Folks, Pakistan is an exciting, vibrant, colourful country that you may not have considered visiting before. And fair enough, the last 15-20 years have brought a fair bit of chaos to Pakistan with terror attacks, refugee crises and sectarian violence being something that has sadly influenced the way people from outside Pakistan view the country. In fact for a while there, after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team’s bus in Lahore in 2009, which pretty much sounded the death nell of Pakistan as a tourist/backpacking destination for quite a few years.
But I wouldn’t be writing about it now if I didn’t feel things were changing for the better, and indeed I am considering a return to Pakistan in the coming years. I hope to head to the north of the country to visit parts I haven’t been to before.
There’s no doubt that it’s not a natural choice as a country to visit, it is rugged and intrepid in many ways, but that also to me adds an air of excitement to travel. The tourist trail is not well laid out, and despite some fairly comfortable transport options on the ground, it is not nearly as straight forward as many countries which are far more popular with the tourists. And that means that you will see far less people on your Pakistan travels – less foreigners of course. But many Pakistanis speak English, and they are some of the warmest, kindest and friendliest people you would ever want to meet. So let’s see what you need to know for a trip… to Pakistan!
Get Your Info Before You Go!
And this is really super important! Because in a country where there are still regions that are almost ‘no-go’ zones, and there is always the possible of an attack or violence, you want up to date information about what’s happening on the ground before you leave to head to sunny Pakistan. Read your government warnings – from places like Smart Traveller – but also take in any info you can find from someone who might be in Pakistan at the time, a blogger or vlogger for example.
General planning information is always advisable, in my opinion, although there is certainly a bit of a thrill of going to a place without much of a plan or idea what you’re going to do. Unfortunately, Pakistan can be a hard country to gain a lot of information on from outside the country. Lonely Planet have not released any sort of guide book on Pakistan since the mid 1990s I think, in 2004 I used the Istanbul to Kathmandu Lonely Planet guide book, which was useful but even in 2004 very much out of date. And there certainly hasn’t been a reissue.
In fact, the only guide book I know of for Pakistan is ‘Pakistan Traveller’, a detailed companion by friend of this blog, Tim Blight, of urbanduniya.com. Otherwise you need to, and indeed in addition to the book you will need to hunt out blogs and information online for Pakistan and get an idea of where you’re going. In today’s post I am mostly going to talk region to region and city to city to give my best understanding of Pakistan as a destination. The Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree has been on read-only for most of 2020, but when it restarts it may well again be a great place to ask questions and gather information before heading off to Pakistan!
For more information on Tim’s amazing book, check out my post – Pakistan Traveller.
Visas and Money
So just checking on the Pakistan embassy in Australia, and single entry visas are $85AUD. There appear to be a bunch of requirements though, including the need for a sponsor or if not you need an itinerary and a booking with a hotel. It will vary from citizen to citizen, so make sure you do some research well before heading to Pakistan to make sure you get your visa in could time. You can do it by e-visa, which should in theory make it easier, and it is also possible there may be visa on arrival in some circumstances, possibly if you fly in.
One USD buys you around 165 Pakistani rupees. It’s not an expensive countries, but I found that you don’t get the same quality in hotel rooms in Pakistan as you do for India, and on the whole it was slightly more expensive. Still, if you’re backpacking and staying in private/hotel rooms, $30USD should comfortably cover you.
I wasn’t adventurous in Pakistan, as I often am not, but as it’s a Muslim majority country meat is more commonly eaten than in India. Yes, it’s spicy. Lots of goat. I wish I could contribute more but Mr Tim Blight has some Pakistani recipes for you here – Food in Pakistan at Urban Duniya
Arrivals and Departures
So by air you have plenty of options for arrival ports. Karachi, Lahore & Islamabad are the main three. Pakistan International Airways (PIA) is the national airline, and hey I even appeared in their in flight magazine only last year – well, it was a short paragraph I wrote and then it was translated into Urdu, but hey, any claim to fame is good as far as I am concerned! Of course, plenty of other options with the Middle Eastern Airlines standing out as your best options for connections I would say – Emirates, Qatar and Etihad. KLM and British Airlines also fly to Pakistan.
Overland it’s limited. From Iran in the west you have Taftan as the border post, the only one foreigners use, but you end up in Baluchistan, there will be more on that part of Pakistan to follow. In the north you have the border into China’s Xinjiang Provence at Sost, it’s only open from approximately the 1st of May until sometime in September as it’s at altitude and I guess it’s impassable during the window. To India the only border open to foreigners is the Wagah border between Amritsar and Lahore. This the place to see the amazing changing of the guard ceremony which is really over the top.
There are a number of border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they are basically closed for foreigners. However, the Kabul to Peshawar route may be doable from Afghanistan to Pakistan, not in the other direction. However, intercity travel is not really viable in Afghanistan sadly due to security.
See also – Featured in an Airline Magazine!
Surprisingly perhaps, transport over long distances in Pakistan can be really comfortable. THE way to go is really the Daewoo bus service. It’s fully airconditioned and comes with a stewardess. Trains are also popular, but I found very hard to get a ticket for unless you book well in advance. Pakistan Railways do sell online, but you need a Pakistani phone number to enter before it will let you purchase the tickets. Mini buses in more variable condition ply less popular routes.
Auto-rickshaws, as in India, are plentiful in the cities and will probably be the way you get around mostly. I tried local bus a few times, men and women were segregated in 2004.
If you are like I was, and enter from Amritsar into Pakistan, the first stop you will have will be the city of Lahore. Lahore is the typical Pakistani city I guess. It’s chaotic, dusty, noisy, and yet has a real character all of its own. The centre of town is really quite claustrophobic, in my opinion, whereas when you get a little way from the centre there are parks and monuments. The highlight being the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort which are in the same precinct, opposite each other.
It’s the perfect place I guess if you wanted to ‘taste’ Pakistan without delving too deeply, Amritsar is 32 km or so from the border, Lahore is closer on the other side. It also probably feels the most ‘like India’ too if I’m to be honest.
See also – First Taste Pakistan – Lahore
Rawalpindi and Islamabad
These two are basically ‘twin cities’, which are about 7 kilometres from each other. They are complete contrasts too, with Rawalpindi a much older city, more chaotic and less planned. Well, much less planned. Rawalpindi has this amazing street where the art that goes on all the big trucks is designed and made, and a really interesting market too.
Islamabad on the other hand is the capital, a city purpose built and purpose planned. The shiny Faisal Mosque is definitely a highlight, there are parks and walks as well, it’s surrounded by hills and is not unattractive.
See Also – City Rumble – Islamabad Versus Rawalpindi
Multan to Uch Shariff
Five ish hours from Lahore, Multan is a VERY dusty city, and one that feels very different from the places I’ve already mentioned. It’s got a few mosques to check out and the place is special in its own way. I met a lot of locals when I was there and found it friendly.
From here it was a long day trip to Uch Shariff, in mini-buses with a change somewhere. I don’t know if there are direct options these days. Uch Shariff is a holy site with a graveyard and these Sufi shrines which are very special indeed. You feel the reverence of the place when you are there, and it’s a highly worthwhile day trip from Multan.
See Also – A Day at the Cricket in Multan
Peshawar is probably not advisable to visit from what I’ve heard chatting with Tim right now. It’s a birder town, although the border is in fact over 60km away. It’s certainly got a frontier feel and back when I was there I did a guided tour up the Khyber Pass and back. That may not be possible right now. The city itself is a little frenetic, a little on edge. There’s a ‘Smuggler’s Bazaar’ where weapons (guns) and who knows what else is for sale. I didn’t feel too comfortable in Peshawar, but part of the reason for that was the earthquake that hit overnight when I was there.
See Also – Pensive in Peshawar
Quetta and Baluchistan
This is the south-west of the country, characterised mostly by desert. When I was in Pakistan I headed through the Baluchistan Desert to get to Taftan and Iran. However, for many years (after I went there) this wasn’t possible. Pakistan blamed the Taliban, coming down from Afghanistan, but there have been more local issues with the Baluchistani’s not being big fans of the government and perhaps wanting their own state. These days it seems quieter, and people can travel across from Taftan to Quetta to the rest of the country, but they do it under armed escort. I‘ve read some interesting of people crossing from Iran in the last 3-4 years. It SEEMS safe enough this way, but very restricted.
Quetta itself is a nice town, not far from Afghanistan and similar to places I visited in Iran. It’s higher than the places I’ve mentioned so far, so much cooler but you aren’t allowed to explore it at the moment sadly. Unless you are crossing to or from Iran, Baluchistan isn’t worth going to.
There is the town of Gwadar, in the south of Baluchistan on the coast, a city building at a frenetic pace and owned basically by China. It requires some special sort of permit and I haven’t been there – it is relatively new, at least in its current incarnation, but perhaps one day it will open up.
The Karakoram Highway is famed, why I’m not 100% sure. I haven’t been to Northern Pakistan but hope to some day soonish. It’s obviously in some very high mountains, with Gilgit being one of the major towns of the region. There’s hiking and overlanding to or from Xinjiang if it takes your fancy. If heading into China it is recommended NOT to put Xinjiang as a place you are visiting, else your visa will not be granted. Apparently pop somewhere like ‘Shanghai’ on your visa and you’ll be fine!
Elsewhere in Pakistan
Karachi is the major city of the south and people seem to really like it – travellers that is. I imagine it to be hot and humid, but perhaps one day I will get to it. Faisalabad sounds interesting too, but the truth is there’s so much that’s undiscovered in Pakistan!
See Also –
So. What do you think? Would you be prepared to give Pakistan a go? It’s an adventure for sure, but not an unrewarding one! Thanks for visiting, take care, and naturally, May the Journey Never End!