It was never going to be your average school trip. But as a police escort sped our air-conditioned bus through the red lights on Rawalpindi's chaotic streets, bringing mopeds, donkey carts and honking cars to a standstill, we knew we were in for something special. Could "trip of a lifetime" be an understatement?
It's at the airport, where our container-load of luggage is whisked magically through customs, that the culture shock begins. Crowds of men in cool cotton khaki fill the surrounding streets, heaving baggage on to car roofs. Soldiers with machine guns stand on corners. And those famously decorated buses and trucks are piled high with people, fridges and sacks of onions. The heat, sights and smells of Asia are a revelation to the 25 students aged 14 to 15 from five schools who've won the Experience Pakistan competition, funded by Akhter Computers.
Accompanying them and their teachers is Akhter's Pakistani-born millionaire owner, Humayan Akhter Mughal, and four of his eight children from England.
His mission is to dispel ignorance about his homeland and to reveal the rich culture, history and geography that are forgotten when international news focuses on al-Qaeda and terrorist bombs.
It's the third year of the competition and more than 130 British schools have entered, double the previous number. The first trip, run jointly with the Pakistan Tourist Authority, went ahead in spring 2002 in spite of the disaster of 911. To enter the competition, Year 10 students have to research an aspect of the country and prepare a 15-minute multimedia presentation.
So, there's a little knowledge and a lot of anticipation among the winners, but what they need now is a drink of water. No problem, the bus has a cool box full. An eight-day adventure that money couldn't buy lies ahead.
Rawalpindi is on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad, a low-rise city built in the 1960s, and home to the Pakistani government. We're heading for the five-star Marriott Hotel. Sir Christopher Macrae, a former ambassador to Pakistan and one of three distinguished but relaxed competition judges accompanying the trip, jokes that Islamabad's tree-lined avenues are "25 miles from the real Pakistan". Some days later I understand better what he means, after we've ventured as far as the border with Afghanistan, become familiar with the muezzin's calls to prayer and seen the densely packed "smugglers' bazaar", where DVDs, satellite dishes and car parts are haggled over on the road to the Khyber Pass.
A few weeks earlier, at the Boswells school, in Chelmsford, Essex, organiser Zahid Hamid, a former colonel and military attache, addressed a meeting of parents and teachers. He reassured them on questions of security and encouraged the winning team to think what presents they might take to give out at the five schools they were to visit and for high-profile meetings with the president and prime minister. (They settled on ties, badges and framed photographs.) For their competition entry the Boswells group of five girls had researched Pakistani contemporary culture on the internet - pop songs, "Lollywood" dancing inspired by the Lahore film industry, hand decorating with henna - skills that would be greeted with squeals of delight at a social evening with Pakistani pupils.
Fourteen-year-old Nikki Wells was feeling a new kind of confidence: "We can't believe we've won but we do feel quite informed. People have asked us, 'Why do you want to go to Pakistan?' and we say, 'Because it's going to be so interesting'."
Their ICT teacher, Tina Oakley-Agar, who joined Boswells last September, was feeling lucky and nervous. "It's a wonderful opportunity and so far the arrangements have been thorough and professional, although we won't know what it's like until we get there."
In the event the teachers can relax; with only five children apiece, they simply hold up five fingers to Zahid as we board a bus or a plane. Upset stomachs turn out to be the most serious hazard; by the end of the trip around two-thirds have suffered, not always in private. But we have a tour doctor, Dr Sohail, who administers "magic" pills, lots of sympathy and, sometimes, injections. One day he announces that everyone will drink their green tea after lunch, which prompts good-natured groaning. "My mum wouldn't believe I'm doing this," says Lauren Thomson from Peterborough high school, who's been feeling queasy but agrees to sip the hot infusion.
Many of the students find eating curried food at least twice a day isn't easy, but they can always eat rice and naan bread washed down with Coke.
Within hours of arriving we are taking tea with the Prime Minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali. He describes Pakistan as a country of contrasts, where temperatures range from minus to plus 50C, from glaciers to deserts.
He's a big man with a wry sense of humour; long ago he played hockey for his country and fathered five children, which, he says, "in Europe must be a miracle for anybody".
Stiff in their uniforms, the students laugh and ask about his hobbies.
Answer: playing with his grandchildren. More seriously, democracy is back in Pakistan ("we keep on playing hide and seek with it") and he sees his job as maintaining the authority of parliament, whatever the tensions between parties and factions. Asked about Kashmir and the dispute over territory with India since Partition in 1947, Mr Jamali says current talks with India have begun well; thousands have died in wars over Kashmir and "we want it solved, once and for all". He hopes the "young Britishers" will believe Pakistan is a peace-loving nation "in spite of being nuclear" and that an Islamic state can pursue a policy of "enlightened moderation".
Zubeida Jalal, Pakistan's education minister, is introduced by the PM as a former headteacher and "fellow Balochi" as both have remote constituencies in Balochistan, bordering Iran to the west. Later, at an informal supper in a pizza restaurant, Ms Jalal tells us how she founded a community school for girls in 1982 in her father's house in Mand (TES, May 14, 2004) - "a place that's the back of the back of beyond", according to Sir Christopher.
The school has 1,000 pupils now and Ms Jalal's sister is headteacher.
Ms Jalal and some of her eight siblings were educated at an English-medium school in Kuwait, and she fondly recalls two English teachers, Miss Campbell and Miss Ryan - later Mrs Finnis. "They were very caring. There is always a good feeling when I think of them." She would love to know where they are now.
Lessons in politics continue next day with a visit to the Islamabad model college for girls F74, where more than 2,000 students are educated from primary to degree level. It is the spring holiday but they have come in specially to attend demonstration lessons on computers and in science labs.
Although they are subsidised by the government, their parents must still pay 400 rupees (pound;4) a month in fees, which compares with 3-4,000 rupees (pound;30-pound;40) a month in the English-medium private schools.
This is the administrative capital and yet at least a quarter of Islamabad's children are not in school, prohibited largely by poverty.
"They do need shoes to go to school," says Ms Jalal. Pakistan's official literacy rate has risen from 45 to more than 50 per cent in the past two years, and the minister's task is to raise that figure further - on a meagre budget. But at F74, girls are getting a good education and talk of a national curriculum and in-service training rings loud bells with the British teachers.
Next comes an extraordinary encounter with President Musharraf at his official army residence, just a few miles from the spot where he survived two assassination attempts last December (TES, April 9). A referendum has produced a mandate for him to become a civilian president and, "God willing", he will quit the army chief's house by the end of the year. The students are in school uniform again - getting hotter by the day - seated in a lecture theatre usually used for military briefings. The president is on stage flanked by two soldiers. Taking questions, he answers, yes or no, then fleshes out his answers in riveting, often personal detail. His combat experiences mean he's "looked death in the eyes" more than once; but now as president he's seeking to avoid conflict; to cure "the tussle between the haves and the have-nots"; to reject the "clash of civilisations" and tackle the root causes of terrorism - deprivation and ignorance.
Charismatic and dapper, the 64-year-old says his wife and doctor have stopped him playing squash - at which Pakistan excels - but now he swims for an hour a day to burn off calories.
He flatters the students, saying they make him feel young, but before inviting them into his garden for refreshments, he also offers "food for thought". There's a thin line, he says, "which divides bravery and cowardice" and people need to learn to curb their gut responses. "If you can control yourself and think, you will react rationally and emerge a braver person."
Back on the bus, 14-year-old Christie Lowe from Leith Academy in Edinburgh is wide-eyed. "He was so nice and down to earth. I thought he might not want to talk about the assassination attempts or terrorism but he answered head on." Steve Braysher, a geography teacher from Ponteland community high in Northumberland, is impressed. "In terms of citizenship and personal skills, this is education way beyond the boundaries of school. An experience like this adds to your life and I don't think you forget it."
These early encounters with Pakistan's most senior politicians are put in context over Sunday lunch and a swim at the British High Commission, where the gardens are ablaze with pink and red bougainvillea. Mark Lyall Grant, the high commissioner, says Britain is optimistic and encouraging of the President's policies - "he speaks convincingly about education" - but as long as five-sixths of Pakistan's borders with Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India are insecure, it's unlikely that defence spending will go down. Pakistan's spending on education is up, but still below 1 per cent of the national budget, while defence gets 30 per cent, he says.
Just as we are beginning to feel the privileges of an advance party from Whitehall, we learn that Home Secretary David Blunkett and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have already been and that MPs from the foreign affairs committee are due in May. Serious matters of child abduction and forced marriages will be on some MPs' agendas; in the past year 10 girls have been "rescued" using new laws and flown back to Britain.
Important lessons in geography start early next day when we fly to Skardu, a town powered by hydro-electricity over the Karakoram mountain range.
These are some of the highest peaks in the world, surveyed with astonishing accuracy by the British in the 1860s and 1870s, and named K1, K2 and so on.
K2 is the biggest attraction for mountaineers worldwide, breathtaking at 28,274 feet - and life-threatening. We're flying with the Pakistan air force in a Hercules plane and clamber into the cockpit for a better view.
"We never thought it would be like this," says James Rix of Billericay school as Iqbal, a co-pilot, names the endless snow-covered peaks, including Nanga Parbat - "the naked mountain". "Today it's like being in a James Bond film and yesterday the president put his arm round my friend."
Touching down in a mountainous desert, we can see and hear rushing water; spring has arrived, bringing the first glacier melt. Isabel Shaw, a travel guide and writer and another competition judge, interprets everything we see, identifying almond blossom and the green shoots of barley that grows at a higher altitude than wheat. Men, women and children are working in small fields, gathering firewood, tending potato ridges and diverting irrigation channels. "There are more quarrels over stolen water than anything else," says Ms Shaw darkly. The third competition judge in our party, Field Marshall Sir John Chapple, is invited to do the honours at the Bismallah Village girls' school where it is "results day". Girls, shy and cloaked in green headscarves, receive certificates and a pound;300 donation from Impington Village college, whose pupils won Experience Pakistan in 2003. It will buy more computers for this unusual school, which is funded by the Aga Khan Foundation.
From Peshawar next day we travel through North West Frontier Province and beyond to the Khyber Pass, gathering truckloads of soldiers as we go. Sir John is an honoured guest of the legendary Khyber Rifles, whose general explains the rocky landscape laid out before us. We can see into Afghanistan, the ancient buffer zone between the Russian and British empires. We see amazing engineering feats of road and rail, blasted through rock by the British in the 1920s; the pass goes on for several miles; originally, at its narrowest point, two loaded camels could barely squeeze through.
During 25 years of war, three million Afghans have fled into Pakistan. But since the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, the mud-walled refugee camps have been bulldozed and the United Nations is paying people to go home. So those decorated buses are on the road again, overloaded with families heading north. This is wild, tribal country. The warlords have heavily defended houses with gun turrets and towers. The "smugglers'
bazaar" at Landi Kotal is a tax-free haven for men selling white goods and illegal drugs. That's why we need those soldiers and police outriders, though nobody is afraid; half have fallen asleep with the rhythm of the journey.
Hawkers and traders are everywhere in Pakistan, selling everything from carpets and sugar-cane drinks to live chickens and exhaust pipes. Ros Mayle, a geography teacher from Peterborough high school, says this human and economic evidence is the stuff of her subject. "I want to use it as case study material; it isn't written up anywhere but it is so rich and complex."
Back in Lahore, at the independent Cathedral school, we have cool rose garlands placed around our necks and are told that the international O and A-level exams are "the tops"; the universities are English-medium so Urdu-educated children are at a disadvantage - another problem for Zubeida Jalal to tackle. Welcomed so warmly, Nadia Steele, a teacher at Edinburgh's Leith Acadamy, feels emotional. "We have so much and yet everywhere we have been given presents and a great welcome. We can never repay them but we will never forget."
And so to the last night, and a birthday party for 15-year-old Charles Dickinson from Ponteland community high. Competition director Chris Thatcher, a former president of the National Association of Head Teachers, is urging the students to become "ambassadors for Pakistan" and to tell their stories back home when the ultimate story happens: in walks Pakistan's cricket superstar, Shoaib Akhtar, the 100mph fast bowler known as "the Rawalpindi Express". Floppy-haired and glowing, the 29-year-old has just taken four wickets and secured a vital win in the Test series against India. "Achieve something in your life: be the top man, the top girl," he tells his captive audience.
Like others we've met, he's a fan of what President Musharraf has achieved since 911, becoming an ally of the west and receiving aid from the United States and Britain. The sporting hero sees stability and economic progress ahead. While camera lights flash, Hayley Speed of Boswells clutches an autographed yellow scarf. "This has been an amazing trip. And now I've got the best ever present for my dad."
Experience Pakistan 2004 winners came from: Billericay school, Essex; the Boswells school, Chelmsford, Essex; Leith Academy, Edinburgh; Ponteland community high school, Northumbria; Peterborough high school for girls.
Entry forms for 2005 are at www.experiencepakistan.co.uk
LAHORE'S HOUSE OF HOPE
According to the World Bank, one person in four in Pakistan lives close to the poverty line - on around a dollar a day - and many of them never go to school. Three-quarters of Pakistan's poor live in rural areas, but in Lahore the Teach a Child (TAC) school seeks out talented children from the poorest families - "the poorer, the better". A belief in the link between education and the eradication of poverty drove the founder, Lieutenant-General Maqbool Muhammad, to set up TAC six years ago with his army pension and donations from family and friends. "I felt they deserved a better deal," says the general, who believes his model system could be replicated throughout Pakistan.
Thirty-six four and five-year-olds are accepted every year after a rigorous series of home visits, intelligence tests and means assessment. For the lucky few, a place at this privileged English-medium school is a passport to another world. From books to shoes, pencils, dental treatment and exam fees, TAC pays for everything. And funding doesn't stop at 18; financial support lasts until students graduate from university and take up a profession.
Children must come in their uniform, on time and ready to learn; parents pay a monthly "dignity fee" of 5 rupees (5p) and promise not to beat their children and to let them do homework.
The ambition is huge: by 2013 the Lahore school will have 600 children on roll and two cohorts of students at university or military academy. That will require an annual budget of 16 million rupees (pound;160,000).
Currently each of the 200 children on roll costs 1,500 rupees (pound;15) a month.
The effects will be far-reaching, says the general, who retired from the army as chief of the defence college. Each child will have become what he calls an "agent of change", capable of lifting his or her family out of "the poverty loop" forever.
On the morning of our visit the youngest children are dressed in simple blue cotton uniforms, singing and counting in fives as they exercise outside a large domestic house in a suburb of Lahore; purpose-built premises are planned. Inside, the rooms have colourful wall displays, a teaching ratio of 20:1, and a curriculum that includes science, music and computing. Eventually the children will take international O and A-levels.
In a shanty district nearby, Munir Ahmed (pictured above, centre), five, lives in a single room with six siblings, his parents, grandmother and cousin. Munir's mother, Fatima, says the family income has dropped to 2,700 rupees (pound;27) a month because her husband has kidney failure. She works as a domestic help and is given clothes by her employers. The two eldest daughters also work. Both parents are illiterate, but five of their children are at some sort of school. Mrs Ahmed is thrilled Munir has a TAC place. "Whatever he learns, he makes his brothers do the same thing," she says. "If you don't engage them they will be street boys."
More information at www.helpcare-tac.org