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Planning a trip to Pakistan: Everything you need to know!

March 30, 2022 5 Comments

Pakistan is an unlikely dream destination for people but it was mine.

Like anyone from a diaspora community, there is always a curiosity- if not a longing- to visit the birthplace of your culture. 

Once India introduced their simple eVisa system, multiple visits to India ensued for me. Yet, I still hankered to visit Pakistan based on the very specific culture and community I grew up in. However, the requirement to visit an embassy and apply for a visa in person put me off. 

But in 2019, Pakistan’s Tourism ministry announced the introduction of an eVisa system and with 191 countries being eligible for it, I knew I would be making my way there soon. What I didn’t know was that the pandemic would arrive and delay my trip a few years but truly, it was worth the wait. 

Many have said that they’re terrified to take a trip to Pakistan; that they don’t know if it’s safe enough; or that they don’t know what is worth seeing in Pakistan. “Isn’t it ravaged by war?”, someone asked me. When I asked which war they were referring to, that person remained silent.

What I started noticing was that people had an image of Pakistan in their minds that involved terrorism, war and poverty. But when pressed to discuss why they felt this way, they couldn’t articulate a reason. Mainstream media has us all fooled with its misrepresentations of countries like Pakistan. Don’t allow yourself to be duped.

Pakistan is easily in my top 5 countries of all time. It has everything you could want in a place from value for money to natural sites to divine food to hospitable people. The best part- it’s not overrun with tourists. In fact, at most places, you will most likely be the only non-Pakistani there. For the traveller looking to get off the main tourist track, a trip to Pakistan is the ideal way to spend a vacation.

Is it Safe?

Yes. The answer is a simple yes. I felt far more unsafe in Europe when I compared how relaxed I was in Pakistan. I was asked this question by over 100 people on Instagram so I understand it’s a concern particularly for women. Although I took the normal precautions and maintained vigilance, I would say it’s quite safe particularly in the Northern regions of Pakistan. It is true that sometimes Pakistan gets attacked by terrorist groups, but so do a lot of other countries. The Pakistani police are everywhere and many do speak English so don’t feel shy to ask for help if it’s needed during your trip to Pakistan.

If you’re looking for other destinations I travelled to during the pandemic, you may want to consider my posts on Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Cyprus, Zanzibar, Uganda & Rwanda.

Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted. 

FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!

Pakistan shares much of its early history with India. The Mughal Empire took power in the early 1500s and then in the 1850s the government of Great Britain took over India (surprise, surprise!). The Pakistan region was a part of British India until the mid-20th century. After political manoeuvres by the wily British following decades of ‘divide and rule’, India was partitioned in 1947, ending three hundred years of colonial rule with the creation of two independent nations: India and Pakistan (comprising West and East Pakistan- present-day Bangladesh).

Image from https://www.mapsofindia.com/maps/india/prepartitionmap.htm

When the new boundaries were formed, many Muslims left India for Pakistan and many Hindus left Pakistan for India. Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16m people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train. Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million.

Meanwhile, the people of East Pakistan demanded independence from West Pakistan. A civil war between the two Pakistans began in 1971. With the help of the Indian army, East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh in 1972. Pakistan’s territory now included only West Pakistan. 

During recent times Pakistan has been in the news a lot. This is first because of its support to guerillas in Afghanistan, following a Soviet invasion 1979, and later during the 1990s because of its cooperation with and support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, since 2000 Pakistan has advocated for the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The capital of Pakistan is Islamabad. Before 1960, it was Karachi, which is now the country’s largest city. The currency of Pakistan is the Pakistani Rupee (PKR) and it is bordered by India, Afghanistan, China and Iran . English is widely spoken and they drive on the left side of the road (like the UK).  

Image from https://www.worldatlas.com/r/w1200/upload/c0/aa/3e/provinces-of-pakistan-map.png

PREPARING FOR your trip TO Pakistan

In a place like Pakistan- which has only been on the tourist radar for the last few years, it’s not easy to arrive and plan your trip on a day to day basis. While it’s possible, it will not be a relaxing holiday.

My advice is to book with a tour operator.

I found this to be the easiest way to organize my time in Pakistan particularly because there’s not a wealth of reliable information available in English online. Also I wouldn’t have a clue on how to arrange transport (many places in Pakistan require 4WD and tour companies will organise the best vehicles for the terrain).  The Pakistani eVisa requires an invitation letter from a Pakistani tour operator. All tour operators are aware of this and will provide it for your eVisa which you should apply for from this official website.

DIYing a trip in Pakistan would be an unnecessarily stressful experience in my opinion. I am linking here the tour company I recommend– one that is run by an awesome lady who is very focused on enticing diverse travellers of all races and nationalities particularly for intrepid solo female travellers. Check her pages to see what she on offer and reach out when you’re ready to plan your trip to Pakistan.

Let her know that you found her through Expat Panda! (I benefit from this in no way, I just want to recommend someone who knows what they’re doing). This is what we paid but this will differ from person to person based on accommodation choices, the time of year, the number of people in the group etc:

The best thing about a trip to Pakistan?

The people. Truly Pakistani people have to be some of the friendliest I have ever encountered. In small villages, they will try to invite you for a cup of tea or try to welcome you in any other way. You will leave knowing no one and leave having made some friends for a lifetime.

Sometimes you might feel like a celebrity, so be ready for photos, 1000 handshakes and a lot of smiles from the local people particularly if you don’t look local. 

Currency

You can withdraw Pakistani Rupees during your trip to Pakistan (most big banks charge around 650 Rupees per transaction) or you can also exchange money at many places in Islamabad (shop around for the best rates). When you book with a tour operator, you will most likely have to pay money in advance (via Western Union) so the money you take to Pakistan will simply be for spending on meals, entrance fees and shopping.

I will break my itinerary up into 2 parts- Gilgit & Hunza (rural Pakistan) and Islamabad (urban Pakistan). Islamabad is the starting point for most northern Pakistan tours and it’s worth spending a few nights there before or after your time in the mountains.

Section 1: Gilgit & Hunza

From Islamabad, the best way is to book a domestic flight to Gilgit Airport (ISB-GIL). However, this is something your tour agency will arrange for you. If you travel in winter, there is a high chance of the flight being moved or worse, cancelled (this happened to us). In this case, you’ll need a backup plan which will involve a 15 hour journey via road. If you do this, note that you will be stopped at many police checkpoints and your vehicle will be escorted by the police as you drive through many disputed territories. This is normal for foreigners so don’t be alarmed. 

Day1:

Passu Cones

One of the most striking landmarks on the Karakoram Highway. The jagged rocky peaks thrust skywards from the rest of the Karakoram Range making for a striking landscape. You can stop at any point along the highway to photograph these stunning mountains. By the way, the top of the highest peak is 6,106 meters above sea level.

Rainbow Bridge

The quaintest magical-looking rainbow bridge with a striking view of the surrounding mountains. See and hear the Indus River roaring below you as you nervously peer through the slats of the bridge.

I have no idea why it’s painted in a rainbow colour but it’s exhilarating to cross and makes for a wonderful spot to take photos.

Cost: 100PKR

Khunjerab Pass

From Rainbow Bridge we made our way to the highest border post in the world. The Khunjerab Pass (or, in Chinese, the Hongqilapu Pass 红其拉甫) is a key overland route for tourists, business people, and goods between China and Pakistan. It forms the only open border between the two countries and is the highest paved border crossing in the world. At 5,000 metres in altitude, it will literally take your breath away. No literally, it was hard to breathe there!

You go for the journey and the bragging rights of saying that you went to the highest border post in the world. Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive Marco Polo sheep and Ibex. It’s a thrilling drive as you wind around towering mountains, avoid landslides and navigate snow. At the top, you disembark for a rest and wander around to snap photos. It’s very cold on the top so please take a jacket!

Notes: Driving to Khunjerab Pass requires a 4WD vehicle. 

Cost: 3000PKR per person entry fee into Khunjerab National Park.

Accommodation: Luxus Hunza

Day 2:

Attabad Lake

Attabad Lake was formed after the immense landslide in Hunza. Though tragic circumstances led to the formation of this beautiful lake, locals have now found ways to use it for generating revenue for local communities and businesses. There are many accommodation options and boating activities available. We opted out of boating (it being too cold) but if you go in summer, that would be a must do. We stayed at Luxus Hunza which is a 5 star property on the banks of Lake Attabad.

Naltar Valley

Naltar is a valley near Gilgit and Hunza in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan. Naltar is 40 km (25 mi) from Gilgit and can only be reached by jeeps due to the unforgiving terrain. I would only recommend visiting this place if you’re going in summer as you will have the opportunity to visit some stunning lakes. Otherwise, you could arrange to go skiing at the ski slope there- but make sure it’s operational before you go.

Accommodation: Luxus Hunza

Day 3:

Baltit Fort

In the history of the subcontinent, it often happens that kings and princes build magnificent castles and palaces for their girlfriends. From the Taj Mahal to the Noor Mahal, it seems that every king was willing to go to any lengths to prove his love.

But there is also an ancient fort in the middle of the Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan, which a ruler chose for his daughter and built as a dowry for the princess’s father-in-law. That is Baltit Fort. 

It’s about 700 years old and was built at the foothills of a glacier that has long receded. The man-made foundations of this fort have been able to resist earthquakes, sliding glaciers, and even attacks. On your day down, stop at the shops at Karimabad Bazaar to do some souvenir shopping.

Cost: 2000PKR (includes a guided tour in English)

Altit Fort

Altit Fort was originally home to the hereditary rulers of the Hunza state who carried the title Mir, although they moved to the somewhat younger Baltit fort nearby three centuries later. Altit Fort and in particular the Shikari tower is around 1100 years old, which makes it the oldest monument in Gilgit–Baltistan. The fort is nothing spectacular (Baltit is much prettier) but the views from the top of the fort make it perfect for photos.

Visit during Cherry Blossom Season (early April) for all the trees to be in bloom. 

Cost: 2000PKR (includes a guided tour in English)

Eagle’s Nest Viewpoint

The Eagles Nest is a place you should visit if you are in Karimabad and the Hunza Valley for some of the best views. You can hike up (2 hours up if you’re fit enough) or drive up if you have a 4WD vehicle. If not, I am sure it would be possible to hitchhike as  well. 

We got dropped off at the Eagles Nest Hotel and walked up the small hill (10 minute walk but I felt like I was dying due to the high elevation) for some of the most spectacular scenes. Sunset was the perfect time as the light was beautiful and our time there was punctuated by the call to prayer from some local men.

Accommodation: Eagles Nest Hotel (if you can afford it, I would add another night at Luxus Hunza and not stay here. It’s nice enough with a beautiful view but not as luxurious as the other hotels we stayed at.)

Section 2: Islamabad

Hopefully you had the good fortune we had, and your Gilgit to Islamabad flight runs on schedule thus avoiding the 15 hour road journey back to the city. In Islamabad, we spent around 3 nights exploring a few of the city’s sites. Islamabad was a city that was planned for and therefore the urban planning is evident. It’s quite clean and orderly with tree lined streets and is worth adding to on your itinerary for your trip to Pakistan.

Day 4:

Saidpur Village

More than 500 years old, located at slopes of Margallah Hills, Saidpur Village has a rich history of culture, religious heritage and influence of three faiths namely Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. It is one of the oldest villages in Pakistan and has some beautiful spots for photos. We enjoyed dinner at a restaurant there called Des Pardes; the food was lovely but service was slow.

Faisal Mosque

The 6th largest mosque in the world is named after King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who visited Pakistan and liked the idea of the mosque and then bore the expenditure as a gift to the people of Pakistan. The design is inspired by a bedouin tent and the area around the mosque is beautiful.

I am not sure if the day we went to the mosque was a poor choice or if the interior of the mosque is always off-limits to visitors, but I was disappointed not to be able to step inside. I would also schedule this for an early morning on a weekday (but not Friday) as many people relax and socialise outside the mosque after prayer times.

Day 5:

Daman-e-Koh Viewpoint

This is a viewing point and hilltop garden north of Islamabad and located in the middle of the Margalla Hills. The windy road passes through various woody areas and hiking trails, and a place where several monkeys are visible on the road (because visitors feed them- don’t do this). From the top of the viewpoint, it’s a wonderful view of Islamabad where you can see all the modern infrastructure of this allegedly ‘war-torn’ country. There’s an even higher viewpoint Pir Sohawa- where you can enjoy a meal at the famed restaurant called Monal.

Smokey Cauldron

As a huge Potterhead it only made sense that once I heard about this Harry Potter themed cafe, it became a must visit for me. I was pretty impressed with the level of theming in this place; it could give cafe’s in Dubai a run for their money. From Harry’s trolley in front of the barrier leading to Platform 9 and ¾, to walls with the Houses’ (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw) flags, the three scoring hoops for Quidditch, to Hedwig’s Cage and large posters of the Chosen One himself, you’ll find it so many awesome photo opportunities. I wish I had stayed there longer!

Accomodation: Roomy Signature (Really loved this area, there were so many great shops nearby and the sugarcane juice cart across the road was ideally situated!).

Days 6, 7 & 8:

Add ons: I also did trips to Rawalpindi (absolute chaos & anarchy- go for the experience), Sharan (peaceful forest & mountain getaway), and Shadhara Valley (picturesque place only an hour’s drive out off Islamabad) but I was so busy enjoying myself that I neglected to take photos. 

Lastly,

There is a lot in Pakistan that is overshadowed by many negative perceptions. But if you’re an independent thinker, you’ll soon realise that a trip to Pakistan is a must. The landscape of Pakistan is so diverse that you need to travel its length to experience its true colors. Its beauty is spread on sparkling skyscrapers, snowy peaks of mountains, gushing rivers and stunning vistas. With relaxed entry requirements and a simple eVisa, Pakistan is becoming much more popular and might end up being the next big travel destination in Asia. Better go now and see it before it will be dominated by unruly tourists.

Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Pakistan highlight and my reels. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post about planning a trip to Pakistan, please pin it using the pin below:

QUICK QUESTIONS:

HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?

You could stay in Pakistan for years and not visit everything. 7 days is a good amount of time to start with but don’t forget to factor in travel time.

SHOULD I PURCHASE A SIM CARD?

I found wifi in hotels to be strong enough for what I needed. Buying a SIM card in Pakistan was an exercise in frustration and I wouldn’t bother if its just for a short trip.

DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?

I applied for and received my eVisa within 3 days. The website is linked here. Cost is determined by your nationality (I paid 20USD as a South African).

WERE PEOPLE FRIENDLY AND DID THEY SPEAK ENGLISH?

Most people in tourism sector spoke English really well. If you’re travelling with a tour operator, you will not have a problem as they can easily liaise with people on your behalf if necessary.

DID YOU THINK THIS TRIP WOULD BE SUITABLE FOR KIDS?

I personally have no experience traveling with children so I can’t be sure what they would like. However, if your children love the outdoors and nature then this might be a wonderful experience for them. I would advise doing research into family friendly activities if planning to travel with young children. Remember to factor in long travel times.

Have you visited Pakistan? Or are you thinking of planning a trip to Pakistan? Let me know in the comments below!

expatpanda

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5 Comments

  • Diana March 30, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    Pakistan looks beautiful! It’s honestly never been on my travel radar, I think because I just don’t know much about it. But as someone who lives for mountains, this looks like a place I would love to visit.

    • expatpanda March 31, 2022 at 11:16 am

      Pakistan has some of the highest and most beautiful mountains in the world so I think it would be perfect for you!

  • Kay March 31, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    You’ve absolutely sold me on Pakistan. It’s breathtaking !!! Ughhh so many destinations, so little time!! Ya killin me with all your amazing suggestions Panda!!

    • expatpanda April 5, 2022 at 10:12 am

      We need to plan a trip together 💕

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