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Tag: Pakistan

Is Pakistan Safe to Travel to?Wazir Khan Masjid Mosque Shahi Royal Hammaam Bathhouse Lahore Pakistan Oct 2015 047 photo by Wasif Malik (https://flic.kr/p/Bzmoms).

Is Pakistan Safe to Travel to?

What do you first think when you hear the word Pakistan? For me, living in New Zealand and India, since 9/11 it’s been synonymous with terrorism. News reports, the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and Mark Owen’s book No Easy Day were, like most, all I knew about Pakistan.

Zero Dark Thirty Movie Poster

I had similar worries about India from my conditioning from the Western media before I travelled there. That’s why I ended up writing the India Survival Guide, to help put traveller’s minds at rest by quickly teaching them the ropes to make their trip to India a success.

I’ve consistently throughout my life found media stereotypes to be scaremongering and far from the reality on the ground.

Access all available safety information

Government travel advisories for Pakistan weren’t very encouraging either. They rated Pakistan as an extreme and high-risk travel destination. Those same Government advisories had also rated Ladakh and Kashmir in India, where I’d just been, as an extreme risk too (and all of India as ‘some risk’).

So far I hadn’t found much positive info on travelling to Pakistan.

Next, I started searching for blogs about others experiences in Pakistan. This search came back very positively with many travellers raving about Pakistan, and it’s beauty.

After that, I went and got opinions from my friends. Unsurprisingly, my Hindu Indian and Kiwi friends all said something along the lines of, “You’re going to get kidnapped or blown up.” My Muslim Indian and the very few Pakistani acquaintances I had were far more positive.

My Pakistani friends, including a woman who works at a local shop I frequent, all immediately offered me hospitality in their cities. As I talked to them and read Pakistan travel experiences online, the worries I had started to fade.

Advice from a British traveller I met in Pakistan

Pakistanis are incredibly hospitable and very friendly. Walk through any city and you will be met by a barrage of people wanting to introduce themselves or offer you a cup of tea.

There are barely any tourists here, so people are often excited to see you. Sometimes your rickshaw driver will refuse payment, declaring that you are his guest. Outside the city, people become even more friendly.

However, the government and in particular the Military and Intelligence services appears to be getting increasingly paranoid around the activities of foreigners.

Be prepared to be stopped again and again by the authorities and have your passport at the ready.

Some of this official attention is for your own safety, there are, of course, very dangerous areas in Pakistan and the government of Pakistan will stop you going there, or for the slightly less dangerous areas, issue you with a police bodyguard.

The fact that the government issues foreigners with police protection shows that at some level there is still a very welcome commitment to opening as much of the county up as possible to tourists.

Regarding danger from terrorism, there is only one incident to my knowledge where Westerners were specifically targeted, the 2013 massacre of climbers at Naga Parbat.

Whilst terrorist attacks continue to plague parts of Pakistan, they are rare in Lahore and especially in Islamabad. The targets are not foreign tourists (there are barely any to target).

Foreign government websites offering travel advice are important to consult, but usually extremely risk-averse. You might find yourself, for example, staring at an overpriced box of Ferrero Roche in a fancy service station on the flawless motorway to Peshawar and realise, that you have strayed into a zone in which the British FCO advises against all travel.

In seven trips to Pakistan over the past twelve years I have never once felt threatened.

Know where to be extra careful or not go

That being said, there’s no denying that some regions of Pakistan are high risk due to terrorist organisations operating. This map shows you the troubled areas.

Safety in Pakistan: Areas of crime and terrorism activities

Safety in Pakistan: Areas of crime and terrorist activities. Green is safe, the rest have various issues. Updated in early 2018.

My decision

After weighing up all the opinions, I decided to go to Pakistan and even enter the zones of extreme risk. My risk tolerance is quite high compared to others so I can understand others deciding against it. If you want to go but are still a bit worried then just stick to the highway going from Islamabad in the north to Hyderabad in the south.

I was also lucky that I had a friend in Peshawar who I’d be staying with there. He informed the local Police the dates I’d be arriving and they requested a copy of my VISA and Passport. The Police there will work to ensure your safety. If you have friends back home that can introduce you to trusted people in these areas, then you can travel there much more confidently with a local.

I already had a wealth of experience from visiting and living in India, so the worry that I’d struggle with language, customs, bargaining, scams, and the daily life weren’t there. I was already a confident traveller.

UPDATE: After visiting – A warning

Pakistan was a great country to travel, but I did face one issue that I didn’t expect. Everyone online warns you about terrorists, but the problem I encountered was with the Government.

The short story is, coming to Pakistan on foot from India and visiting Peshawar (red area on the map) I raised some flags amongst Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Firstly, as I crossed the border, they called my Pakistani friend who’d invited me and began questioning him about me and telling him where not to take me (even though I’d included all his details in my VISA applications months before).

Then they called him a second time a week later asking him more questions about where I’d been and where I was currently.

Whoever was on the phone wouldn’t say what agency they were from. It was weird and made me extremely paranoid wondering why the hell they were keeping an eye on me. I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in the world.

The thing is, I’m not sure you can avoid being monitored in Pakistan unless you’re on an organised group tour. Pakistan’s relationship with the West is strained, they are wary of foreigners, and have a strong dislike of Americans. Until that changes, it won’t be as welcoming to tourists as most countries are.

My privacy is something that’s important to me and it resulted in me leaving Pakistan early.

Knowing all that now, I still would have gone to Paksitan, because it isn’t until you’re being watched that you realise how much your privacy means to you.

UPDATE: Another tourists experience

YouTube comment from another tourist about being spied on in Pakistan.

YouTube comment from another tourist about being spied on in Pakistan.

Spring Blossoms at Krakal Village, Kalash Valley. Pakistan

The Serene but Forgotten Kalash Valley in Pakistan

For a people with a population of only 4,000 the Kalasha punch well above their weight when it comes to visibility on the Pakistan tourist circuit. Living in three valleys bunched up on the Afghan border in the far northwest of Pakistan, the Kalasha are the last surviving “pagans*” of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

View from Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse in Krakal Village, Pakistan

View from Krakal Village, Pakistan. Photo by Tom Crowley.

In the years before 9/11, they were a magnet for foreign tourists and many Kalasha will tell you about this or that French/Japanese/Australian/Swiss person who spent months staying in their home year after year. Deteriorating security in Afghanistan now puts restrictions on how long foreigners can stay in the Kalash Valleys and also has closed off some of the amazing treks in the region, but it’s still well worth paying a visit to the Kalasha: their culture is entrancing, the landscape is spectacular, the villages are fascinating, and everyone is very open and friendly. Plus with so few foreigners visiting nowadays, people will be all the more pleased to see you.

In the past, the vast majority of revenue generated by tourists bypassed the inhabitants of the Kalash Valleys and ended up in the pockets of “outsider” entrepreneurs. Although recent years have seen the Kalasha hold onto more of the money spent by tourists, keeping revenue in the Valleys is still a problem. The best way to ensure that your Rupees go to a local is to bypass the Valleys’ many hotels and opt for a home-stay guesthouse.

The one that I know best, and which I have been returning to again and again for the past eleven years is the Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse, run by the super-friendly and larger-than-life schoolteacher Wali Khan and his wonderful wife, Sherbegum.

Wali Khan's family

Wali Khan’s family. Photo by Tom Crowley.

Staying with Wali Khan and Sherbegum puts you in the bosom of a Kalasha family. You’ll be fed Kalasha food, taught Kalasha words – the Kalasha speak their own (endangered) language – and most importantly, learn about Kalasha culture direct from Kalasha people (outsiders have all sorts of incorrect and sometimes insulting ideas about what the Kalasha get up to).

This morning I put my parents on a plane from Islamabad to London. They had come to Pakistan to visit me for a couple of weeks and to see the spectacular landscape of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges. Despite the glory of some of the highest peaks on earth, for my parents, the highlight of the trip was the days we spent with Wali Khan, Sherbegum and their children. Mum and dad kept on repeating how unforgettable that interaction was.

Getting There & Around

A Krakal Village house.

A Krakal Village house. Photo by Tom Crowley.

A flight from Islamabad to Chitral with Pakistan International Airlines takes around 40 minutes, leaves every Friday and Sunday and costs 1,1000 PKR one way. Return flights operate on the same day.

Make sure to check out Chitral airport’s beautiful flower garden and if it’s springtime, pick a handful of white mulberries from the tree to the left of the car park as you leave the airport building.

There has just been a tourist office set up in Chitral airport – with a wonder of wonders, a cappuccino machine! At the office, they can help you organise transport to the Kalash Valleys. If possible speak to Zarin, he’s Kalasha, speaks excellent English and is super-helpful as well as being very knowledgeable. A jeep from the airport to the Kalash Valleys should cost between 1500 and 2000 PKR and take a little under three hours.

At the airport, you will also have to register with the local police, who you will find friendly and courteous. Since the Kalash Valleys are so close to the Afghan border, foreign visitors currently have to be accompanied by a police bodyguard, this will be arranged for you at the airport. If you plan to stay longer than a couple of days, and you really should do, Wali Khan can help organise a Kalasha policeman for you. Having a Kalasha, rather than a Chitrali police bodyguard will open up all sorts of doors. (Note: You will have to pay for the policeman’s accommodation as well as your own, and you both need to stay in the same building).

My bedroom at the guest house.

My bedroom at the guest house. Photo by Tom Crowley.

The Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse is in Krakal Village at the far end of Bumboret Valley. Ask for Wali Khan’s house if there is any confusion. A double room with breakfast lunch and dinner costs 2000 PKR per night.

Contact Wali Khan on +92 (0) 3468294614 (that’s 03468294614 when dialling from within Pakistan), or on Facebook through “Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse.” If you want to camp, Wali Khan also runs a small campsite just across the river from his house.

*Finding a catch-all term to describe the Kalasha religion is tricky. The Kalasha will tell you that they have one god, comparable to the god of the Abrahamic religions, but that this god also has lots of messengers who are a bit like gods in their own right. So maybe “pagan” isn’t the right term to use as it tends to refer to the pre-Christian religions of Europe which had many gods. But it’s also true that the Kalasha religion has quite a lot in common with those pre-Christian religions. This nit-picking over terminology might seem a bit pointless, but for many Kalasha the idea that they share the same god as Muslims, Christians and Jews is very important.

Towads the Pakistan border. Photo © Karl Rock.

The Differences Between India & Pakistan

Everyone I met in Pakistan was very curious about India. Their top question was, “What’s the difference between India and Pakistan? Are they similar?” The answer is, yes, there is a familiarity between India and Pakistan. After all, they used to be the same country. But at the same time, there are a few differences.

Here’s what I noticed from a traveller’s perspective.

Food: Pakistan = non-veg, India = veg

I love to eat. So the first thing I noticed upon arriving in Lahore was the fantastic meat dishes. The meat is always freshly killed and cooked, and I think that has something to with why Pakistani meat dishes are always juicy. Try a seekh kebab in Pakistan and India, and you’ll see the difference straight away, the Pakistani ones are juicier.

Pakistanis are massive meat eaters, they consume 3 times more meat than all of India. So it makes sense that they’re experts in cooking it.

India, on the other hand, knows how to cook vegetables like nobody else in the world. You’ll struggle to find vegetable dishes at restaurants in Pakistan unless it’s breakfast. India’s variety of veg dishes is absolutely endless. Even a meat eater like me has become far less reliant on meat and consumer a lot more vegetables in India.

Language: Urdu & Devanagari Script

Hindi and Urdu are nearly identical languages except they have different scripts. In Pakistan, all you see is Urdu script everywhere whereas India is dominated by Devanagari.

Just looking at a photo from each country you can immediately tell which street is in India and which is in Pakistan.

Difference between Devanagari in India and Urdu script in Pakistan

Difference between Devanagari (top) and Urdu script in Pakistan. Photos by Wasif Malik andrajkumar1220.

City Design

Walking around Lahore and Islamabad, I found them similar to big Mughal influenced cities in North India like Delhi, Ajmer, and Lucknow. Clearly, South Indian design is nothing like Pakistani, but North India and Pakistan are similar. After all, both areas at one time were ruled by the same rulers. For example, Jama Masjid in Delhi and Badshahi Mosque in Lahore are nearly identical and built by the same emperor.

Jama Masjid, Delhi. Photo by Peter Rivera.

Jama Masjid, Delhi. Photo by Peter Rivera.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore. Photo © Karl Rock.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore. Photo © Karl Rock.

People & Hospitality

I found people on the street in Pakistan to be helpful but wary of a foreigner. Overall I found them less warm than Indians. I think this has something to do with their distrust and dislike of America. They probably assume I’m from there.

Usually, a local’s first question to you will be, “Where are you from?” I’d love to know what their reaction would be if I told them, “America.” I’m assuming it’s going to be different from New Zealand which has a cricket team that I found many Pakistani’s complimenting me on.

I find Indians warmer to foreigners in general. There’s no hatred of America there.

When it comes to meeting local friends in Pakistan and India, I found hospitality to be the same. Both my Pakistani and Indian friends show fantastic hospitality and a passion for showing you their country and making sure you are comfortable and enjoying. It was just the common man on the streets in Pakistan I found less warm than India.

All for me. The spread put on by my friends in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo © Karl Rock.

All for me. The spread put on by my friends in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo © Karl Rock.

Friends & Foes: Pakistan China

Arriving in Lahore, I was greeted with the Pakistan-China Friendship Underpass and a massive reef of flowers celebrating the China and Pakistan friendship elsewhere in the city. They even have a China Chowk (street). There’s no doubt about it, Pakistan China.

In India, you’ll see the same for different countries, but I can’t pinpoint any one country they love, unlike all the tributes to China I saw in Pakistan.

Religion

This one is obvious whether you’ve visited or not. Pakistan is dominated by Islam. Multiple times a day you’ll hear the prayer ceremony broadcast out across the city. You’ll hear the same in Muslim majority areas in India too.

India, on the other hand, is more visibly diverse. In India, you’ll see Churches, Gurudwaras, Hindu temples, Jain temples, and Mosques everywhere.

A Few More Differences

  • There seemed to be less poverty in Pakistan.
  • Very few stray animals in Pakistan.
  • Driving on motorways in Pakistan is much safer because the Police are very strict with fines. If people speed, don’t stay in their lane or don’t use their indicators when changing lanes, they get a fine.
  • There are no liquor stores in Pakistan.
  • More women out and about on the streets in India.

Overall Impression

Pakistan reminds me of walking into a Muslim area of Delhi like West Nizamuddin. You’ve got Urdu, butchers, mosques, and the colour green everywhere. Coming from India, Pakistan is a familiar sight. But the above difference constantly remind you where you are.

How to Pack Light & Blend in in Pakistan. Photo by DVIDSHUB (https://flic.kr/p/9vXYVo)

How to Pack Light & Blend in in Pakistan

This is what I travel with! A 25L backpack.

This is what I travel with! A 25L backpack.

I always travel light. I love travelling minimally with as little to carry, and therefore worry about, as possible. There’s nothing worse than lugging a heavy suitcase around a country like Pakistan or India where there aren’t footpaths to pull your case along. It’s far more convenient to take a backpack.

The last thing I also wanted was to be lugging a big suitcase around Pakistan bringing attention to myself too.

Here’s what I packed in a small 25-litre backpack for a 2 week trip to Pakistan from India at the end of winter:

How to Blend in

Traditional Indian and Pakistani clothing, kurta pajama. Photo by Donal Mountain.

Kurta Pyjama. Photo by Donal Mountain.

One interesting item on my clothing list is the kurta pyjama. I wear a fancier version of this for formal events in India, but I decided to get a cheaper, plain and basic black kurta and pyjama pant for my trip through the more conservative parts of Pakistan. It’s what locals and villagers wear (except they prefer white).

I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and stand out in Pakistan especially as I was sometimes travelling alone and would be in the high-risk area of Peshawar near the Afghan border. A kurta pyjama allowed me to blend in and draw attention to myself.

You have to be mindful of colour and design of the Kurta too though. Red, maroon, or bright colours as worn in Indian cities will make you stand out. Plain white, blue, black, brown, and green colours are favoured in Pakistan.

The other thing to remember when packing for Pakistan is that they’re even more particular than India about revealing clothing. While certain areas of major cities in Pakistan are more progressive, many are not. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and keep your body covered.

Clothing

  1. 1 Plain black kurta-pyjama
  2. 1 x Jeans
  3. 1 x Warm jacket (if winter)
  4. 2 x Socks
  5. 1 x T-shirt
  6. 3 x Underwear
  7. 1 x Polarised sunglasses (if summer)
  8. 1 x Microfibre travel towel
  9. 1 x Walking shoes
  10. 1 x Pair of sandals (for bathrooms)

All up that’s two sets of clothing. I wear one while the other is drying after hand washing.

Toiletries

  1. Bar of soap in a plastic case
  2. Toothbrush & toothpaste in plastic case
  3. Wet wipes (more portable and efficient than toilet paper)
  4. Hand sanitizer
  5. Floss

Electronics & miscellaneous

  1. Mobile phone with offline Google Maps saved
  2. GoPro & various mounts
  3. USB wall charger and cable
  4. Passport and 3 x copies of passport, Pakistan VISA, and passport photos
  5. USD cash to convert
  6. 2 x Pens

Medical supplies

You only need to carry these if you’re going to remote parts where there are no medical stores.

  1. Paracetamol (500 mg).
  2. Antibiotics for food poisoning (Novidat 500 mg, Flagyl 400 mg).
  3. Diarrhoea stopper medication (Lomotil).
  4. Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) sachets – helps you stay hydrated in summer or if you get food poisoning.
  5. SPF 30 Sunblock

Read the medical disclaimer.

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