards, often with multiple private rooms, were almost always full. The Chinese certainly like to eat out it seems.
This latest trip allowed for a couple of days sightseeing. At first sight Kunming doesn’t seem to offer many tourist opportunities. It is a large, (8 million or so inhabitants) sprawling city with the inevitable large apartment blocks and traffic jams. On the outskirts however are some exciting tourist attractions. We had the possibility of visiting 4 of these. The Kunming Expo Park is rather like Kew Gardens –with lots of beautiful themed gardens from all over China. On the other side of town are the Chinese minority villages. There are some 50 minority peoples in Yunnan province and the government seems to want to preserve their identity, language and customs. The area consists of many of these minorities in mock-ups of their traditional houses, and regular shows where they sing and dance in traditional dress. A bit circus- like perhaps but an entertaining way to spend a day.
We discovered that in the next room to our lectures there was a tea training room. the University of Kunming runs a three year degree course in tea studies part of which is how to do the tea ceremony in the approved way. On the Saturday after our course we were invited to watch the final exams in the tea ceremony and the attached shows a contestant preparing the tea and then delivering it in the approved way. Each contestant started the proceedings by doing a little dance number and a song. Quite charming and very different. By the end of the 10 days I had tea coming out of my ears and many tea tastings and a couple of ceremonies to boot.
Also on the outskirts of town is the Western Hill. This is a small mountain reached by Alpine style cable car. You have the easy way-by cable car to the top, or a mountain walk up 1,000 feet via a pathway which has been chiseled into the rock You need a head for heights and be fit. The walk is very steep with precipitous drops to the side and because Kunming is at an altitude of nearly 2000 metres you can get out of breath.
The most spectacular excursion was to the Yunnan Stone Forest 90 kilometres from the city. This defies description. It is an immense area of limestone that has been carved by water erosion over 200 million years. After an afternoon walking around we had our last spectacular evening meal in China with the waiters serenading us.
A flight back in a superb BA A380 jumbo was the perfect way to come home in time for Christmas. Plans are afoot for another course in December next year. I can’t wait!