On the chilly, foggy morning of January 7, 2008, we reached Kinnaird College in Lahore. Soon we got on the bus and left for Wagah Border. There we spent almost six hours for the visa process. After crossing Wagah on foot, we took another bus which set on the bumpy old GT road on the other side of the border, across the yellow fields of Punjab. We reached Delhi at around five in the morning. Four people shared a room. We visited Amritsar, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi on a single bus.
The trip was fairly cheap. The six-day excursion in four cities of India cost us Rs25,000, with two meals included.
And this trip is not unique.
Today, many colleges arrange such tours. The bigger the group, the cheaper it gets as people can share rooms, buses, guides and even food.
The Rotract Club in Forman Christian College has been making such journeys to the northern areas of Pakistan along with international destinations such as Dubai, Sri Lanka and Thailand. “We make sure that we pay the hotel per head and the breakfast is included,” says Arsalan Mahmood, President of the FC College Rotract Club adding that “We ensure that the coaster we rent is of the latest model because they are fuel efficient.”
A recent trip to Muree which included 25 people, cost them some Rs3,500 per head, including three meals a day. And about a dozen students spent Rs150,000 for an extensive trip to Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The planning is done by the students, with the help of internet, friends, family and colleagues. They get an undertaking signed by the students. The letter says that the club can complain to their parents, university and even send them back in case of indiscipline. The foreign trips involve a tourist company to arrange visas, hotels, tickets, guides and transport.
Arsalan says that these trips taught him organisation, tolerance of the difference of opinion in the group and significance of unity.
Back in 2008, when we went to India together, most girls were singing and dancing in the bus to keep it lively. The bus was noisy enough to alarm people when it stopped on signals. Our German teacher was incharge and he often roused the drowsy bus at night with his old Indian songs and music.
“People are willing to send their girls on such college trips,” says Amir Rafique, the German language instructor, who has been arranging these trips for Lahore College and Kinnaird. “Because they will get married and they don’t know what fate they will have later. So they are willing to give their daughters these opportunities,” he adds.
“Indeed many girls on the trip I took with Kinnaird College were away from home for the first time. Some were shocked when they saw people having alcohol in an upper-class Delhi restaurant,” says Amir.
Although now he takes trips to Turkey and Europe, which are 10 to 12 days long and cover many cities, Amir’s real magic was the trips he arranged to India. The biggest problem is arranging a visa to India, which he does within a few days, for several dozen women. He makes the trips feasible by having long-term contracts with the tourist companies abroad.
Mostly, the rooms are shared by three people breakfast included. They have contracts with tourist companies, who send their buses to Wagah which stay with the students till the end of the trip. The permissions from universities that are visited in India, planning the itinerary and embassy work takes about three months.
We visited the Indraparastha College in Delhi. It was an all-girls college like Kinnaird. We were greeted by dozens of excited young women with a pooja thali that they circled around our faces and then placed a red bindi on our foreheads. They treated us with tea and vegetable samosas before showing us their campus, which included a pool that the students had themselves dug out decades ago after being frustrated with their college administration’s delay in doing the job. Many of these girls have now graduated and remain in touch with us through Facebook.
Some students have had so much success in arranging such trips, that they have started their own tourist companies. One such student is Ali Shigri from the Lahore School of Economics. He takes week-long trips to the northern areas. Recently, he took over a hundred students to Kashmir and is planning to turn it into his full-time occupation.
Another such business aspirant is the duo Rana Ali and Murad Mir. They are students from the Lahore School of Economics and operate the company Touristan — which they recently got registered. Most of their customers are students from Lahore School of Economics, Beaconhouse National University, SKANS School of Accountancy, University College Lahore and Lahore University of Management Sciences. Many of these students, almost half of which are women, are attracted by sports like paragliding in Kashmir, trekking and diving in Naran valley.
“We are avid travellers,” says Rana Ali, one of the partners in Touristan, who has continued the side business despite his rigorous MBA course. Further, he adds, “We have been to Ferry Meadows, Neelum Valley and Naran/Kaghan dozens of time. In Kashmir our rooms overlooked a garden through which the LOC passed. Sometimes the Indian Kashmiri kids played cricket and their ball would come here and we would throw it back.”
He recalls the only time he felt uncomfortable in the northern areas was two years ago when they visited Swat. Swat has a sizeable army presence now and USAID has rehabilitated some of the tourist industry. “But if the girls are too carefree, the locals complain to your hotel owner. The owner could caution you because if you are not careful, he could get in to real trouble,” he says.
Also, unlike other areas, theirs was the only tourist group in Swat. This made them stand out everywhere.
Arsalan says his most memorable shopping spree was in Kashmir, where everyone bought the hand-made Pashmina shawls, the likes of which they had never seen elsewhere.
Last year, 11 foreign mountain climbers were shot dead by Taliban for the first time, in Nanga Parbat. Since then, the government has beefed up the security. “Despite the Nanga Parbat terrorist attack, probably many climbers are there as we speak, preparing to climb the mountain. Both local and foreign tourists are willing to take the risk for the sake of adventure,” says Ali from Touristan.
Indeed, six years ago, even going to Delhi by bus seemed risky. But, of course, once a place becomes a tourist designation, there is additional security for tourists. Even more so if you are in a large group. Though, in big groups, you lose a bit of your autonomy to others. In our case, we often had to forego tourist sites for shopping malls. Also women incessantly delayed returning to the bus, sometimes by several hours. However, when we crossed the Wagah Border again, it made us all sad. Indeed we have never been together as group again, most of the girls are married now and nowadays the trip is way more expensive. We have all passed that phase of life now, unfortunately.