How often do you see your grandparents? Many families like to get together at least once a year for an important birthday, a festival or a family event. It’s a chance to catch up on news, share joyful experiences and strengthen family bonds. Now imagine that your grandmother, aunts, uncles and extended family live 4000 miles away in a country you have never visited. This is a challenge faced by migrants the world over, as they watch their children growing up without a sense of their roots and family. Going ‘home’ can be a rare and expensive treat, with air fares costing hundreds of pounds per ticket.
In Birmingham, England there are more Kashmiri expatriates than anywhere else outside Pakistan. Many people emigrated from the city of Mirpur in Kashmir in the 1960s when a large engineering project forced them from their homes. Mirpur is often referred to as “Little Birmingham” – a reference to the close family ties between the two cities. And now they are to be linked by something more tangible: a regular bus service!
The idea of the fortnightly service has been proposed by Mr Tahir Khokher, a transport minister in Kashmir, as a way of forging stronger links between the two communities, and making the journey more affordable. At £130 a ticket, it would be a good deal cheaper than going by air.
But Mr Kokher admits that his vision has yet to be put into practice. There are diplomatic and bureaucratic details to be ironed out. There is the weather to take into account, and for some, there are a few questions about security. The proposed route crosses 7 countries, including Serbia, Turkey and Iran, and includes a stop-over near to the Afghan border where insurgent activity makes travel dangerous. The plan is that the coaches will travel in convoys of four – there is safety in numbers.
Despite the risks, and the prospective discomfort of 12 days on a bus – or even a luxury coach – the idea has been well received by people in both Birmingham and Mirpur. Older members of the community concede that the journey will probably now be attractive to the young and adventurous, but remind us that the idea is not a new one. In the 1970s and 80s they would regularly undertake the long journey by road, and the route became popular with migrants, hippies and backpackers alike, embarking on the long journey with a sense of adventure and excitement.
Scheduled to start in the spring, for now we will have to wait to find out how travellers rate the number 20 to Mirpur.