Jon Baines Study Tours

I have often been asked what a study tour is. There are a number of elements. It is usually a small group of up to 20 like-minded people travelling to a far-flung place of quite different culture. Aside from visiting the tourist attractions, we delve deeper off the beaten track into history and culture. We also sample varied local cuisine. As tour leader, I always insist on good food as delegates who travel with me appreciate that, from authentic street food to haute cuisine. To see wide-ranging scenes, we vary between travelling by coach, train, boat, bicycles and even rickshaws. There are of course the study elements.

As one of two Jon Baines ophthalmology tour leaders, I plan three to five visits to eye hospitals and departments. These will range from national specialist hospitals to small private clinics. Where traditional medicine is still in practice, we visit those too. So delegates usually consider my study tours with Jon Baines as holiday plus. You are certainly relaxed but there is no shortage of activities. You can just go with the flow as everything will have been organised for you and you are looked after by a national guide and me. Part of the costs can be written off income tax, which adds to the attraction.

Chinese rickshaw

As a full time NHS clinician and academic, I generally lead a study tour no more than once every two years. We have been to China twice, in 2004 and 2014. We have also been to Egypt in 2006, Syria in 2007, Cuba in 2012, Japan in 2017 and Vietnam and Cambodia in 2019. The next planned tour is to Malay Peninsula, Singapore and Borneo in 2021 to coincide with a major international conference there (APAO).

What memories do I have of these trips

Plentiful memories to last a lifetime, but the following is a snippet. China is a vast country. The original 2004 tour felt quite different to the 2014 ten year anniversary tour. The original tour was in fact planned for 2003 but was postponed by one year due to the SARS epidemic affecting China and Hong Kong. The Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Qing dynasty, reminded me so much of the film The Last Emperor. It is a place which gives me goose bumps every time I visit. The formal gardens of noblemen’s houses granted by emperors are equivalent to our stately homes.

The balance of Yin and Yang, the serenity, and the grandeur can overwhelm, but you can always just relax by looking at the large coy carp fish in their large ponds or lakes. I really liked visiting silk worm farms and marvel at these little creatures and how technicians get a continuous thread of silk from each cocoon. It makes peeling an apple in one go a doddle. The sleeper train from Beijing to Shanghai was also very memorable. We had the whole dining coach to ourselves, and ate drank and were merry with delegates demonstrating traditional dance from their own countries. We saw varied countryside, and my whole family occupied one cabin with four berths. Our number three was only a year old so a four berth cabin was just right. During the fortnight we visited the most famous eye institutions in mainland China and Hong Kong.

China is a country of contrasts.

The 2014 China tour was no less fulfilling. We witnessed modernisation of the country. People were more affluent and restaurants were much improved. We had the same national guide as before. He had many stories to tell us about what had happened in the ten years since we were last there.  We had a lady delegate who was particularly energetic and wanted to supplement her experience on top of our busy schedule. She got up early every morning to visit extra places before breakfast. You can see her write up here.

There were many funny stories. One was a colleague who left her handbag by the window as we dined at Shanghai’s revolving restaurant. After eating our starters, she could no longer find her handbag, not realising the whole restaurant had rotated 180 degrees against stationary windows!  Still on the subject of eating, a close friend of mine decided to treat all of us to a banquet at the oldest Peking duck house. He decided to take the whole restaurant of several hundred covers and placed us on the top floor VIP room.

There was a round table for thirty people with a huge floral arrangement in the middle. There were more waiters than guests. Claret was imported from France. Where else? It was a Downton Abbey experience in China!

The imposing Shanghai skyline.

We thoroughly enjoyed the 2006 Tour to Egypt

The Nile cruise was special. Every evening we had fresh towel origami.  Swans, hippos, monkeys, crocodiles and what have you. The entertainment was great.  I admired a form or worship called whirling dervish, when the dancer spin themselves into a frenzy, getting into a trance as their oft-colourful robe lift with the speedy rotation.  One morning, we sailed past a sort of trading zone when small boats formed a floating market.

Young men showed us merchandise and upon our nod would package them in transparent bags and throw them to us at the top deck of our boat.  Such amazing skills!  Upon approval, we would use the same plastic bag to throw payment back at them. Just like Amazon, we can also return the merchandise if on closer inspection we do not like them.

Through connections, we were invited to the official home of the British Ambassador. There was staff there to look after our small ones so we could immerse ourselves in conversation. We later realised children were treated to TV and a game of snooker. The lovely green velvet was reported to be somewhat shredded after the party, but the children said they had a nice time! On another day, we were entertained by the Egyptian Army Medical Corps to lunch on a floating restaurant.

With Cairo traffic, we were already running late so we asked for a simple lunch. There was an important matter to be discussed, that of professional exams, which needed time.The moment we tucked into our starters, the boat was freed from its mooring and sailed off. There then followed four hours of lunch and dancing. We were very late for visiting the museum. We got there at closing time. Somebody made a phone call and our group entered as the museum was vacated and closed for our sole use. We had everything including Tutankhamun’s mask all to ourselves.

Columns at the Karnak Temple.

Japan is a country of monoculture and is monoethnic

Street signs are only in Japanese. House numbers are not consecutive. It is a good idea to be guided. Our national guide was a pocket Venus giant of a tour guide. Every morning before we started she would make sure the day was perfectly planned.  Every evening she would prepare the following day with me. The tour was special in that all the travel was done by train, sometimes bullet trains and we stayed at rail hotels. As such there was much walking. We averaged 12,000 steps each day but Coco our guide averaged 16,000 steps due to her height and the extra tasks she carried out for us.

Ophthalmology in Japan is very advanced and in many places world leading. We needed to learn about what not to do in Japan, such as arriving late or sitting in the wrong place. There is protocol for everything and society is highly hierarchical. We visited temples, monuments, gold and silver leaves factory in Kanazawa, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and enjoyed amazing Japanese cuisine.

During our free time, we explored some very tiny restaurants where there were just a few covers most of which were specialist restaurants serving just one type of food.  My wife and I particularly remembered a colleague inviting us to a tempura restaurant.

Japanese tempura.

I remembered the Cuba tour well

Cuba produces many doctors who are highly trained. Foreigners can also enrol at their medical schools but you would of course need to be proficient in Spanish. Cuba sends out doctors for disaster relief. It is something they can be very proud of. However doctors are poorly paid, like most other workers, so many also have second jobs to make ends meet. There were two currencies in circulation – one for Cubans and one for visitors. I really liked the free spirit of Cubans and the 1950s cars.

The architecture was also stunning. We visited so many cities, and saw tobacco fields and cigar factories. Cigars need to be bound tightly otherwise they get rejected during quality control.

The 1950s classic cars of Cuba.

Vietnam and Cambodia were memorable

The hospitals were very good and we were invited to send our trainees for fellowships. Vietnamese people are entrepreneurs, with many thriving businesses. The food, often a sort of fusion of Asian and French cuisine, was exquisite. The service too was good. In Hoi An, we stayed at a spa hotel called Almanity which was very well run with a good restaurant and spa.

There was a stark difference between the North and the South of Vietnam probably due to their different experiences during the war.  There was so much destruction which took decades to heal. Veteran soldiers in the North and in the South had very different tales to tell. The extension to Cambodia was essentially for visiting Angkor Wat. We were fortunate to witness sunrise at the sacred site.

I hope your will consider travelling with Jon Baines Tours. For my wife and me, the tours have been memorable. There is often something magical about the tours and at times you may think you are in a Bond film – but you then realise it is real.

Jon Baines Tours have been awarded the “Good to Go” Industry standard demonstrating that we have shown compliance with government and industry COVID-19 guidelines, have a Risk Assessment in place and ensure social distancing including using a phone app when providing tour commentaries.
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