I have recently returned from a two-week trip to Pakistan.
Pakistan had enticed me for years, if not decades. It is not a secret that relatively unknown, lesser-visited destinations enchant me infinitely more than the well-explored ones. I adore having entire sightseeing spots to myself, a phenomenon that, in our ever more travelled world, is increasingly rare.
By these measures, Pakistan looked perfect. Very few people I know have visited Pakistan, and one can safely count on not running across hordes of other tourists for most of Pakistan’s vastness for some time to come. The Pakistan visa application process may have recently been relaxed, with the ever-delayed e-visa finally becoming reality following widespread speculation – but, as of summer 2019, travelling in Pakistan remains notoriously difficult. While most people of relatively little travel experience wouldn’t dream of planning a trip there, even some of the more experienced travellers I know have admitted that travelling in Pakistan is challenging. You may have heard about the kind of problems that can befall those few souls persevering with their quest to visit Pakistan: they include persistent street harassment, overwhelming bureaucracy involved in travelling around the country and the inadequacy of tourism infrastructure in an industry that is only now looking at itself seriously.
In full knowledge of this, I was still convinced that Pakistan wouldn’t fail to impress. In the small world of prolific travellers where I reside permanently in my after-hours, Pakistan is nothing short of a jewel to dream of visiting. Stories abound of Pakistan’s breath-taking mountain vistas and uniquely hospitable locals. Everyone who has visited Pakistan seems to return converted, shaken, swept off their feet in love, and is supposed to start planning another trip before even leaving the country. Preparing for my trip, I fully expected to fall for Pakistan hands and feet, like I did for the stunning Afghanistan a year earlier.
After seeing the country with my own eyes, I can say that Pakistan really is worth the hype. The mountains are just as spectacular as one might expect, and locals’ kindness is a genuine delight. Many Pakistanis I met looked overjoyed to have a foreigner visiting their country: I have never been approached for more photo and selfie requests anywhere else. Regular readers will recall how much I love places where I can throw myself into shooting portraits of locals unhindered, and Pakistan turned out a dream for that. I must have photographed hundreds of beautiful local faces, including having police and military officers happily pose for me – a phenomenon unheard of in most parts of the world. Pakistan really was the traveller’s dream I had imagined it to be.
And yet I couldn’t help feeling surprisingly relieved when my trip was over.
MY JOURNEY WAS TOO RUSHED
I still shudder as I recall the monstrous undertaking that my road trip through Pakistan turned out to be. In barely two weeks, I covered over 3,000 km by road and spent long hours every day in a moving car, not arriving to my next hotel until late. Landing in Karachi (1 night), I continued to Hyderabad (1 night), Larkana (1 night) and overnight to Lahore by train before exploring Lahore and the Wagah Border Crossing in a rush (1 night), dashing on to Islamabad (1 night), Besham (1 night), Gilgit (1 night), Hunza (a whopping two nights) with a side trip to Khunjerab Pass, Chilas (1 night), Swat (completely unnecessary two nights – more on that below), Peshawar (1 night) and rounding it all up in Islamabad (1 night).
I owe everyone a confession: working full-time when I am not travelling, I value having a day or two of rest on the road. It is wonderful to be able to put my feet up and forget about any photography and social media obligations on what is meant to be my limited rest time.
Unfortunately, my Pakistan trip saw me barely have any downtime at all while the unyielding pressure to keep exploring and enjoying despite not exactly being in the mood quickly began to drain my actual travel experience. I spent nearly every night in a different hotel and, in the two places bestowed with two nights, the long day trips in-between meant that I might just as well have stayed elsewhere. It didn’t help that, in the run-up to my trip, I was also feeling particularly fed up with work and my numerous extracurricular activities, making me crave a slower kind of holiday. Ironically, I have never felt more tired after any ‘holiday’ as I did after that insane road trip through Pakistan.
Standing on Margalla Hill on my last night in Pakistan, to this fantastic view of Islamabad, I was secretly counting down the hours till my touch-down in Dubai
Worst of all, my demanding itinerary left no time whatsoever to develop a deeper connection to any particular place visited. Pakistan is celebrated for its hospitality, the internet being flooded with stories of Western travellers getting invited to local homes, handed gifts by strangers and force-fed delicious local food. Sadly, throughout the trip, the ever-present thoughts at the back of my mind were ‘I am late, we are behind schedule, we need to get a move-on’ and I never experienced this. I ended up declining many a generous offer of tea, meal and conversation from wonderful Pakistanis for the simple lack of time, something I know I will always bitterly regret. So rushed and busy were we at all times that my guide, a Hunza native, did not even get a chance to see his family despite us driving within a few kilometres of his house.
In case the message is not coming through, I do not recommend such a madly rushed itinerary to anyone. I blame no-one but myself for insisting to rush through the entirety of Pakistan rather than narrow my focus down to one or two regions. In retrospect, I could have flown directly to Northern Pakistan and skipped everything before Lahore, freeing up four entire days to spread around the rest of the programme. I could also have spent the entire two weeks – or more – in the mountains, leaving time for hikes and slower enjoyment. As Pakistan’s beauty, my options there would have been endless.
Endless like these phenomenal eyes of a local Pakistani, the gentleman administering polio vaccinations in remote regions of Pakistan
HOTELS IN PAKISTAN DRAINED MY WILL TO LIVE
Having spent a significant amount of money on trips to several challenging destinations the year before, I was keen to keep the costs of my Pakistan adventure down and so opted for no-frills 2- and 3-star hotels. I deliberately kept my expectations low, but the reality turned out to be far, far worse than my darkest dreams.
As an aside, I actually prefer simple guesthouses free of unnecessary clutter or appliances I will never use. With notable exceptions, I rarely use the hotel for much more than some sleep and a wash. My simple requirements of a hotel whilst travelling are cleanliness and safety – not unreasonable demands by any means.
While I did not experience any safety issues in Pakistan, the cleanliness situation in most hotels where I stayed exceeded my worst fears. The absence of the basic hygiene standards and the lack of understanding of what tourists – particularly foreign ones – might look for in a hotel were, quite simply, astonishing. A quick dash across my room at the Panorama Hotel in Chilas left my bare feet a solid shade of black, while the bedlinen, clearly not changed after the previous lodger, had human hairs and crumbs all over it. Almost ready to vomit, I eventually cornered a solitary cleaner and, after some delay, a manager who ordered the sheets changed without protest – obviously not an unusual request given the same was done for the room two doors down shortly after.
I didn’t take photos of those grim hotels. Here is a photo of our handsome armed escort in the Chilas area instead
Strangely enough, it was the hotels that looked best from the outside that usually turned out the worst. You could almost be sure that an establishment with a nice location / garden / view / layout had ‘hidden secrets’, with rooms turning out a squalid and dirty affair. Even in the supposedly nice Best Western Hotel in Lahore, the towel rack in the bathroom had rotted through and came off the wall on me when I tried hanging my towel. And, despite its pompous name, the Peshawar Grand Hotel had its rooms open to an indoor car park and lacking windows to the outside.
Further, the Hunza View Hotel in Karimabad boasted a killer view from its roof terrace, but my tiny room – despite reportedly being the best on the floor – offered a filthy fitted carpet and a sheet smaller than the mattress, leaving it simply lying on top of the bed. My two precious consecutive nights in a single place – on what was meant to be downtime in-between long road runs – were spent trying to stay in exactly the same position to avoid having my skin come into contact with – you guessed it – more food leftovers and human hairs available aplenty between the sheet and the mattress. I only noticed the full horror of the situation when I took the sheet off before leaving.
Mentally exhausted by this persistent aversion to basic hygiene, I was close to losing it on too, too many nights in Pakistan. Given the above, the fact that several hotels had only intermittent electricity and WiFi or lacked hot water is not even something I am going to dwell on. I was just grateful when I could end yet another draining day of driving with a hot shower and charge my phone and camera batteries.
But it wasn’t all grim. Surprisingly, I found the modest motels run by the government-owned Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) the most comfortable and the cleanest options. Rooms were kept simple but tidy and not without perks even nicer hotels sometimes lacked: the PTDC motel in Saidu Sharif had a lovely garden and lawn that the rooms opened to, while the one in Sost had a fantastic rooftop view. And they uniformly made the best tea of the trip! I would most certainly stick to PTDC motels when planning my next low-budget trip through Pakistan.
LOCALS’ ATTENTION WAS OVERWHELMING
Compared to its much more popular neighbours in the region, Pakistan receives relatively few Western visitors. It has been reported that around 1.75 million tourists visit Pakistan every year, but this figure includes a significant number of Pakistani diaspora visiting home from the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese businessmen and workers visiting Pakistan in connection with the many Chinese-led infrastructure projects in the country.
For this reason, Caucasian-looking travellers are still viewed as a rarity in Pakistan and, as such, attract significant attention. Many Pakistanis I met in the streets, museums and markets looked genuinely happy to encounter my husband and myself – particularly myself, a foreign woman – and I felt nothing short of a celebrity being constantly asked for selfies and photos. I even had a photo taken with a newlywed couple, dressed to their nines for their ceremony, in front of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore as part of their formal wedding portfolio. It really felt like royalty treatment.
However, this very quickly got tiresome as requests for photos and selfies kept streaming in, resulting in massive commotion wherever we went. Posing for one smartphone normally resulted in 20 more requests, with locals nearly resorting to fights to get that prized shot of a nervous-looking white woman desperately trying to keep her cool. Many local men followed the predictable approach of asking my husband, Alan, for a selfie first, only to shed the façade immediately as they carefully cropped him out, leaving only me and themselves in the frame. And some men creepily chose to lie in wait around corners and behind obstacles, smartphone at the ready for when that gori would emerge in all her Western glory. I lost the count of how many times I lost my temper – it isn’t for nothing that ‘have you never seen a girl?’ is one of the very few Urdu phrases I mastered to perfection.
Trying not to let the negativity get to me, I soon developed a tactic of walking away as soon as the usual song of Alan being asked for a photo rang in my ears. Alan, bless him, usually agreed to yet another photo, counting down to the inevitable follow-up of ‘and what about Madam’ – because, of course, it is no-one else but my husband that grants or denies random strangers the right to have a photo taken with his wife – before they reluctantly relented to make do with him alone and departed disappointed. Let’s face it, in most cases, it was really a photo with me that they were after.
There were plenty of positive exceptions to the rule. Most people were genuinely happy to meet the two slightly daft foreigners who came to Pakistan and showered us with questions about our journey. It is not considered rude in Pakistan to snap photos with foreigners, who are still seen as a novelty. I had no problems having photos taken with families or other women – or handsome police and army officers, of which we met many in Pakistan – as long as I could take my portraits in return and as long as the situation didn’t get out of control.
Generally, I tried my best to keep a trooper’s attitude as I was on holiday in a foreign country with different customs and wanted to keep an open mind. However, I ended up feeling absolutely exhausted by constantly having to be alert to my surroundings and dodge unsolicited photos by creepy-looking youths. Without wishing to spread negativity, I do not appreciate my image being recorded surreptitiously by strangers. I don’t even want to imagine where this footage might end up.
SWAT WAS A DESTINATION TOO MANY
Swat District in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is renowned for its natural beauty. Sitting at an average elevation of around 1,000 meters – much below that of the neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan – Swat boasts landscapes that extreme altitudes do not allow. Even at the peak of the summer, the district remains green and lush, providing a much-needed respite from the heat of the cities and attracting thousands of domestic tourists. As a result, Swat’s main urban hubs are filled to the brim with hotels and restaurants primarily catering to Pakistani tourists.
Sounds great, right? All would be well if the true beauty of Swat wasn’t in its forests and hiking trails. Unfortunately, my insane itinerary left barely a day for a quick walk around the centre of Saidu Sharif, Swat’s main urban settlement, and a drive down the valley to Bahrain, another local tourist destination on the Swat River. Especially against the backdrop of the bustling Lahore and Karachi, I found the built-up stretch of the riverside we drove along, past modern (though not necessarily new) buildings, largely uninteresting. I loved the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif and its fascinating Buddhist and pre-Buddhist exhibits, but the rest of the area that I had the time to see barely felt like it deserved the detour. I could have easily dedicated more time to the far more interesting Lahore or even Peshawar instead.
It didn’t help that I felt extremely uncomfortable walking around Saidu Sharif and Bahrain, much more so than anywhere else in Pakistan. Most women there wear burka outside, and, despite being fully clad in the local salwar kameez (dupatta included), I stood out like a sore thumb and attracted overwhelming attention. Being outside in Swat felt even more intense and far less friendly than in the rest of the country, with the possible exception of the similarly conservative – but much more interesting culturally – Peshawar.
Saidu Sharif also hit the unfortunate statistic of becoming the only place in Pakistan where I got groped, when a young man passing me in the street unexpectedly allowed his hand to rest on my backside. Outraged, I chased him down the street and punched him in the shoulder, an action that visibly amazed the local passers-by who were quick to surround and interrogate the culprit. I did not participate in what sounded like a heated exchange, but was somewhat relieved to hear that the witnesses were on my side and scolded the groper to the point of tears. I hope that the humiliation of being very publicly hit by a woman, too, will deter the perpetrator from making the same mistake again.
Unlike in the neighbouring Afghanistan, most burkas I saw in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan were sand-coloured
Not helped by the locals’ fixated stares and wandering hands, I found the area underwhelming at best and, being near the end of my trip, these adverse impressions of Swat contributed to my lagging motivation to continue enjoying travelling. I realise that I have missed all the picturesque parts that Swat is famous for and certainly wouldn’t talk anyone out of visiting.
BUT IT DOESN’T MEAN THAT I AM NEVER GOING BACK
In short, I was not prepared for how challenging travel in Pakistan ultimately turned out to be. I set myself a packed, challenging itinerary without realising that Pakistan needed time to be appreciated fully. I missed out on local hospitality because I was always running against an unachievable schedule. I failed to connect with any particular place in Pakistan because my mission was to tick off as many sights as possible, not to focus on people. The many photogenic faces I photographed on my way became anonymous, unburdened by any details of their lives. I simply didn’t have the time to invest in getting to know them better.
My experience also echoed the fact that Pakistan’s tourism sector remains painfully underdeveloped. While Pakistan’s authorities are busy hailing the country as the next tourism hotspot, the existing infrastructure is inadequate for a greater influx of foreign tourists. The state of most hotels in Pakistan leaves a lot to be desired – to put it mildly – while the lagging quality of roads in many areas, including the popular Gilgit-Baltistan, can easily add long hours to a traveller’s journey. Add to that endless check points, obscure government restrictions on where foreigners are allowed to visit, persistent and overwhelming attention from locals – however well meant – and mandatory armed escorts, and it becomes clear that Pakistan is simply not ready for a significant increase of its tourist numbers.
I was able to navigate the bureaucracy by travelling with a local company, who handled all the paperwork, but not every tourist has the luxury of being able to afford a private tour. If Pakistan really is serious about expanding its tourism sector, it should be able to attract all kinds of travellers, not just the elite few.
But none of this means that I am never going back. Pakistan is where I met some of the kindest, undeniably genuine people on my travels. Pakistan is where, in a short time, I witnessed a great variety of landscapes and terrain – from the dry lowlands of Sindh to the lush hills of the Swat Valley, from the mesmerising peaks of Gilgit-Baltistan to the bustling cities of Punjab, they were all unforgettable. Pakistan is where relatively few tourists still visit, making it a far more special experience for curious travellers than many other, mainstream destinations.
In short, I cannot wait to have my second date with Pakistan – one of the most vibrant, picturesque and memorable places I have ever visited.
But, next time, I will plan it very, very differently.
A FEW PRACTICAL THOUGHTS ON TRAVEL IN PAKISTAN
The most convenient way to reach Pakistan from London in April 2019 would have been on Emirates via Dubai or on Etihad via Abu Dhabi (around US$ 600 return), but, true to myself, I again used British Airways between London and Dubai. I flew from Dubai to Karachi on the low-cost FlyDubai (US$ 130) and departed from Islamabad on Emirates (US$ 220) – not the most efficient or cheapest route but great if, like me, you collect BA tier points. I could have also used BA’s OneWorld partner Qatar Airways via Doha, but opted for a short stopover in Dubai on the way back to wash off all the road grit in a nice hotel before returning to London.
It is already much easier and quicker to reach Pakistan from London: starting in June 2019, there are three weekly BA flights between London and Islamabad (US$ 680 return). Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) also fly several times a week London-Islamabad, London-Karachi and London-Lahore, but, given their largely negative reviews citing outdated aircraft and poor customer service, PIA would hardly be my first choice of an airline.
I was ‘lucky’ enough to have to apply for my Pakistan visa in the old way, through an agency called Gerry’s Visa Services. In full honesty, the application form was the most painful I have ever had to fill in. It took me two hours to write down my full itinerary in Pakistan, the various details of my past trips (apparently all trips in the past two years were required – I listed all trips for which there were stamps in my very full British passport, an ordeal in itself), detailed information on my past and present employers, my parents’ and husband’s personal details, travel agency details and much more – with impossibly small fields provided.
I arrived at Gerry’s in Stratford armed with a massive stack of documents, still managed to forget one vital piece of paper, ran to the nearest internet café to print it off and made it back just in time for my ticket to be called. So used were Gerry’s to people not submitting correct documents that a person was assigned to checking just that. Failing the checklist test, all but one applicant before me were swiftly turned away, but, luckily, my dogged preparation paid off and I was accepted at the first attempt. I received my visa just two days after applying – a major relief after hearing stories of applicants getting rejected or held in limbo.
Things are a lot easier and cheaper now, with the e-visa introduced mere days after my nerve-wrecking experience with Gerry’s. Citizens of 175 countries can now apply for a Pakistan visa electronically, with the reported turnaround time of between 48 hours and a couple of weeks. Impressively, citizens of 50 countries are eligible for a visa on arrival, which works similarly to the US ESTA. The process isn’t entirely smooth yet – there seems be a difference in understanding of what documents are required across different countries of application, and an embassy visit for an interview still remains a possibility – but this is already a massive step forward. Notably, a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from a registered travel agency, a mandatory part of submission previously, seems to have been relaxed to include hotel bookings and personal invitations from well-wishing Pakistanis. A single-entry tourist visa for a British citizen now costs US$ 60, a major drop from the exorbitant GBP 134 (US$ 165) I had to pay for mine.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP IN PAKISTAN
There are plenty of travel agencies in Pakistan eager to assist you with your trip. On a recommendation from a fellow prolific traveller, I engaged a Karachi-based travel agency called Travel & Culture Services to plan and organise my trip, which, with its ambitious itinerary and limited time, would not have been feasible on public transport. Travel & Culture Services provided us with a car, a driver and a guide for the entire 16 days and arranged our overnight train transfer between Rohri Junction and Lahore. The trip being rushed, we didn’t get a chance to wander about much in-between all those transfers as we always had to get a move on, something I would definitely change for my next visit.
Jamal Panhwar, the owner of Travel & Culture Services, travelled with us for the first four days (Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana, Sukkur) and was most certainly the highlight of our trip. Rarely before did I meet such a kind, patient and knowledgeable person, an absolute sweetheart and a pleasure of a travel companion, always prepared to go out of his way to make sure we were happy. If you are visiting the Sindh Province of Pakistan, I wouldn’t recommend travelling with anyone else.
Unfortunately, Jamal normally leaves other provinces to other guides, not nearly as strong as himself (which, given how amazing he is, is hardly surprising). We quickly found our guide in Lahore and Islamabad, Gulham, a poor match for our style of travelling and another guide, Ibrahim, joined us for the journey to the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan. Ibrahim was far better suited to our character and our destination: an experienced mountaineer, he has accompanied mountaineering missions in several countries and even risked his life to descend into a crevasse to rescue an Australian tourist.
We paid US$ 120 per person per night, which included an English-speaking guide, all ground transfers including a driver, 2- and 3-star accommodation, permits, breakfast, several other meals and entrance fees to numerous sites included in the tour on the basis of two people travelling. Upgrading to 4- and 5-star hotels would have increased the price significantly to US$ 190 per person per night, but, who knows, could have eliminated some of my frustration with midrange hotels’ approach to hygiene described above. Overall, Travel & Culture Services provided a good service for a very reasonable price, and I would definitely travel with Jamal again.
It is perfectly possible to travel independently – and far, far more cheaply – in Pakistan if you have plenty of time on your hands, and many full-time travellers have indeed done so. Will of The Broke Backpacker famously couchsurfed his way around the country and is a solid source of information about travel in Pakistan. Alex of Lost With Purpose has visited Pakistan five times, including traversing vast parts of it as a solo woman on a motorbike; her photos and material are nothing short of awe-inspiring. And Nicole of Adventures of Lil Nicki has explored Gilgit-Baltistan in depth, both solo and accompanied, with stunning photos to show for it.
It is, however, fair to say that, after barely a couple of weeks travelling in Pakistan, I am hardly an authority on the subject. A couple of Facebook Groups dedicated to travel in Pakistan are full of useful information; see The Karakoram Club and Backpacking Pakistan. I also continue to trust the good old Every Passport Stamp that features all of my favourite frequent travellers and churns out good advice despite having grown in size rather uncontrollably of late.
Nothing can be more important than this selfie while cruising Karachi’s Clifton Beach on a motorbike
OTHER TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNTS
I am eternally grateful to Alex of Lost With Purpose for her brave summary of why the current social media portrayal of Pakistan is actually dangerous to its tourism sector. Eager to give Pakistan’s underdeveloped tourism sector a push, the current government has recently supported a number of international social media content creators’ promotional campaigns of Pakistan. Most have typically painted a rosy picture, Alex being the only one to offer constructive criticism. Having encountered some of the same issues that Alex faced, I highly recommend the video of the speech Alex presented at the Pakistan Tourism Summit in April 2019. If you are short on time, read here the summary of the main messages of the speech.
To compare, take a look at this promotional video by vlogger Eva Zu Beck, who has amassed an impressive following in Pakistan. Take a look also at the Instagram account of Rosie Gabrielle, another Western influencer highly popular in Pakistan. While the quality of the content is truly impressive, such sugar-coated images hardly reflect the reality of travelling in Pakistan today.
On a less controversial subject, Mark of Migrationology has prepared a wonderful guide to Pakistan through the country’s cuisine. Bon appetite!