Often depicted in the western media as a country of hardline Islamic fundamentalists, terror training camps, subjugated women and cricket cheats, Pakistan could seem a hard sell to the potential tourist. We rarely hear of the country’s fascinating diversity, its well-kept Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist shrines, the dizzingly high mountains or the impressive sheer glaciers.
As a white, British tourist I was not ignored because I was a woman, or hissed at because I was a westerner. I was greeted with courtesy, respect and curiosity by Pakistani people, who welcomed me into their houses with a constant refrain of “you are my guest”.
“We are trying to combat the negative image people have of the country,” the country’s tourism secretary, Salim Gul Shaikh, told me over dinner at the Marriot, one of Islamabad’s five-star hotels. “It’s time we told the world of the potential Pakistan holds for the tourist. Next year will be Visit Pakistan year: we are launching advertising campaigns: we are branding Pakistan. We should have done it 10 years ago, but at least we are doing it now.”
There is already a small, established tourism industry to build on. The Northern Areas, where the great mountain ranges of the Karakorums, Himalayas and Hindu Kush meet, have long been popular with climbers and trekkers. Meanwhile, the beautiful Kaghan valley in North West Frontier Province had also begun to build up a loyal local clientele before last year’s devastating earthquake struck, blocking the road to the main resort, damaging more than 100 hotels and threatening to kill off the tourism in the area.
However, the Pakistani people are extremely resilient and now that the roads have reopened they are looking forward to tourists returning to the area. As my British Pakistani guide Sohail Azhar explained, “the best thing you can do to help these people is to come here as a tourist, pay for jeep drivers, pay for porters, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants. By doing these things you will help the local community to re-establish their livelihoods.”
And being a tourist in Pakistan is no hardship. The current underdeveloped state of the Pakistani tourist industry means you won’t find swarms of people following you around trying to sell you things or pick your pockets. Of course, you may have to cope with the occasional blackout, road blockage, or distasteful toilet, but such small sacrifices are well worth making to see some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Meal times, meanwhile, are a celebration and a gift: wherever you go, from a tent camp of earthquake refugees, to the multi-million pound houses of upmarket Islamabad, you will be invited to a simple but hearty dinner of dhal and chicken or goat curry with chapattis.
Pakistan is a country of contrasts: expansive dusty plains and high snowy peaks, the sombre browns and creams of the male Shalwar Kamez and the brilliant colours of the painted trucks, the aromatic scent of rose, apple and apricot and the pungent smells of diesel, donkey dung and decaying debris. The delights of Pakistan speak for themselves once you are there, and it seems surprising that the Mugal forts and mosques, colourful bazaars and high-altitude treks are not thronging with the adventurous travellers who frequent other parts of south Asia.
Safety in numbers
Although most people in Pakistan do speak a little English, the country is not yet used to a high volume of independent travellers and organising guides, porters, jeeps and drivers can be time- consuming if you don’t know the language and terrain. For these reasons, I travelled as part of an organised trip with TravelPak – the only way to visit areas such as the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border where armed guards are a necessity. And in the company of an Urdu-speaking guide, I was able to communicate and build relationships with the drivers and be welcomed into local homes.
My tour took me from the wide boulevards of Islamabad to the isolated villages of the Hunza valley. I watched the sun rise over the snowy peak of the 8000 metre-high Nanga Parbat from a tent pitched at the aptly named Fairy Meadows; I saw the massive, crevice-ridden Passu glacier; I ate Iftar (the Ramadan evening meal) on rooftops with fasting friends, and took jeep rides that made my heart stop. Not only did I return to London with beautiful handmade bedspreads and shawls, but a balanced view of Pakistan and tales to share with my Pakistani neighbours.
Pakistan’s top five
Just a short drive from Islamabad, this is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. There are 18 locations in the area which are world heritage sites, but only 5% have been excavated.
This is the region from where Buddhism travelled to the far east – and Persians, Greeks and Hindus all subsequently left their mark. You can watch the sun set from the remains of a Buddhist monastery or wander through the streets of an excavated Persian city in the knowledge that there are two older ones buried below.
Every Pakistani you meet will remind you of the old adage that if you haven’t been to Lahore you haven’t lived. The old city looks like a medieval costume drama, with horses, donkeys and ox-drawn carts transporting everything from stacks of hay to blocks of ice. In the narrow streets of the spice market, huge hessian sacks contain all manner of extravagant herbal cures, including died hair from corn on the cob for kidney pain, gum crystals for back pain and tree bark for flu. There are also mounds of chalky green henna and blue clothes dye “to turn white shirts into school uniform.”
The incredible Mughal buildings of Lahore Fort and Badshahi mosque – one of the world’s largest – are must-sees; eat dinner on the terrace of the converted Haveli Cocco’s Den for a floodlit bird’s-eye view. Meanwhile, New Lahore, with its Liberty market and numerous coffee shops (albeit serving Nescafe), presents the vibrant, modern face of Pakistan.
The Karakorum Highway
Opened in 1986, the KKH, as it is fondly referred to, is the highest road in the world, winding through the Karakorum mountain range and connecting to China through the Khunjerab Pass at an altitude of nearly 5000 metres. It is the only way to the tourist attractions of the Northern Areas, but negotiating its twists and bends around unprotected sheer drops is an adventure in its own right.
The road connects many villages whose only sign of modernisation is the sponsored paintwork of Pepsi and Nestle that decorate the shops. Along the way you also pass several hundred spectacularly painted Bedford trucks. These are one of the defining features of Pakistan, costing up to three years’ wages to adorn and featuring intricate designs of birds and trees. Several hundred metres below, the Indus thunders past grey silt beaches.
In the lush Hunza valley, the sleepy village of Karimabad is a tourist oasis. The street that winds up to the old Baltit fort is crammed with shops selling local handicrafts such as shawls and carpets, along with local dried fruit, antiques and gemstones.
The people here are Ismaili, which means they welcome music and dancing, and are partial to Hunza water – a spirit made from mulberries – or their homemade Hunza wine. There is also a cafe-cum-bookshop called Café de Hunza that serves real espresso: a treat for caffeine-starved visitors.
Come in spring for the blossom, or autumn to see the rooftops lined with huge rush trays of apricots, tomatoes, apples and spinach drying in the sunshine. A four-hour trek along the irrigation channel that winds up through the village and hugs the rockface up the mountains will take you up to Ultar meadow, where a small makeshift campsite offers views of Ultar peak and glacier.
Lake Saiful Mulk
An exhilarating jeep drive from the resort town of Narran (bear in mind that “resort” in Pakistan means a village with a few hotels), lie the still waters and snow-capped mountains of Lake Saiful Mulk.
It is no surprise that there is a story of fairies and princes associated with the area that can be recounted by a shawl-wearing guide for a few hundred rupees. And do give in to one of the horse-trek touts: it only costs a couple of pounds for an hour and you will feel as if you have been transported into another world.
Way to go
Antonia travelled to Pakistan courtesy of TravelPak, with support from Signal Master Satellite. Travelpak offer cultural and adventure experiences of Pakistan, including trekking holidays. Their next trips depart between May and October 2007, although tailor-made small group trips are also available, and can be arranged to coincide with events such as the February desert festival or the Multan Sufi festival in March. A 14-day experience costs around £675 excluding flights. TravelPak; tel: 07961 169 045.
Safety and security
The UK Foreign Office warns of a high threat of terrorism in Pakistan and advises against all travel to Northern and Western Baluchistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (including the Khyber Pass, except as part of an organised group) and to other border areas except for official crossing points. For a full travel advisory on the country, please refer to the Foreign Office website.