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Exploring Pakistan: Islamabad and Lahore

Badshashi-mosque-courtyard

Our friend Gillian Cowan recently relocated from the UK to Islamabad. She’s currently enjoying the challenges and new experiences of life in Pakistan and here she makes her debut blog post with the aim of dispelling the myths surrounding the country that many traveller’s overlook…

Pakistan is not a country you find on most people’s dream destinations list. People are mostly surprised if you tell them you’re going on holiday to Pakistan and many ask questions about the safety of travelling there. TV travel shows also seem to skirt around the country and I personally found it very difficult to find any Pakistan travel guides when I was searching for some before my first trip. The last Lonely Planet on Pakistan was last published in 2008, which I think says quite a lot. Although, if you look past the negative newspaper headlines I firmly believe it’s more than worth making the trip to this beautiful, diverse and surprisingly friendly country.

Pakistan has three main cities, Islamabad, the capital, Lahore and Karachi. Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan, situated on the southern coast with a population of 18 million – it is the bustling commercial hub of the country. Islamabad is green, sleepy and not at all like it’s portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty. The Margalla Hills national park provides a spectacular backdrop to the city and there’s lots very accessible of walking you can do, with trails leading up to Monal Restaurant which has views over the whole city and serves delicious spicy barbecue food. It’s worth visiting Islamabad, particularly if you know anyone living here as the social scene is quite lively and just to say you’ve been…it’ll certainly be a conversation starter at dinner parties.

Image 2 An annoyingly hazy day in Islamabad

Lahore is the jewel in the crown, there is so much to see I’m not sure we really scratched the surface in a three day visit. We had a guide recommended to us by friends, but there are lots of good English speaking guides available to hire outside the Lahore Fort and it’s a good idea to get one. You will get much more out of your visit and they’ll bat away some of the photo requests and stares letting you get on with the business of looking around.

Image 3 Lahore fort

The scale of the Lahore fort is impressive — it was the British garrison in the days of the Raj, before Pakistan existed, and this was the home of their former pub.

Image 4 British pub in the Lahore Fort

The Fort faces the Badshashi mosque. The Mughal mosque is impressive: the scale is immense – apparently 95,000 people can worship in the courtyard and porticoes – and walking through the gate, it’s hard not to feel your breath taken away. We were the only foreign tourists there and as it wasn’t a weekend or special holiday, practically had the place to ourselves.

Image 5 Badshashi mosque

Image 6 Badshashi mosque courtyard

The old town is bonkers – exactly what you’d think Pakistan looks like and completely different from Islambad’s ordered streets. Having a guide is essential to visit here — if nothing else you’d get completely lost and women travelling on their own would probably have some problems.

Image 7 Old town Image 8 old town goat

No trip Lahore is complete without a trip to the Wagah border and if you’re travelling in India, you can cross into Pakistan here – it’s the only land border between the two countries. Every night at sunset there is an elaborate ceremony with officials whipping up the crowds on either side to cheer the loudest. The tallest and most impressive looking soldiers are chosen from across Pakistan to take part and march towards India before performing a complex series of kicks before the respective flags are lowered at sunset and the border is closed.

Image 9 Wagah border ceremony

Travelling in Pakistan is fantastic, people are very welcoming, curious, happy to see you and it’s much less frenetic that the touristy parts of India. If you are a woman, you do need to dress appropriately – that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and buy a wardrobe of shalwar kameez, but you will need to cover your legs at all times and where a loose top that covers your bum and shoulders. It’s worth having a scarf with you; you don’t need to cover your hair in the major cities of Pakistan but if you go inside a mosque or travel in the countryside you will be expected to. There are so many beautiful scarves to buy anyway and the air con can be rather fierce you’ll probably end up wanting some anyway.

Staying in Lahore

I recommend the Avari Hotel which has a lovely swimming pool and a bar (when you live in a theoretically dry country this counts as VERY exciting) on third floor. Yes, it looks like a converted business centre but you can get a beer. For food try Andaaz for delicious spicy barbeque food with a view of the Lahore Fort and the Kites flying at night. Also make sure you go shopping at the Mall of Lahore (if only to see Greenvalley supermarket’s rip off of Waitrose branding).

Useful things to know

  • Visas can take a long time and are annoying – you need a letter of invitation, a travel agent or hotel can help you with this but it does mean you have to be a bit organised if you don’t know anyone here.
  • It’s pretty cheap once you’re here, but if you want to drink alcohol brace yourself for some fairly hefty charges (think $8 for a can of Carlsberg).
  • There are frequent power cuts; worth being aware of if you’re staying in cheaper hotels or guest houses as they may not be as set up with generators and consider what you eat carefully in summer. Fish in country where the fridge doesn’t work for hours a day and you’re miles from the sea in the height of summer may not be sensible.
  • MAY/June/July/August are boiling hot. BOILING. And it’s Ramadan, unless you’ve been travelling in the region and are acclimatised – it’s probably not the best time to visit unless you’re heading up to the mountains in the North. April/May and September/October/November are best – the weather is cooler and you’ll be able to explore without boiling alive in your own sweat. Bring a jumper if you’re here over winter, the houses and hotels can get quite chilly.

Image 10 Wagah border - the tallest soldiers are chosen from across PakistanAll words and photos by the lovely Gillian Cowan. Gillian has recently moved to Islamabad with her fiancée, a foreign correspondent. She was formerly in PR for a major retailer in London.

 

7 Comments

  • Rebecca

    27 November, 2013 at 5:04 am

    this is a great article! thanks for the tips and the knowledge that visiting the country is not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be. I would love to visit this country. Can you recommend a guide? staying with locals is always a great way to do things… if only I could be so lucky

    Reply
    • Gillian Cowan

      2 December, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      Hey Rebecca, thank you! So pleased you enjoyed it. You should definitely visit! Make sure you do take a look at the FCO website if you’re planning on visiting beyond the three main cities as there are dicey bits to the country (i.e KPK, Balochistan, bit of Karachi). In terms of a guide, I recently went to Hunza Valley with explore pakistan – http://www.explorepak.com/. I would probably say stick to hotels just because the security is better and if you’re in a Lahore where there are lots of powercuts – you’ll be less affected, but people are more than happy to show you the sites, tell you were to go and help you out! Just use your common sense as you would in all places, Gillian x

      Reply
  • Gillian Cowan

    15 November, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Thanks for the lovely comments! Glad you enjoyed it. Tiana: the Wagah ceremony is really physical, lots of marching double time with elaborate kicks and turns so, yes, it must be exhausting for the soldiers! Corinne and Scott; definitely add it to the list. Watch this space for some more ‘things to do in Pakistan’ posts 🙂

    Reply
  • Tiana Kai

    8 November, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I have not traveled much into the middle east, just Egypt but have been there a handful of times and always love the mystical feeling it possesses. The nightly ceremony at the border is great, must be tiresome for the soldiers! 😉

    Reply
  • Emma

    8 November, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Really interesting insight into a country that’s not really considered a travel destination. I’m pleased you wrote a very unbiased review, there should be more posts like this, very refreshing!

    Reply

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