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First Timer’s Guide to Pakistan

by Pomy

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Once you’ve wrapped yourself in this ever-evolving nation of 231 million people and its inextricable mélange of cultures, languages, cuisines, and breathtaking natural beauty with its majestic mountains, you’ll never entirely be the same again. So, this is how to prepare for the journey to this untapped country where tourism is still at its initial stages of development.

How to get there

By Air – Major airports:

  • Jinnah International Airport (KHI) – Located in Karachi, Sindh, Jinnah International Airport is Pakistan’s busiest and largest airport. It serves as a central hub for international and domestic flights.
  • Allama Iqbal International Airport (LHE) – Situated in Lahore, Punjab, Allama Iqbal International Airport is the second-largest airport in Pakistan and an important gateway for international travelers.
  • Islamabad International Airport (ISB) – Located in the capital city, Islamabad, this airport serves as the primary gateway for international travelers visiting the northern regions of Pakistan.

Through Border Crossing

Pakistan shares borders with various countries, making it accessible via land. Here are some routes to access Pakistan overland:

  • India-Pakistan Border: The Wagah Border Crossing is the most common land entry point between India and Pakistan. This border crossing is primarily used for pedestrians. From the Indian side, take a taxi or a bus to/from Amritsar. From the Pakistani side, take a taxi, rickshaw, Uber Careme, or a bus to/from Lahore. While at Wagah, witness the lowering of the flags ceremony of hubris. For some, this feels like a bizarre border ceremony between two rivaling countries.
  • China-Pakistan Border: The Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan is 4,693 meters high (15,397 ft) in the Karakoram Mountains and serves as the main gateway between Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. Here is a good guide for Pakistan China  border crossing.
  • Afghanistan-Pakistan Border: Several border crossings exist between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the notable Torkham Border Crossing, which connects Peshawar in Pakistan with Jalalabad in Afghanistan.

Different border crossings have specific entry requirements, often changing without notice. So, checking with the relevant regulatory authorities regarding customs and procedures and any other necessary documentation before attempting to cross the borders is essential. Stay informed as regulations and the security situation may change frequently.

Where to Stay

Depending on your budget, you can find Couchsurfing, hostels, Airbnbs, and good hotels. Big hotels are generally a safe option and can also provide you with taxi and guide services. Choose reputable and secure accommodations.

Couchsurfing is on the rise in Pakistan as people love to host foreigners, but solo females need to take extra caution while selecting a couchsurfer; go for the one that is highly recommended by reputable sources and the one that family hosts. Also, some areas, such as Multan, do not allow foreigners to stay at couchsurfers for security reasons. If authorities found it, they would ask you to move to a hotel or have the police escort you.

Transportation

Avail reliable transportation options such as registered taxis aka radio cabs, ride-sharing services, or prearranged transfers. inDrive and Bykea ride-share applications are popular transportation choices in Pakistan. Ride-share companies keep changing there; it started with Uber, then Crème, and now they have inDrive. Companies leave the country because there is no infrastructure for electronic money transactions. Everything is in cash. In addition to online ride-shares, you can also find regular taxis and rickshaws, aka Tuk Tuk, quite easily. If using public transportation, use crowded and well-lit vehicles, especially during off-peak hours.

What and Where to Eat

Pakistani food is rich in spices, fats, and carbohydrates. However, in more modern cities, you can also find Western-style food such as pizza, burgers, and Chinese cuisine. The country offers various dining options, including roadside eateries, fancy restaurants, and street foods.

In Karachi, seafood is popular, while Islamabad offers more Western-style food options. Lahore is famous for its diverse culinary scene, featuring both Western and traditional varieties. The cuisine is distinct in the mountainous areas, particularly Hunza, with a milder and less rich spicy flavor profile. For food safety, there  is a healthcare advice in this article as well.

Research and Plan

Since Pakistan is a vast country, planning and knowing where you want to travel is essential. If you also wish to explore the mountain regions of Pakistan, keep in mind that you may only be able to visit three or four cities within two weeks. Due to landslides and monsoon rains, travel can sometimes be very unpredictable. Therefore, always have a plan B to use your time best.

Some Must See Places/Cities

  • Lahore – Mughal and Colonial Era: Explore the rich history and architecture of Lahore, which showcases the grandeur of the Mughal and Colonial periods. Link
  • Northern Pakistan – Awe-Inspiring some of the world’s top 25 tall mountains, including five of the 14 Eight-thousanders. Experience the breathtaking beauty of the northern regions, adorned with some of the tallest mountains in the world. Hikes suc Fairy Meadows, K2 Basecamp. Galyat region and Abbottabad are a 3-4 hour drive from Islamabad, offering good hikes and other regional cultural experiences.  If you are interested in winter sports and skiing in Pakistan, the northern areas, particularly places like Malam Jabba, are popular for such activities. Malam Jabba, located in the Swat Valley, has a ski resort that attracts tourists during the winter season for skiing and other winter sports.
  • Islamabad – Capital and Modern City Experience: Discover the modernity and elegance of Pakistan’s capital city and use it as a gateway to explore the scenic beauty of the northern areas.
  • Karachi and Sindh – Old Metropolitan City, Ancient Indus Valley Civilization and Makil Necropolis: Immerse in the vibrant culture of the largest city in Pakistan, Karachi, one of Pakistan’s oldest and most dynamic cities, and explore the remnants of the ancient Indus Valley civilization in Sindh.

Also, check this out for a detailed guide on the places to visit in Pakistan. Link

Sim cards, Visa Transaction, ATM

You should buy a local SIM card if your foreign service provider does not offer data coverage in Pakistan. For buying local SIM cards, our personal experience is to get Zong or Telenor, as they have vast coverage. You must show your passport and provide a copy to get the sim. The SIM card’s activation is tied to your visa. The SIM card will expire as soon as your passport expires. So, if you want to extend your visa, you will have to renew or get a new SIM card.

There are few places that accept electronic payments in Pakistan such as big hotels, shopping malls, and restaurants offer the facility to use debit or credit cards. You will need cash while traveling throughout the country. My personal experience is that Standard Chartered Bank and United Bank Limited (UBL) ATMs are reliable choices. Other ATMs may chew your card, and then you will have to ask the bank to get it back, which is a hassle.

Passport, Proof of Visa, NOCS, and Passport Copies

First things first, the following are no-go areas for foreigners.

  • Pak-China border (10 miles)
  • Pak-Afghan border (10 miles)
  • AJK, along Line of Control (5 miles)
  • GB, along LoC (5 miles)
  • Siachen, along Line of Actual Contact (10 miles)

Visitors from most of the country can get visa online by visiting this website and it has all the information you need. Link

As a foreigner, you will need to show your passport at various checkpoints, particularly in Northern areas. So, make sure you bring copies of your passport to avoid time wastage. Otherwise, authorities will ask you to provide the original passport and will take a picture of that.

As a side note, there are many solo female travelers to Pakistan groups on Facebook. It is advisable to join those groups to get first-hand information on the ever-changing political, social, and tourism landscape of the country.

Safety and Security

Read this article if you have any safety concerns. Link

HealthCare Safety Advice

Stay vigilant and take extra precautions to safeguard your health during your visit to Pakistan:

  • Do not drink tap water or consume anything cold or raw, such as salads, fruit juices, or icy drinks containing ice, as they may be contaminated with unsafe tap water.
  • Always drink bottled or boiled water, and always carry a bottle of water with you. Use bottled water to brush your teeth as well. If you have to drink fruit juice, ensure the fruit is washed, and request the shopkeeper not to add ice, as the ice is likely made from tap water.
  • Avoid going to roadside barber shops as they may not practice proper hygiene. If you must go to a barber, ensure that the barber changes the razor blade to a fresh one each time for using. Reusing such items is a common practice in Pakistan, and it may lead to the transmission of bloodborne diseases. Before visiting Pakistan, vaccinate for Hepatitis B, A, and D, Typhoid, and Malaria. Additionally, get vaccinated for Hepatitis B, A, and D, Typhoid, and Malaria before visiting Pakistan. Check this link on the prevalent situation of Hepatitis in Pakistan.
  • Street foods in Pakistan may not meet food-grade safety standards. Water and foodborne diseases are prevalent in the third world countries, including dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and food poisoning, particularly monsoon months. It is safe to consume (temperature) hot food, but avoid cold, room temperature, and lukewarm food.
  • Be cautious of mosquitoes during early summer and fall to protect yourself from malaria and dengue fever. The WHO report on Dengue in Pakistan. Link
  • It’s important to note that hospitals, especially in smaller cities and towns, may not maintain high hygiene and sterilization standards, so be cautious when seeking healthcare particularly surgical procedures may not be very safe.
  • · Given that healthcare treatment is not standardized, avoid road accidents, especially while crossing roads and using motorbikes. Wearing a helmet is not a common practice in Pakistan. Make sure you ask for it when riding a motorbike.
  • Be cautious about using swimming pools, as they may not be safe. Link 

Other Safety Issues

  • Be vigilant about natural hazards such as flooding, landslides, and earthquakes, especially in the northern mountain areas of Pakistan. Always check weather conditions before traveling and ensure you have emergency contact information for your country’s embassy or consulate in Pakistan with you at all times.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, as pickpocketing and bag-snatching happen in crowded areas or tourist spots. Use a crossbody bag or a money belt to keep your belongings close to you and out of reach from potential thieves. However, violent crime in most of the country is less prevalent than often perceived. Most of Pakistan is safe to travel except for northwestern tribal areas and the province of Baluchistan, where terrorist attacks are on high alert. 
  • Keep your camera, cell phone, and cash in a safe and secure place. Avoid publicly displaying expensive items, as it may attract unwanted attention. Be extra vigilant during late hours and avoid overly crowded places. However, it is generally very safe in Pakistan; check this link.

Deep-Rooted Religion

Pakistan is a country where religion holds deep significance in daily life. You will notice that it is an integral part of the local culture. It is essential to be sensitive and avoid criticizing or making judgments about local customs and religious practices.

Cultural Sensitivity

Pakistani society is diverse, and approaches to marriage and courtship can vary based on factors such as urban versus rural settings, educational background, and individual preferences. Understanding and respecting these cultural nuances can help foster better understanding and relationships within Pakistani society. It is also crucial to be aware that privacy and physical intimacy between unmarried couples are generally discouraged. Modesty is a general practice among all people.

Enrollment in STEP for U.S. Citizens Traveling Abroad

Enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a prudent choice for U.S. citizens and nationals abroad, offering essential benefits. By registering your journey with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, you gain access to timely safety updates, empowering you to make informed decisions about your travel plans. Moreover, STEP facilitates swift communication with the U.S. Embassy during emergencies, be it natural disasters, civil unrest, or personal crises, ensuring prompt assistance. This enrollment also aids your family and friends in reaching you expeditiously in case of an emergency. Additionally, by securely storing your personal information, STEP enhances consular services, allowing for a more effective response to unforeseen circumstances.

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