AS a child Sophia Khalid dreamed of visiting far flung places but the only time she ever stepped on a plane was to visit Pakistan when she was six. Now, aged 30, she has launched her own travel company to help encourage other Asian women see more of the world.

Anila Baig met her.

GROWING up as the eldest in a typical Asian family, Sophia could often be found with her nose in a book.

“As a child I never went anywhere but I was always in the library reading about these exotic places.

“I was obsessed with China in particular and read a lot of Chinese authors. Everything about the country fascinated me.”

She longed to spread her wings but the only time she needed a passport was on a trip to Pakistan with her family aged six.

After school, she completed a Law degree from Keele University and when she graduated she decided this was the time she would finally go abroad to Marrakech.

“I asked all my friends if they wanted to come with me and initially everyone was up for it but in the end only one friend could make it.”

Far from living up to her ideals, going to Morocco as a 21-year-old proved daunting for the inexperienced traveller.

“It was boiling hot and I quickly realised that this wasn’t the best destination to go to with another female. Luckily we were okay but we had to be very streetwise.”

She did her law training back at Keele and found an internship in the country she had always wanted to visit- China.

“I suppose I was looking for ways to ‘legitimise’ my travel and by doing an internship in China I was combining my love for the country with work.”

So, aged 22, she moved there for three months and says the experience changed her life.

“I think of my life as ‘BC’- Before China and ‘AC’, after China. It was an absolutely amazing country that defied my expectations. It completely changed me and gave me such a different perspective on life.”

It wasn’t plain sailing by any means but the challenges she faced made her stronger.

“I was so far out of my comfort zone, I was in a place where no-one spoke English, where it was difficult to get vegetarian food, where the work culture was completely different, but I loved it. I realised that I could cope in these situations and unlike Morocco, there was no issue with being a young female on my own. I never felt threatened.”

As well as her legal work, Sophia began volunteering with the United Nations.

“I was always interested in human rights work and travelled to Switzerland assisting at the UN on a number of short-term projects. One thing I will say about Switzerland- it’s very expensive!”

She also worked in New York, Belgium and more than 25 countries other countries before settling back in her home city in the UK and working as a paralegal.

“I would still go away up to eight times a year and loved it but I was struck by how many of my Asian girlfriends would say they would love to travel but felt scared to.

“I just thought I would put a message on Facebook and Instagram and ask if anyone would be interested in joining me on a trip to Athens.”

Sophia thought her post would be ignored but to her surprise she was flooded with enquiries and was soon taking a group of 15 Asian women to Greece-the youngest aged 17, the oldest 35.

“I was shocked,” she laughs, “I never expected that there would be so much interest.”

Despite never having been to that particular place herself, she researched the accommodation thoroughly and the trip was a success.

Her second trip was to Venice and Rome and this time the youngest participant was 14 and the oldest 53.

“We do a lot of site-seeing but as I have friends in a lot of places we also get to see the real country, off the beaten track.”

In Athens she arranged for a trio of local sisters to teach them how to make baklava and on a group trip to Turkey there was a visit to a traditional Turkish bath called a ‘hammam’.

“That was an experience,” she laughs. “We are all reserved and didn’t realise we had to strip off. There was a bit of nervousness but in the end we all decided: ‘what happens in the hammam stays in the hammam and had a bit of a laugh.”

On her second visit to Turkey she organised a more reserved language class.

The lingo wasn’t the only thing she picked up on her travels.

She also met her husband- to- be who happened to also be working on a United Nations committee in Turkey.

The newlyweds will spend their honeymoon backpacking around the world.

“Travel has definitely changed my life and been so empowering and given me so much confidence and that’s what these women who come on the trips with me say. Going away with strangers you develop a deep bond and form long-lasting friendships and that’s also a great way to live.”

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