Six months ago, Pakistan wasn’t just under the radar for most travelers—it was off the radar. But the South Asian country has been in the news a lot this month thanks to a highly publicized visit by Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It was the first royal visit to the country in 13 years, a lapse largely due to security and terrorism concerns. For two decades, alarming international headlines and travel advisories have warned globe-trotters against visiting—it currently has a Level 4, or “reconsider travel,” advisory issued by the U.S. State Department—but Pakistan is hardly the only complicated country to earn such warnings. And it still has much to offer—if you know how to do it right.
With interest in Pakistan growing, Wild Frontiers, a travel company that specializes in adventurous, off-the-tourist-track destinations, reported a 55 percent increase in bookings for trips to the country in 2017 compared to the previous year. And this past March, Pakistan opened a new e-visa application process, making it easier for travelers to enter the country. Now, with photos from the royal visit of Pakistan’s psychedelic auto rickshaws, Kalash ceremonies, and cricket games in Lahore splashed across newspapers and magazines, even more travelers have seen what they’ve been missing.
So AFAR sat down with Jonny Bealby, founder and managing director of Wild Frontiers, to get advice for curious travelers on how to plan their first trip. Bealby initially visited the country in 1996—a trip that would inspire him to start Wild Frontiers. “The world was a different place back then,” he says referring to the then-growing unrest, “[but] I fell in love with Pakistan. I found it immediately friendly.” Bealby has been back roughly 25 times since, and despite events such as a bombing in Lahore in 2018, he has helped introduce scores of people to country—and he hopes more will follow.
Why you should go
Bordered by Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran, and backed up against the Hindu Kush mountain range, Pakistan has fascinated travelers for thousands of years. As part of the Indus Valley—one of the cradles of civilization—history here dates to 3300 B.C.E., and for centuries, explorers and traders from all parts of Eurasia crossed the area while traveling the Silk Road. Like much of the region, Pakistan was once a collection of tribes and ancient empires that fell under Muslim and British empires; it is now home to six major ethnic groups—many of which it shares with its neighboring countries—and a number of smaller tribal groups.
Traveling here is like traveling through a series of smaller countries. You can sip chai with Punjabis or green tea with Pashtuns before browsing thrumming bazaars in historic cities. You can climb into the craggy northern headlands in the shadow of K2 (the world’s second highest mountain) to meet remote communities like the indigenous Kalash people, whose customs, pagan religion, and colorfully beaded dress are unique to the area.
But no matter where you go, you’ll be greeted with Pakistan’s almost overwhelming brand of hospitality. It’s very common for strangers to offer to show you around their city or invite you in for tea or even for dinner. Bealby says that on two different trips along the Karakoram highway, he’s gone to pay for his lunch at a roadside café, only to find that an unidentified stranger paid already simply because that person recognized he was a traveler.
“If you treat Pakistan right,” he says,”and it’s very easy to, you will find one of the most surprising and friendly countries in the world.”
Where to go on your first trip
Don’t try to tackle the entire country in one visit. Pakistan may look small compared to India, but it’s actually a large country—and because of the undeveloped mountain roads, it can take a lot of time to get from one place to another.
Luckily, planning your introductory trip doesn’t need to be so daunting. “Some countries just have a very natural routing to them, which is very easy to follow and shows off the highlights in a very ordered way,” says Bealby. In Pakistan, that routing starts in Lahore and runs through the north, mostly along the Karakoram Highway, the highest paved international road in the world:
The second largest city in Pakistan and the traditional capital of Punjab, Lahore is known for its gardens, Mughal architecture, and bustling bazaars.
The capital of Pakistan is a clean, modern, and relatively young city with museums, monuments, and some of the best restaurants and hotels in the country.
In the Gilgit-Baltistan region, Skardu is a wonderland of waterfalls, lakes, and some of Pakistan’s most famous mountains, including K2.
Ancient travelers passed through this area along the Silk Road, and according to Bealby, “Hunza Valley is an experience in itself. The Karimabad village is at the heart of the valley, and from there you can see seven 7,000-meter [23,000-foot] peaks.”
Chitral sits near the Afghan border in a valley below the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush. The area is somewhat isolated, and the inimitable, Old-World culture of the locals—including the Kalash—diverges from that of the rest of the Islamic country.
(Yes, this route does skip cosmopolitan Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, which sits on the southern coast, but you can save that for another trip.)
Three things you absolutely have to do here
For Bealby, no one should leave Pakistan without experiencing the following three things:
“The cultural traveler will visit Lahore for Food Street, the Badshahi Mosque, and Lahore Fort, but you should also see the closing of the gate ceremony at the border. Every night at 4:30 p.m., the border officially closes between Pakistan and India. It’s a very theatrical performance, and while many tourists will view it from the India side, few get to see it from the Pakistan side.
“You must visit the Kalash people. They don’t like people going in half a day, taking photographs, and disappearing though. They’re an incredibly interested (as well as interesting) people, so they like it when you stay a few nights [and take time to connect and share with them]. Plan your trip around a Kalash festival, such as the Uchal harvest festival in August, if you can.
- “The Shandur Polo Festival is the highest polo festival in the world. Teams from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan come together once a year to play and there’s a whole festival around it.” The annual festival always takes place July 7 through July 9.
What every first-timer should know:
In contrast to places like Paris or Tulum, where you can show up without much preparation and get along, you’ll need to prepare for your visit to Pakistan. “It’s the kind of country you need to get your head around,” says Bealby. “You need to think about it and read about it.” And that goes beyond the standard guidebook information. “There’s a whole cultural dimension to it that you want to engage in so that you get the most out of it.” (See the “Books and stories to inspire you” section below for where to start.)
It will take a long time to get from one highlight to the next in Pakistan, especially in the north where you’ll be traveling along mountain roads. Islamabad to Skardu, for example, can take 15 to 20 hours depending on the roads. Bealby notes that while there are sometimes flights, they are not always reliable. Most tour operators will plan stops at strategic locations along these routes to break up the drive.
Pakistan is a safe place to travel through, but there are areas you should avoid. According to Bealby, even Wild Frontiers looks with caution at Peshawar and the tribal areas to the west of Peshawar. But elsewhere, he says, “Travelers just need to be sensible. It’s the kind of place that needs to be handled with respect.”
- The world’s third-largest Muslim country is fundamentally very conservative. “Don’t just cross the border [from India] in shorts and T-shirts,” says Bealby. He recommends dressing in local garb or finding loose-fitting pants and long-sleeved shirts. And women should either wear a veil (head scarf) or at least have one on hand at all times. (Need inspiration, ladies? Kate Middleton’s wardrobe spotlighted local designers during the Duchess’s trip to the country.)
How long should your first trip be?
According to Bealby, two to three weeks is the ideal length of time for a first trip to Pakistan. While he strongly recommends taking the full three weeks to really dig in, he also acknowledges that not all travelers have that much free time and that you can still see the highlights if you only have two weeks to travel.
How to go
Plenty of intrepid travelers have successfully made their way through Pakistan alone, but Bealby recommends that most first-time travelers book through a tour operator: “I never want to say ‘don’t do it yourself’ because that’s what I’ve always done . . . [but] if you want a really good two-week vacation and see the best, then you’re better off doing it with a tour group like us because we’ve made the friendships.” For example, guests on a Wild Frontiers trip will stay at guesthouses run by friends of the company and share tea with people Bealby and his team have known for years. They may even visit Bealby’s mountain house, which sits on land given to him by the Kalash people.
Bealby also points out that a tour operator will take care of the logistical difficulties of traveling long distances through the world’s highest mountain range to remote places with minimal tourism infrastructure.
When to go
The best time of year to follow Bealby’s first-timer’s route (outlined above) is May through October.
When to book
If you’re traveling with a group, you’ll be safe booking four to six months out, depending on the company’s availability. If you’re tapping into your backpacking roots and going it alone, you should book accommodation and in-country tours at least a few weeks ahead of time, as long as you’re traveling outside the local holidays like Eid, during which things get very crowded.
Pakistan’s new online visa system is available to citizens of 175 countries, including Americans. Your visa should be processed in 7 to 10 work days, but there have been reports that the new online system is buggy, so you’ll want to apply for your visa at least a month in advance to be safe. (Visitors from some countries can apply for a visa on arrival, but U.S. citizens must apply in advance.)
To apply, you’ll need a photo, a passport, and a letter of invitation from a sponsor or tour operator, or hotel booking details. (This is another reason we recommend booking a tour for your first trip to Pakistan.) A standard tourist visa is valid for three months and costs $60.
Books and stories to inspire you
Take Bealby’s advice and start reading up on Pakistan long before you visit. And maybe stick a few of these in your carry-on too.
Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven
This well-researched and honest book dives deep into the complex and misunderstood country’s history and reality, providing the first-time traveler with important context.
Buy now: $15, amazon.com
For a Pagan Song by Jonny Bealby
Bealby’s own book is a chronicle of his travels through India, Pakistan, and war-torn Afghanistan and introduces readers to people they will meet in the northwest parts of the country.
Buy now: $18, amazon.com
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
This series of linked short stories, by Pakistani novelist Jamil Ahmad, follows a young boy’s journey through the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It highlights not just the locations but also the different cultures and traditions he passes through along the way.
Buy now: $14, amazon.com