BUDGET Travel Guide To
Pakistan 2020 EDITION
This page about Pakistanis the result of a two month trip in 2018, and is regularly updated with the latest information from our local friends. It is part of a budget travel guide collection.
Rather than giving you a list of popular sights and itineraries, we focus on practical information to help you prepare your own authentic and independent adventure. Real adventures on 10-20$ a days!
Pakistan was once considered a jewel of the hippie trail, the overland route from Europe to India. This era came to an end with the Iranian Islamic revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Tourism took a further hit in the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. But the situation improved a lot in recent years, putting India’s twin brother back on the map of adventurous travelers.
It’s no coincidence that this country is a favorite among experienced globetrotters. Every trekker, climber and outdoor enthusiast will find endless adventures in the rugged North, home to the 3 highest mountain ranges on Earth. The many empires and civilizations that inhabited present-day Pakistan over the last 5000 years left an impressive number of forts, mosques, temples and monuments. Add to the mix a vibrant and incredibly diverse culture, and some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet, and you have a truly world-class destination to explore.
Visas and Permits
The tourist visa used to be an absolute pain to obtain at embassies. But with the new government’s initiative to promote tourism, a new, straight-forward e-visa system has finally been launched in 2019. It’s open to most nationalities, is valid at land borders, seaports and airports, and is valid for up to 3 months. Extensions and multiple entry visas are also possible in certain cases. Letters of Invitation are no longer required.
There is also a visa on arrival for nationals of 50 countries, requiring an electronic travel authorization. First reports are positive. However, as for the e-visa, the VOA system is in its infancy. There have been a few issues so far, but hopefully the system will soon be running smoothly. For the latest up-to-date information, head over to the Caravanistan forums.
Several sensitive areas, particularly in the border regions, require special permits. The rules for these so-called No Objection Certificates or NOC change constantly. Don’t trust any information you read on the web or in guide books. Some, like the elusive NOC for Azad Jammu Kashmir, are notoriously difficult to obtain. The only rule of thumb worth remembering is that, as the saying goes, anything is possible in Pakistan. Navigating the complex bureaucracy is an art. Connections are everything. Be patient. Be flexible. Make some friends and get locals to help you.
Entering The Country
With a significant diaspora, particularly in the Gulf states, cheap flights are available to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Selected land borders with India, China, Iran and Afghanistan are open to foreigners. You can now create some truly epic overland itineraries.
From India, the Wagha border between Amritsar and Lahore provides an easy access to Indian rail and buses. The Taftan border is the gateway to Iran in Balochistan. And in the North, the Khunjerab pass at 4693m on the Karakorum highway forms the seasonal link with China’s Xinjiang province, and onwards to the classic silk road countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Transportation: General Considerations
Transportation in Pakistan is somewhat chaotic, but the infrastructure is generally good. It’s best to take a relaxed approach. Leave plenty of time. Delays and breakdowns are frequent, particularly in the mountains and during the monsoon months.
The Karakorum Highway, from West of Islamabad to the Chinese border, is generally in good condition. Other mountain roads less so. Landslides can and do occur frequently when it rains, or during heat waves, when the snow melts rapidly.
Also bring LOTS of photocopies of your passport and visa. This will dramatically speed up the registration process at the endless checkpoints along the road.
Public Transportation: Bus & Shared Taxi
Intercity Bus. Private bus companies provide a reliable and comfortable link between the bigger cities. The more luxurious ones like Daewoo have their own terminal. The Northern areas are covered by state-run NATCO. It’s recommended to book in advance at the station, or with local help, online. If no seats are available, no worries, several companies usually ply the same routes. Just ask around the main bus station or stand, and be prepared to go with the flow.
City Bus. Larger cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar have started implementing a rapidly-expanding network of modern air-conditioned city buses, some with reserved “Metrobus” lanes. The ever-changing network is difficult to navigate. There is little reliable information available online. Even locals get confused. Only the drivers and ticket vendors seem to give reliable information.
Shared Taxis. For smaller towns and villages, minivans and shared taxis are systematically available. Their schedules and itineraries are erratic. Most leave in the morning when full. It’s best to ask around the main bus station or bus stand the day before, and if needed sort out travel arrangements there and then. You might hear contradictory advice from locals. Always confirm with the actual driver.
Public Transportation: Air & Rail
Flying. If you are in a hurry and don’t mind booking in advance, domestic flights are relatively affordable. They can save you some long and tiring bus journeys, particularly to the Northern cities of Gilgit and Skardu. But in the mountains bad weather can ground the planes for days. It’s best to leave a few extra days in reserve.
Train. If you are traveling along the Karachi Lahore Peshawar corridor, or to and from Quetta, then the train is a great travel option. For schedules and fares check the Pakistan Railways website. AC sleeper is the highest and most comfortable class, but lower classes are much more authentic if you don’t mind sacrificing some comfort. Tickets can be purchased at the station and through travel agents, or online with some local help.
Transportation: Private Taxi & Motorbike
Taxis In Cities. Local taxis and rickshaws are cheap. You shouldn’t pay more than the equivalent of 2-3 dollars. Always agree on a price before getting in. Many locals don’t feel like bargaining and rely instead on Uber and Careem.
Even if you don’t use them, they are helpful to give you an idea of correct fares. Expect to pay slightly more if hailing a cab in the streets. If you just hold your hand out, someone will stop. Although it might not be an official, licensed taxi.
Taxis In The Mountains. If you are on a tight schedule to get to a remote village or trailhead, a taxi might be your only option. Prices increase rapidly for remote destinations, better vehicles and poor road conditions. Hiring a jeep with driver for the day might be convenient, but not very budget friendly. Unless you are a shrewd negotiator with a larger group.
Motorbike Roaming freely between small villages, up gnarly mountain roads and down lush valleys can be a true highlight of your trip. A small motorbike is a cheap and efficient way to explore at your own pace, particularly in the remote valleys of the Northern areas where public transportation is scarce. Prices for second-hand bikes start at 100-200$.
Unlike India, there is no traveler motorbike scene, and it is not possible to bring an Indian-registered vehicle across the border. However, with some local help, it is possible to rent, buy or borrow a bike. The incredibly generous Lahore Couchsurfing scene has even helped backpackers in the past with the paperwork.
Hitchhiking is really easy in Pakistan. In rural areas you might get offered a ride just walking by the side of the road. Drivers sometimes insist on making huge detours just to help you. The only problem you might encounter is at checkpoints. Sometimes the police is not accustomed to see independent travelers hitchhiking, but it’s rarely an issue.
Most tourists are coming from the emerging middle class of the big cities. That sometimes translates to a lack of value accommodation, at least as you might have become accustomed to in neighboring India. Be prepared to search more than usual, and as a foreigner, to bargain hard, especially during the busy summer holidays.
Airbnb and Booking.com are slowly becoming more popular, but options remain limited so far. Couchsurfing deserves a special mention, with a truly vibrant active community. Their generosity and hospitality is exceptional. And it’s not just them. Be prepared to spontaneously get invited to stay in homes along the way. It’s a wonderful way to deeply connect with Pakistani culture and family life.
In the Hunza valley, many makeshift campsites catering to Punjabi families appear during the summer months. Tent included, although you can negotiate a hefty discount if you are bringing your own. In the mountains you can camp for free almost anywhere.
Food In Pakistan
Typical dishes In Pakistan, meat is king. Byriani, a mixed rice dish with meat, vegetables, spices and sometimes eggs, is a nationwide favorite. So is Karahi, meat (usually chicken) in a spicy tomato base, eaten with roti (flatbread, slightly thicker than the Indian chapati). Kebabs are another staple of Pakistani cuisine. Food served in restaurants tends to be very oily, and menus are often uninspired and similar. The best food is cooked in private homes. This might be your only chance to sample the extraordinary variety of local dishes. So if you get invited, say yes!
Vegetarians Most places can cook a few Punjabi favorites, including dal (lentils), aloo (potato) and sabzi (vegetable) based dishes. A good selection of fruit and vegetables is available throughout the year. In summer, cherries, peaches and apricots are produced in the mountains. The mangoes, in season from June to August, are arguably some of the best in the world.
Drinks In Pakistan
You will be drinking chai, sweet black milk tea. And lots of it. It’s a hallmark of hospitality. In the Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral regions, people also drink Tibetan-style salty butter tea. This is a great opportunity to let your teeth recover from all the sugar. Green tea is often served in the Pashtun areas.
Alcohol consumption is illegal for Muslims. Non-Muslims require a permit from the government. Theoretically. The Murree brewery near Rawalpindi is the only (legal) local manufacturer. In practice, beer and liquor are widely available from “trusted” bootleggers, but always consumed behind closed doors. In the Hunza valley, there are good chances that you get offered a potent moonshine made from mulberries, innocently referred to as Hunza water. There is also Chitral water. In fact, anywhere with mulberries seems to produce “water”. You have been warned!
Off The Beaten Track
Beating the crowds is not exactly difficult in Pakistan. Domestic tourists invade the hills in summer, when the heat becomes unbearable in the cities. But beyond the Murree hills, the Feary Meadows, the KKH around the Hunza valley, and the sporadic foreign climbing and trekking groups around Skardu, it gets quiet quickly.
Many of the side valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral haven’t seen a Western traveler in years. Places like the remote Shimshal valley have a real frontier feeling to them. Or try to secure one of the elusive NOCs for Azad Jammu Kashmir. The government has announced that it will gradually open the region for tourism in 2019.
Tired of big snowy mountains? Experience the ecstatic atmosphere of a sufi festival or gathering. The mystical branch of Islam expresses itself through mesmerizing dances and world-famous music, the qawwali. The Shah Jamal shrine in Lahore on Thursday nights is a great place to start. Or hang out with local artists and the occasional Lollywood star at the small events organized by FACE in Islamabad. Pakistan is always full of surprises.
Trekking In Pakistan: Where To Go
The mighty Concordia K2 Base Camp trek, going through the heart of the Karakorum range, is considered as one of the great adventure treks in the world. Without the Everest crowds. In the same area, the Snow Lake and Hispar La trek crosses some of the biggest ice fields outside of the polar regions. Both require special permits and usually can’t be done independently.
Nearby Gondogoro trek offers breathtaking views on Masherbrum (7821m) and other Karakorum giants. There are many options, but if you stay on the Hushe valley side, no permits are required.
The base camp of Nanga Parbat, which at 8126m marks the Western end of the Himalayas, is a more accessible, and very popular outing from the Fairy Meadows. Rakapochi (7788m) and Diran (7266m) base camps are also relatively easily reached from the Hunza valley. Nearby Passu is the start of another spectacular trek, up the Batura glacier and surrounded by 7000er. No permits are necessary.
This small selection of “classics” doesn’t even cover the third highest mountain range in the world, the Hindu Kush. If you are searching for truly dramatic high mountain vistas far away from the tea lodge crowds, you just found your paradise. A few guide books are available, although most are terribly outdated.
Trekking In Pakistan: Logistics & Gear
Logistics Most treks outside of the Concordia region don’t require permits and can be done independently. You can arrange local guides, porters and/or donkeys at the trailhead villages. However, if you need any form of assistance, trekking agencies can provide invaluable support. These services range from jeep pickups to all-inclusive packages. We warmly recommend Zeeshan Salman, the man behind Aventure Tours Pakistan. A native from the Hunza valley, he relies on years of experience in the industry and excellent connections throughout the country.
Gear Bring everything you need. You might be able to buy a few items in Skardu and the biggest cities in an emergency, but don’t count on it. You can buy basic food supplies in cities, including nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, rice and pasta. Western-style supermarkets are only available in the big cities. Gas cartridges are usually available from trekking and climbing agencies. If you want to play it safe bring a multi-fuel stove. Make sure you pre-filter the local gasoline prior to usage.
Stay Healthy In Pakistan
Food Hygiene Many first-time travelers, despite taking all the standard precautions, experience the occasional stomach ache. Some consider it as par for the course. Bring hand sanitizer and activated charcoal tablets. If you truly get sick, antibiotics such a Ciprofloxacin are widely available without a prescription. If you are visiting very remote areas or trekking don’t forget to stock up on medicines.
Drinking Water Tap water should always be treated. Carry a small filter or Steripen to help reduce the obscene amounts of plastic waste plaguing the country. In the mountains the locals will often tell you that their water comes directly from the glaciers. This might be the case, but you could still get sick. If you have the slightest doubt, don’t risk it.
Stay Safe In Pakistan
[August 2019 Update] The renewed tensions with India over disputed Kashmir don’t seem to affect tourists so far. Just don’t hold your breath for the announced opening of Azad Jammu Kashmir to visitors. The Wagga border is open.
Terrorism The last few years have seen a dramatic improvement, with the government regaining the upper hand in most areas. Some Western countries have finally started adjusting their travel advice. But despite what some bloggers might claim, this is not a perfectly safe country. The police and army will not let you enter any area which they see as unsafe. They might assign you an armed escort for free, as a precaution. The rest is up to you. Use common sense, stay informed, listen to locals, always be respectful and you will be fine.
Intelligence Services As an independent traveler, you will certainly be shadowed by the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Army intelligence agency. The ISI is often referred to as a state within the state. They are everywhere. If you meet people wearing civilian clothes, dark sunglasses, asking for your ID and not saying which service they belong to, then it’s probably the ISI. But fear not, they are there to protect you. And to check that you are not an Indian spy. It’s part of the fun of traveling to Pakistan.
Road safety Some of the mountain roads are terrifying, even for seasoned globetrotters. Avoid traveling during and immediately after rain or very windy weather. If riding a motorbike, beware of selfie-taking domestic tourists on the road, even in tunnels!
Cultural Condiderations: Dress & Religion
Dress Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country. In the more affluent neighborhoods of big cities, especially in Islamabad, the dress code is relatively liberal. It’s still advised to keep shoulders and knees covered. The Ismaeli communities of the Hunza valley also have more relaxed views. While you will occasionally see men wearing shorts, most locals wear long pants. Women always wear long pants or skirts.
In contrast, the rest of the country is very traditional, particularly in Pashtun and Kohistani territory. Loose fitting clothes leaving little skin exposed are the norm. Wearing a shalwar kameez, the traditional dress, can help you a lot to blend in and show respect. This applies to both women and men. It also helps coping with the sun and heat. You can get a cheap, tailor-made shalwar kameez in any city.
Women don’t need to wear a hijab, expect when visiting religious buildings. However, having a headscarf handy is a good idea to reduce unwanted attention in certain situations.
Ramadan Visiting the country during the holy month of Ramadan is not a problem. Quite the contrary. Many stay at home, leaving popular destinations deserted. As a traveler, you are technically allowed to drink and eat. Some small restaurants even cater to travelers behind curtains. Just be discreet. At night the streets come back to life. It’s a wonderful moment. You will probably get invited more than once to Iftar, the breaking of fast after sunset.
Cultural Considerations: Connections & Other Particularities
Connections are everything in Pakistan. Having the right friend can speed up NOC applications, trigger significant discounts, and open many doors along the way. Fortunately, it’s very easy to make friends in Pakistan! If you are in a hurry or simply lack the right connections, a reliable travel agency is the way forward. We recommend the services of Zeeshan Salman and his company, Aventure Tours Pakistan.
Invitations. Be prepared to get invited all the time. For tea, for a meal, to stay for the night. This can get overwhelming at times. Pakistani are simply very curious and extremely keen on showing you what hospitality is all about.
Time It’s a known fact among travelers in South Asia that time can be interpreted quite liberally. This is particularly true in Pakistan. If you are told in the morning that someone will be back in a couple of hours, that can mean anything from a few hours to a couple of days. Be patient, relax and slow down.
Pride Pakistani are very proud people. Many would prefer to make up a story rather than loose face, or what they perceive as such. For example, if you ask for directions you might get an answer, regardless of whether the person you asked has any idea. There is nothing malicious about it, but can take some time to get used to.
Urdu and English are the official languages, although only a small minority is considered as native speaker. Several dozen of other languages are spoken, reflecting the great ethic and cultural diversity of the country. As a visitor, you can easily get by in English. Learning a few words of Urdu and any of the local languages will however earn you a lot of respect.
Wifi is only sporadically available, and rarely fast. It’s usually just a 3G or 4G dongle. If you need internet, get a local SIM card. At least in bigger cities you should get decent coverage.
Out the several mobile providers, the consensus is that Chinese-owned ZONG has the best coverage. Buying a SIM card in official ZONG shops is possible with a tourist visa, but prices are extortionate. Instead of shelling out 20-40$, get a local friend to buy you one for a fraction of the cost.
In Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu Kashmir Pakistani Army-owned SCO has a near monopoly on 3G and 4G coverage. Rumours are that ZONG and other carriers will be allowed to provide more than 2G services, but don’t hold your breath. To get an SCO SIM card, enlist local help.
Money & Total Cost
Cash ATMs are only available in the bigger cities. And not always reliable. The economy is still largely cash-based. Plan accordingly. You can exchange major foreign currencies easily and at competitive rates in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Elsewhere it’s best to carry US dollars as a backup.
Budget So how much do you need in total? Between 15 and 20$ a day, including local transportation, basic accommodation and eating at local restaurants 2-3 times a day. If you camp, follow invitations and couchsurf a lot make that 10$ a day.