The bus from Pakistan that rivals London's red double-deckers
The red double-decker buses in London have a competitor - at least when it comes to a good photo opportunity.
A picture-perfect minibus often seen in postcards and used as a form of public transport in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan has been an instant attention grabber in the British capital since the start of the millennium. Heavily ornamented and highly customised, this import from Pakistan looks like a bejewelled caravan, often making people stop, stare or snap a picture.
Named Tiara, meaning "airplane" in Punjabi, the 16-seater made the 6,300-kilometre journey from Karachi to London, with a six-month stopover in Germany via sea. The price to get it to the UK, including purchase, refurbishment and delivery, was an astounding US$100,000 (Dh 367,295).
"You can't put a price tag to your interest," says Dalawar Chaudhry, Tiara's owner, stating an Indian proverb to explain his sheer interest in bringing a piece of Pakistan to the UK. He also wanted something that could add value to the family business - Tiara would be a symbolic representation that could help promote his South Asian restaurant.
"I wanted something prominent to present Pakistan's culture in a unique way," he says.
And the minibus certainly is a replication - and a better one at that—of the four-wheelers on Pakistan's roads.
From the outside, every visible part of Chaudhry's Tiara, a 2000 Mazda, is tattooed with multicoloured paintings of plants, birds and animals along with Urdu inscriptions. The two entrances of this customised vehicle are painted in patterns of blue, green, red and yellow, and every window is tinted with designs that pay tribute to the heritage and artistic flair of the Sindhi culture. People in this Pakistani culture, according to Chaudhry, also associate colours with the ability to combat negative energy; therefore the rainbow effect adds a spiritual element to the bus.
The top of the bus is festooned with Islamic inscriptions along with the Pakistani national flag, but the highlight is the assortment of coloured lights that form an arc right above the windscreen, along with a metallic mosaic on top reminiscent of a tiara on a beauty queen's head.
But it does not end here. Chaudhry has worked equally to beautify the bumper and has even changed the rims of each of its wheels, making them pertinent to the cultural motif.
If the exterior of the bus is captivating, the interior is an invitation to experience the ride. Chaudhry wants people away from his homeland to relive their days of using the local transport and wants Londoners to be momentarily transported to Pakistan aboard the bus.
It is a noisy journey aboard Tiara. The engine makes a thunderous bellow, while the racket of the little bells and beads hung on the bus provides an uninterrupted, one-of-a-kind soundtrack to the trip.
The cushioned seats are dressed in red covers complementing the colourful decor. And the interior, otherwise dimmed by the tinted windows, lights up with the bulbs behind the coloured glass shades on each side of the passenger seats - call it mood lighting or an experience enhancer, it does the trick.
While elaborate decoration on buses is a competitive element in Pakistan, for Chaudhry, who was born and brought up in England, it represents getting a step closer to his culture by importing his heritage to his home in the UK.
It was during one of his visits to Pakistan's commercial capital of Karachi in 1995 that Chaudhry developed the idea.
"I wanted to bring something special to the UK," he says.
But this was not the first time that the Chaudhry family had imported a means of transport from Pakistan. In 1986, they transported a tanga, a horse-drawn carriage, to London. The Tiara, as Chaudhry says, was shifting gears to something more reliable.
In 1998, Chaudhry procured a flat bed, 3.5L Mazda bus chassis and ordered it to be refurbished according to his specifications. After spending about one and a half years and $50,000 on customising and meeting UK standards, the bus was ready to be delivered to the UK.
The Pakistani government was not pleased and barred him from doing so, citing prohibition for re-export of vehicles to another country. However, the administrators did give Chaudhry an alternative - he could showcase his bus at the Expo 2000 exhibition in Germany as a representative of Pakistan.
But after being the pride of the Pakistan pavilion for six months, Chaudhry declined to send the bus back, even forfeiting a $10,000 bond he had paid to the Pakistani government.
"It was my baby. I did everything to bring her to the UK," he says.
But the troubles didn't end there.
After Tiara was delivered to the UK, Chaudhry struggled to find a place that would do the MOT test, which ensures the vehicle's road safety and environmental standards. He then faced obstacles registering the vehicle at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.
"They didn't know what to categorise it as," he says. "It was quite alien to them."
This is not the case anymore. Twelve years since Tiara came to London, the bus, according to Chaudhry, has been a "communal symbol" in Southall, a suburb of west London with a large South Asian population.
During the past decade, Tiara has had its moments of fame, locally in London, as well as internationally. It has represented the London Borough of Ealing twice at the New Year's Day parade; been the focus of festivals such as Eid and London Mela, a South Asian carnival; and was featured in the 2007 Bollywood movie Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.
Members of the Pakistani cricket team have also been on board the bus and, most recently, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, took a ride in Tiara.
Chaudhry recalls Johnson calling Tiara: "an amazing psychedelic bus".
Since it made its debut in London, the bus has travelled more than 31,000km, covering cities such as Manchester and Birmingham and undertaking trips to Scotland, France and Belgium.
While promotional tours have helped Chaudhry's Tiara to capture the attention of the public, the bus is also used for commercial and charitable purposes. The bus was hired by Walkers Crisps in its 2009 "Do Us a Flavour" advertisement, and Irish singer Bob Geldof rented it for his 50th birthday party.
The income that Chaudhry makes from Tiara - the hiring charges are between £500 (Dh2,950) to £1,000 per hire -helps to maintain and keep it on the road. The owner says that he spends around £5,000 annually on maintenance and £1,000 for insurance. Just this month, he installed the Euro IV emission to comply with the UK standards.
As he drives from the Stanwell Transport Services in west London to Southall, Chaudhry says he is happy that it is still running well: he can still get the bus up to 80kph.
However, he says there are some restrictions.
Among Tiara's major limitations are that it does not have power steering, and there is no rear view mirror. This allows the driver only to rely on the wing mirrors, which can sometimes can prove to be difficult while reversing.
"But you perfect it after practice," says Chaudhry. He does not allow anyone else behind the wheel.
Driving through the London rain, Chaudhry jokes that his bus, though not built for the British weather, has survived the wet climate. There is no air conditioning, which makes the ride a bit uncomfortable in the summer. But despite the disadvantages, the happiness that it generates while on board is worth the compromise to Chaudhry.
"It has its trials and tribulations," he says as he parks his Tiara in front of his Southall residence. "But it's always a joy driving it."
As he secures the bus and then tries to hop into his BMW X5 M, which he uses for daily commute, Chaudhry reflects on his decision to import a bus for $100,000.
"Anyone can buy a Ferrari here, and there are so many of them on the road," he says. "But there's no other bus like this. It's the only one of its kind."
"And more importantly," he says, "we've been able to share our cultural heritage with the western world."