Pakistan Destination Guide : Our Top Ten
Pakistan’s most southern province, Sind, known as the ‘unhappy valley’ was until recently a barren desert until the Sukkur Dam, built during the Great War, allowed the land to be irrigated by the waters of the Indus River.
Nowadays, sheesham, pipal trees and aquatic creatures such as water buffalo and king fishers frequent the small wetlands of the region. It can be so barren here that the white heat of the sun can be turned red or blotted out by sands.
At the south-west around Karachi and the mouth of the Indus, the coastal waters are tinted red in the summer heat. This is a feudal state which a few leading families rule the roost.
Unrest amongst the people is felt in the major cities with tension between indigenous groups and Muslim Indian immigrants who arrived after the partition.
Kidnapping is not uncommon here, and tourists are advised not to leave the borders of Karachi unless taking an organised trip to Moenjodaro, an ancient site dating back to 4000BC and one of the great historic gems of Asia. If you have the time and can afford the air fare, it may prove well worth taking the trip. Organised tours require an armed guard to travel around the region’s interior. The region is famous for its textiles and embroidery.
Situated on the Southeast coast, Karachi has great beaches but it is certainly no resort city. The largest city in Pakistan with a population bigger than London, Karachi is more of a stop off point for international travellers, using its airport as transit to elsewhere, than an attraction in its own right. Political and ethnic tensions run high and drug trafficking is common from its port.
Street crime, carjacking and assasination have all been major problems here in the last 10 years, so be sure to check with your consulate as to the present situation before making a trip. If you brave it, there are a few attractions like the Dobi Ghat outdoor laundry or the quayside fishing wharf. Being Pakistan’s commercial hub, the bazaars are bursting with handicrafts and other goods.
Karachi is a more liberal city than most, where women can be unveiled and attract less attention. 17 miles outside of Karachi and on the boundaries of the safety limit, Chaukundi is home to impressive tombs and mausoleums made of pyramids of cubed stone with elaborate carvings. They are believed to date sometime between the 13th – 16th century.
Bordered by Afghanistan, Iran and the Arabian Sea, Baluchistan is the remote Southwest region in a dusty desert. If you desire isolation, this is where to find it. A third of this state is located in Iran and it serves as the main trading and transport route there from South Asia. Truly a place for adventure lusting hardened travellers, you’ll find the extremes of arid and lushness, heat and cold, bleak and beautiful here.
Baluchistan covers nearly half of Pakistan and is bigger than Great Britain, although only 6 million people live here. Its citizens are nomadic herders who migrate to the hills in the summer. There are no major sites, cities or towns and little conventional to ‘see’. The unpredictability of the area means it can border upon dangerous and tribal killings are common, although unlikely to involve tourists. Stick to the main highways and Quetta for your own safety. Step beyond, and you’ll need a ‘No Objection’ Certificate from the Civil Secretariat, and always check current regulations and safety with your consulate.
The oasis town of Quetta and its surrounding area house most of Baluchistan’s inhabitants. It’s on the frontier of a military border and lacks the history or glamour of other Pakistan cities but more than makes up with its colourful mixing of tribes including the indigenous Pashtuns and Afghan immigrants, and its rich apple orchards surrounding the city.
In the Archaeological Museum you can see exhibits of a bloody sword used to kill a British soldier and pottery pieces from ancient Moenjohdaro, amongst others. Day trips from here include the Hanna Lake, the orchards of the Urak Tangi Valley and the small Hazarganji-Chiltan National Park, home of the markhor wild goat as well as leopards, pythons and migratory birds. The hill station of Ziarat is 80 miles north of Quetta; the mild weather here made it a perfect summer base for former pasty skinned English colonialists. It’s also a pilgrimage site for followers of Kharwari Baba. The tangis (gorges) are spectacular here.
Punjab means five rivers, so you can imagine that this is Pakistan’s most fertile province and home to half of all Pakistanis. Agriculture and industry are big business here. Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan during the 1947 partition and chaos, violence and death were common the region. Now, it’s considered one of the most politically stable states, although banditry leaking from Sind can occur and the south of the state should be approached in caution.
Bahawalpur is a very friendly city, and many here believe in Sufism. Amenities are good, and the ruling Abbas still hold close ties with the British monarchy. The nearby Lal Suhanra National Park is an irrigated reserve. In the zoo you can see white horned rhino and in the wild look out for jackals, boars, desert foxes and hog deer.
Cholistan is the largest desert on the Indian continent. The Hakra River dried up here and with it most life. There are a number of forts along the old river bed dating back to 4000 BC. The people who live here are nomads who lead a simple life herding and trading in camels. Their culture is strong with many romantic legends dating back to ancient times. The desert festivals are simply out of this world. A camel and guide are advisable to explore the region and you’ll need a permit from the Bahawalpur Commissioner to camp in the desert.
6.Multan and Beyond
Multan is a dry, dusty, yet small city on the edge of the Cholistan Desert. It’s Pakistan’s answer to India’s Rajasthan, but without the touts. Multan can be reached by train in six hours from Lahore, or a quick flight from Islamabad, Karachi, or Lahore.
There are a number of worthwhile sights in town: the Eidgah Mosque where non-Muslims can watch over Friday prayers and the stunning blue-glazed pottery of 12th Century Multan, best seen on the Tomb of Yusuf Gardezi, a notable pioneer of Sufism in the region.
Multan has had its fair share of brushes with fame. Mohammed Bin Qasim, an Arab Muslim conqueror in 711AD, won the hearts of Hindu inhabitants with his tolerance and equality for all. In 1848 the British attacked the town’s citadel in the battle known as the Siege of Multan. Lieutenant Alexander van Agnews was murdered by sepoys in British pay during an uprising. An obelisk to his memory stands within the Citadel Qasim Bagh.
Multan is one of the oldest cities on the subcontinent and is home to Pakistan’s Sufi community. Most travellers visit Multan on their way into the Cholistan. It’s a jumping off point for more adventurous travel and treks into the desert.
The effort it takes to get to Uch Sharif is well worth it. From Multan it’s two hours by train to the small and friendly town of Bahawalpur, a nice place to relax for a few days before embarking on more exciting jaunts into the Cholistan Desert.
From Bahawalpur a driver and car is cheap to hire for half day visits, or cheaper still, a minibus from the station will take you to the rarely seen village of Uch Sharif. On the confluence of two major rivers, in a beautiful setting you will find some of the most exquisite examples of Sufi architecture on the planet.
With a dome covered tomb in honour of a Sufi priest’s (pirs) wife, the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi is ornately covered in millions of tiny blue tiles reflecting the sun’s rays to a backdrop of weeping willows along the bank of the Sutlej River. Just a short walk away, half buried in the encroaching sand dunes is the beautiful blue-tiled Shrine and Mosque of Jalaluddin Bukhari, who it is believed converted Genghis Khan to Islam. Every year in September or October there is a festival held in Uch to honor Sufi saints.
Harappa is the least impressive of the two Indus Valley ancient sites, but although it is not as well preserved as Moenjodaro, it is far more accessible. The actual site of the citadel, granary, cemetry and walls has been plundered by its neighbours for bricks, but the museum contains a few remaining interesting and well preserved relics of this 4000 year old civilisation.
The Salt Range is a bleak plain, blessed in salt but little else. The world’s 2nd largest salt mine with glittering stalactytes in its mined caves can be visited here. The 16th century Rohtas Fort near Jhelum town is also worth exploring.
The two adjacent cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are home to over a million people. Islamabad is a modern capital, built from nothing in the last 50 years since partition as a convienient location for Pakistan’s modern capital.
Rawalpindi is an original and authentic city rich in bazaars. Islamabad contains officious buildings, museums and the opulent Shah Faisal Mosque, the largest in Asia holding 100,000 worshipers (1 in 4 of the city’s population).
Taxila, part of the kingdom which was known in ancient times as Gandhara, is an amazing historic site. It was the 6th Century BC capital of Gandhara, and even atttracted Alexander the Great.
The nearby Wah Gardens were once a Moghul pleasure ground fulls of Cypress trees and pavilions, although sadly now run down.
Hasan Abdal is a famous site for Buddhists and Sikhs as it is where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, stopped a boulder sent to kill him with one hand. A rock with a hand print here is said to be the same rock and he is celebrated at the Baisakhi Festival in April.
Murree is a former hill station territory where bureaucrats, the army and anyone with enough money to buy a villa goes in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Punjab. It’s highly developed in colonial style with beautiful scenery.
Lahore is one of Pakistan’s most interesting and exciting cities. Although crowded and polluted, bustling and chaotic, it’s one of the most frequently visited cities in the country. Lahore is peppered with a mixture of Mogul and British architecture and it is centered on a main thoroughfare called The Mall. It is along this stretch of road that most travellers stay and it offers easy access to many sites.
Lahore was once the grand capital of the Mughal Empire. Lahore is the capital of Punjab State and the cultural centre of today’s Pakistan. Kim’s Gun, immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, can be found on The Mall outside the Lahore Museum. The museum is well worth a visit, housing Stone Age artefacts from Indus Valley civilizations, along with ancient Buddhist and Muslim displays, and memorabilia from Queen Victoria’s reign.
Lahore has many sites to keep even the most discerning traveller occupied for a number of days, including the magnificent Badshahi Mosque, extravagantly built from red sandstone by the Moguls in the late 17th Century. It is one of the largest mosques in the world. Lahore Fort, situated opposite Badshahi, housed numerous Mogul Emperors and was built in a similar design to those found in Agra and Delhi.
The Minar-i-Pakistan, a gaudy but green park very near the mosque and fort, is where locals congregate in their hundreds in the late afternoon to escape the oppressing day’s heat. The main feature of the park is a mini Eiffel-like Tower which you can scale to lofty heights, erected as a monument to Pakistan’s independence. There are numerous historical tombs, mausoleums, and gardens on the outskirts of town built in honour of past Emperors. All in all, Lahore represents the modern face of Pakistan and one in which travellers are made to feel welcome.
A constant battle ground and a battered buffer state between Pakistan and its old enemy India, Pakistan believes this state should be theirs, and it has been subject to constant invasions, bombing and disputes for 50 years.
To this day, with a constant military presence and many casualties, Kashmir remains a lone state, belonging neither to India nor Pakistan, yet both claiming ownership of it. Many of Kashmir’s 2.5 million people want total independence from both of their oppressors after decades of cruelty on both sides . Few tourists get to experience its rich forests and the Neelam Valley which too often rings out with gunshots. Extreme caution and escorts are advised if you are considering exploring the outskirts of the region.
Bordering Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, the Northwest is the home of some of the world’s most impenetrable mountains, where everyday life is a battle against the odds.
Tribal societies headed by the fearless Pathans rule the roost here, and it can be lawless and violent. Formidable hosts, never make these people your enemy, as one of their most famous saying goes, “revenge is a dish which tastes better cold”.
The main city of the region is Peshawar (famous for its honey and almond breads). It’s a romantic but dangerous city, with government law only extending beyond the suburbs whereupon tribal laws take hold and an armed guard is necessary. Its huge population of Afghan refugees bring as much conflict as character. They tend to live in huge camps in the suburbs. Wandering around here is ill advised as every year a few tourists are kidnapped, although never harmed.
The Old City,though, is worth the visit. It’s a place from another era with its narrowing winding streets, rickshaws and mules at the Khyber Bazaar and Moghul era relics like the Bala Hisar Fort or the Old street of Storytellers.
Add a few modern twists like the Karkhanai Bazaar full of Afghan smuggled shiny cosmetics, fridges and high tech gear, and you have a recipe for quite an Arabian Night.
The great trading route of the Khyber Pass has fascinated travellers for hundreds of years, making it easily the most romanticised passage to Afghanistan. Stretching through the Suleiman Ranges to the Afghan border, its notion is more exciting that what you can actually see . It’s ferociously dangerous, run by the Khalid Tribe. Landmarks include the Sikh Jamrud Fort, the nearby Ali Masjid Mosque and the contraband Landi Kotal town which is full of hash and guns.
The last visitable point of the pass is Michani Checkpost. Like many places in Pakistan, you’ll need to be in an organised tour or hire an armed escort to journey the Pass.
Around the little town of Mardan, birthplace of the Queen’s Own Guide Corps, are various Buddhist relics dating from the days of the Gandhara empire of millenia past. The most notable is the Takht-I-Bahi Monastery dating from the 1st – 7th Century. The village of Shahbaz Garhi contains inscribed rocks and the white elephant monastery.
Swat, the ‘Switzerland of the east’ is known for the great landscapes and outdoor recreations which, unlike much of Pakistan, can be accessed here all year round.
Its mountainous peaks are dominated by Falaksair and around Kalam the trekking territory is amongst the best in the world, Safety first, you’ll need an armed guard to travel here. The main city of this region is the interlinked towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif. From here you can explore several fundamental Buddhist sites like Butkara No 1 & 3 and the Swat Museum with artefacts taken from neighbouring sites.
Outside of the town are some of the most impressive Buddhist sites in the world, in particular Udegram, whose demise came in the 2th century BC when Alexander the Great ravished the city. Kalam is Swat’s last frontier for tourism, with numerous hotels here but beyond it is dangerous. If you can get a good guide, the trout fishing in the Swat River and the lush alpine terrains are highly rated.
The Chitral Valley, bordering Afghanistan, is accessible by plane from Peshawar, along the Lowari Pass from Dir or the Shandur Pass from Gilgit, which are closed during the winter. Be amongst this natural beauty’s handful of annual visitors and discover some of the rarest and finest trekking in all of Asia. Crops are farmed in the fertile valley, and the massive 23,000ft Mt Tirich Mir begs to be challenged. Chitral Town itself is a large lively town with an excellent bazaar and a great place to witness the national sport, polo.
The Chitral Gol National Park is famous for its pair of rare snow leopards. The Kalash Valleys, famous for the tiny non-muslim Kalasha tribe are good to visit during their festival seasons. Ladies, watch out for the mysterious yeti of Hindukush, a red haired ape man who, apparently, is hung like a donkey.
The hills of Hazara‘s rich fertile plains and forests stretch into the Lesser Himalaya mountains. Before Partition it was home to many Sikhs, and their forts bear witness to their past heritage. Sites to see here include the Tarbela Dam, the biggest earthen dam in the world, some 1.5 miles across.
The British hill station of Abbottabad is worth a visit for its unusual Europeanness in the Asiatic hills. The lively little town of Mansehra is famed for the engraved Ashoka Rocks where King Ashoka engraved 14 edicts celebrating Buddhism. The Kaghan Valley is a popular holiday location for Pakistanis and travellers alike,combining a cool hill retreat with rugged beauty. Beyond here is Indus Kohistan, one of the most heathen and inaccessible roads (outside of Mordor) in all of Pakistan and it is named Yahistan, ‘land of the ungoverned’. There are, however, a great many tribal people living here in the Alai and Dubair Valleys who will welcome the few that dare to come this far.
- The Northern Mountain Regions
Northernmost Pakistan, on the boundaries of China, India and Afghanistan is genuinally as remote as it gets. It’s a meeting place of many mountains – the Hindu Raj, the Lesser Himalayas, the Pamir and the Karakoram.
It’s most famous landmark is the Karakoram Highway, a fantastic place for a daring trek. One of the biggest feats of engineering since the Pyramids, this 800 mile long road stretches from Havelian in North-West Pakistan to Xinjang in China, restoring ancient camel trading routes. In this region you can see Nanga Parbat, the 8th highest mountain in the world.
In Chilas there are examples of the Petroglyphs, prayer rock paintings made by ancient travellers of Buddhist origin, although unfortunately these areas are themselves unfriendly, unruly and blood lusty. Gilgit, the capital of the region, (not yet officially a province because of divided Kashmir) is a multicultural city with occassional conflicts. Nearby attractions include Gilgit’s hill station – the lovely Naltar Valley with pine forests and the Naltar Lake.
Baltistan, known as ‘little Tibet’ is inhabited by the former masters of Chitral who speak Classical Tibetan. K2, the world’s second highest mountain ,is nestled here amongst dence glaciers and this may be the most startling place in the world for trekking and mountaineering. You’re likely to stay in the region’s capital, Skardu, and unlikely to get the kind of Balti Curry you’d get in the west which derives more from Birmingham than Baltistan.
The traveller friendly valley of Hunza is supposedly the settling for the lost city of Sangri-La. With towering brown swathed and ice capped mountains, this is prime trekking territory. The fort at Baltit town was a royal palace for the last 8 centuries which has been impressively renovated and should be seen if you’re in the valley.
The Khunjerab National Park in the Khunberab Pass was once used by Mongolian ,Tajik and Kyrguz herders. The park was created when Hunza joined Pakistan to protect the rare curly-horned Marco polo sheep which tend to graze on the Chinese border.
You’re unlikely to get a glimpse of one of these, but an ibex is more likely to be spotted. Marmots and yaks also frequent this part of the Karakoram Highway. The road passes is through some of the narrowest gorges of crumbling rocks (the name Karakoram means ‘black, crumbling rock’). It’s possible to take the Pass straight through to Kashgar, the nearest point in China (visas /permits permitting)