The modern state of Pakistan, formed in 1947 after the partition of British India, is little visited compared to its Indian Motherland, with the bitter strife between the predominantly Hindu India and the Muslim Pakistan still in evident in disputes over Kashmir. Martial law as well as tribal warfare characterises much of Pakistan’s interior – but there are many places safe to visit where you can discover some of the most breathtaking sights in all of the Asian world and experience genuine Coca Cola free independent travel.
With the Karakoram and Great Himalaya amongst Pakistan’s mighty mountain ranges, Pakistan is the undiscovered Asian gem of serious mountaineering. Trek the stunning modern built Karakoram Highway all the way to China or scale K2, the 2nd largest mountain in the world.
From the mysterious Khyber Pass to the extraordinary bazaars in Peshawar and Lahore; from rich Buddhist history and ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Moenjodaro through to the modern day Al Faisal mosque in Islamabad, the largest Mosque in the world; Pakistan is a true mix of ancient and modern.
You’re unlikely to find resort style attractions, but what Pakistan lacks in luxury it more than makes up for in the warm character of the people. Discover amazing festivals of the Kalash tribes or experience the nation’s obsession with the national sports of cricket and polo, practiced on ponies in dangerously high altitude mountain plateaux.
Many parts of Pakistan are extremely dangerous to visit as they are plagued by tribal warfare, and Westerners are seen as most unwelcome. It is imperative that you contact an embassy before planning your trip to check out the current safety situation and they will advise where you will be able to visit and for which areas travelling in a tour or guide are advisable.
The earliest known civilizations occurred in 3000BC in what is now Pakistan when roaming tribes moved from the harsher conditions of the Baluchistan plateau down to the fertile Indus River valley. Here, life was easier and made more prosperous and out of which arose incredibly advanced settlements such as Harappan and Mohenjodaro. Pakistan as a separate entity from India was created after the partition of British India in 1947. Independence in India was set in motion by Mahatma Gandhi and for Pakistan by the Muslim nationalist Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah fought for the creation of a separate state for India’s Muslims so they could escape the persecution dealt out at the time by fervent Hindus. Jinnah duly became Pakistan’s first statesman and governor-general.
Pakistan is Asia’s seventh largest country, and its capital is Islamabad. Bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India, the influences of Islam and other cultures are many and varied. Pakistan can geographically be divided into four categories: the eastern deserts, the northern mountains, the western Baluchistan plateau, and the southern Indus Valley plains. Pakistan’s long held claim to Kashmir began after independence when the British decided, somewhat arbitrarily and somewhat based on geography, instead of along religious lines, to hand power of the province to a Hindu Maharajah even though the overwhelming majority of Kashmiris are Muslim. This action has ensured a long and bitter struggle for the province with most Kashmiris now favoring independence over colonization by either warring party.
Today’s Pakistan is made up of myriad indigenous peoples, and there are as many local dialects to match. With 150 million people in an area slightly less than double the size of California, Pakistan is not without its problems. Pakistan can be divided ethnically into five major groups:Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi, Mohajir and Baluchi. In the Northern Areas there are ethnicities that are not Muslim, most notably the Kalash, who it is believed are partial descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. The Kalash have long been persecuted for not adhering to Islam, and in fact were called Kafirs (unbelievers or infidels) for not converting. It is said that if a Kalasha converts to Islam he/she is no longer considered Kalash. Nevertheless Pakistan is 97% Muslim, with most of those being Sunni, but in the north there are a number of Shia groups also. Birth and death rates are extremely high with about 40% of the population under the age of 15. Approximately 30% of the country is urbanized, but with little rigid city planning and sanitation making for a heady mix of poverty, disease, and pollution.
Getting to Pakistan is quite simple as the nation boasts a number of international airports (Karachi, Lahore & Islamabad) with connections through the UAE and the Middle East if coming from the West and Bangkok and Singapore if coming from the East. If you’re coming overland, Pakistan has functioning borders with Iran, China, Afghanistan, and India. The options for entering and exiting Pakistan are exciting, varied, and numerous.
Travel within Pakistan requires much patience and a sense of humour. Trains, planes and buses ply all major routes, but are usually less than comfortable. Airfares are cheap and probably the best way to crisscross the country if your budget allows. Trains are the cheapest form of travel, particularly if you’re willing to use third class. However, they are slow and often very dirty. Buses are fast but crowded and considerably dangerous. The ubiquitous sticker across many windshields ‘ma’sha Allah’ (meaning God willed it) leaves one with a diminished confidence prior to any trip. Most bus drivers drive like speeding bullets, overtaking on blind corners and live by the adage that if God wants them to crash it will happen regardless of how they drive. So they drive like a bat out of hell and hope they have lots of good karma. For this reason it is often better to travel by bus at night because then at least you can’t see how really scary it is. Journeys into Kashmir are for the foolhardy only, as your safety cannot in any way, shape, or form be guaranteed. And travel to the Khyber Pass on the border with Afghanistan can only be made with an armed escort and a permit from the tourist corporation.
The national language of Pakistan is Urdu. Urdu first came about through the interactions of Persian and Indian languages in the 12th and 13th Centuries. In its spoken form, Urdu is very similar to Hindi but in its written form it resembles Arabic. If you can speak Hindi or write Arabic you won’t have any communication problems while in the country. Many Pakistanis however do speak English and most speak it surprisingly well. Generally, language barriers don’t pose a problem for native English speakers when visiting Pakistan.
Mostly Pakistan is a dry, dusty, and very hot country. The climate is characterized by extremes based on geographical settings: the mountainous north can be bitterly cold in winter with minimums reaching as low as 4F; while the eastern deserts and southern plains are stiflingly hot with maximums of 95F being commonplace. Travel in summer is best done in the mountainous north and in winter on the southern plains. The border between China and Pakistan closes from October to May due to heavy snow and arctic conditions.
When visiting Pakistan there are a number of health issues to remember. Firstly, vaccinations such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid are strongly recommended. Malaria is also a major risk particularly during the wet season as is Japanese Encephalitis, also carried by mosquitoes. Taking malarial tablets will not stop you getting malaria; however, it will lessen the symptoms and will kill the parasite reducing the harm caused by contracting the disease. Nonetheless, covering up at dusk and dawn and bringing a good repellant is a smarter all round choice. Whether or not short-term travellers should take malaria tablets is a contentious issue. The most serious threat to travelers in Pakistan on a day-to-day basis are heat exhaustion, dehydration and diorrhea often brought on through the drinking of unclean water. Bottled water is available everywhere in Pakistan and it is advisable to use it. Its quality of purification on the other hand can be sadly lacking. A valuable tip to let you know you are dehydrated is when your urine becomes a dark yellow. This is a dangerous sign in a hot environment and immediate rehydration is required. Meat dishes in Pakistan often leave a lot to be desired, with animal carcasses left lying in the sun for hours as pieces are cut and sold. If in doubt, stick to fresh foods, and vegetables, breads, cookies, and dried fruits and nuts (which are a nutritious source of protein and vitamins, and they’re cheap and plentiful in the markets). Wash all fresh fruit well before eating, and bring water purification tablets or iodine if you think you will be in extremely remote areas outside of major villages or towns where bottled water may not be sold.
All western nationalities, and almost everybody else, need a visa to enter Pakistan prior to arrival. Tourist visas are valid for three months from date of entry. Prices are dependent on nationality and in which country they are acquired. Transit visas (on arrival, valid for 72 hours only) can be obtained if you are simply passing through, but policies on this matter change periodically and it would be wise to enquire at a Pakistan embassy before arriving at immigration without a visa already in your passport. Most Tourist visas are single-entry, however, you can request a multiple entry visa if applying in your home country. If you intend to stay in Pakistan for more than 30 days you must register at the Foreigner’s Registration Office in the city in which you are staying. Islamabad is the only city where you can apply for a visa extension at this time.
You don’t go to Pakistan for the food, having said that, you won’t be out of pocket. Satisfactory local meals can be bought for virtually nothing. There have been a number of influences on the basic subsistence menu of Pakistanis. Notably these are the tandoors (slow cooked spicy chicken in a clay oven) of the Moghul Emperors and the wiping of pork and alcohol from the menu due to Islamic injunctions. In its most common form, the food of Pakistan is akin to that of India, whereby chapatti (unleavened bread), lassi (curd milk drink), ghee (clarified butter), and myriad spices are added to flavor dishes. Some frequently used spices include: chili powder, cumin seed, cardamom, cloves, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, and mace. Also served with every main dish is a range of accompaniments such as, chutneys, pickles, and yoghurt. The foods a traveller might find in street side stalls will not prove memorable for the right reasons. Dhal, a lentil curry paste, and meat (ghost) in a spicy gravy can be found everywhere for a minimal cost, eaten with a chapatti with the right hand, as the left hand is deemed unclean for reasons best left to the imagination.
The most widely exported Pakistani cuisine is the Balti or ‘bucket’ dish from Baltistan which is a one pot stir fry cooking method to produce a fresh and tasty curry eaten from the dish with a flat bread. The balti is enjoying a cultural rennaisance in eateries around Birmingham in England.
It is possible to find reasonable budget eateries where fried or roasted chicken is served with a good helping of salad, yoghurt and bread. These places are generally easy to spot as they have rotisserie chickens cooking out front, and tables inside. Although foreign women can sit directly inside, you won’t see Pakistani women in there as there are designated eating areas for women and families and these can usually be found upstairs in the restaurant hidden away from prying eyes and the dangers of street level eating. A classic Pakistani dish is Biryani and consists of aromatic spices mixed through lightly fried rice with pieces of mutton and onion. These come in all combinations and it’s possible to simply order a vegetarian one if desired.
Pakistan has a floating exchange rate system that has been fairly stable for some time, where US$1 = 60PKR
£1 sterling = 90PKR
1 € = 65 PKR
Check with your local currency exchange bureau for up to date currency information.
. The Pakistani Rupee is divided into 100 Paisa. Currency notes of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, 2, and 1 Rupees are produced. It’s a good idea to collect the smaller notes as many places cannot change larger denominations. Coins of 50 and 25 Paisa are in circulation, but as a traveller you’ll rarely see these.
Costs in Pakistan are very inexpensive. A budget meal can cost anything from US$1 for half a roasted chicken with salad and bread served in a local eatery, to US$4 for a KFC fast food meal to US$15 for a buffet meal at 4 or 5 star hotels. Changing money is not a problem in Pakistan, although it’s much easier to change US$ cash than traveler’s checks. Banks, hotels, and private money changers are in every city and even in most small villages it’s possible to find a shop owner who’ll gladly accept US$ cash.
Where to Stay
The accommodation options in Pakistan are as varied as anywhere and most can be bargained down, especially in the low season. Like anywhere, you get what you pay for, but happily in Pakistan you pay less. The ritzier hotels come with security guards at the front gate and staff at your beckon call. Comparatively by world standards five star accommodations is cheap in Pakistan. However most travellers won’t want that level of class and there is no shortage of cheap hotels and even youth hostels, offering budget rooms at budget prices. Rooms are often situated around a garden courtyard and have friendly and helpful managers on staff. Many budget places are 24 hours, meaning that you have the room for 24 hours. Whatever time you check in, you can check out 24 hours later. Exceedingly cheap, between US$2 – 5 per night with attached bathroom, the cleanliness of the room or linen may well not be what you are accustomed to. Most budget rooms will have some form of room service, even if it’s just a young boy willing to run to the local shop or restaurant on demand for a few Rupees in return.
Pakistani men wear the shalwar qamiz, a baggy knee length long-sleeved shirt over baggy pants that tie at the waist. Many Pakistani women wear the all-covering burqa or less conservative coverings that also work to hide their shape and form. For them this is enshrined in Sharia Law, a strict form of Islamic law that dictates many facets of life. However, in wealthier parts of the major cities it is possible to find both men and women wearing variations of western clothes, but all Pakistani women wear some form of a scarf in public to cover their hair at the very least. Foreign men should wear long pants, but a t-shirt is fine. Foreign women should consider wearing light weight but baggy long-sleeved shirts and long pants and a head scarf when they’re out in public. If you have very short hair, and an incentive to cut it would be, you can get away with wearing a baseball cap, or some type of hat. By observing local customs and dressing conservatively, even when it is extremely hot, you’ll not only meet people more easily within the local community but you’ll also be shown a measure of respect and hospitality you wouldn’t otherwise experience. There is no law to say that as a foreigner you must dress this way, but commonsense should tell you that you will have a fuller cultural experience if you make the effort.
By Susi O’Neill
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