Backpacking in Pakistan is a one of a kind adventure, this is a country which will raise many an eyebrow and steal many a heart… The only danger with backpacking Pakistan is not wanting to leave.
Before I went backpacking in Pakistan, I was unsure what to expect. Pakistan travel advice from my government is basically one gigantic red X. The media has painted the country in an unfortunate light, a fact most Pakistanis are painfully aware of. Wherever I went, I was greeted by friendly faces and incredibly helpful people. Combine that with relatively cheap travel costs, plentiful treks and truly stunning mountains and you have one hell of a great backpacking destination.
The security situation in Pakistan is currently under control and, with the exception of the Afghanistan border regions, most of the country is perfectly safe to visit. On some occasions, you will be assigned a free police escort – read about my experience trekking with mine – to keep an eye on you but these guys are almost alway super friendly and mean well.
Sometimes, when arriving into a new town or area, police will insist that you stay in a certain hotel. Hotels in Pakistan are relatively expensive and to be avoided if possible; I couchsurfed my way around the country, with the help of friends from The Karakoram Club, and had a blast. Please be aware that although The Karakoram Club is full of super helpful people it is a ‘free to join’ Facebook group which means that some tour groups, trying to sell shit to backpackers, are now in the group.
To connect with other backpackers travelling to Pakistan, join the Backpacking Pakistan facebook group. This group was very recently created, is moderated by me and a friend and is the place to find a travel buddy for Pakistan if you want to travel with an amigo.
Check out this video from my first trip (in February 2016) backpacking Pakistan…
Sorry about the video quality; I filmed the whole thing on my phone!
The Pakistani people are very generous and you will be plied with ridiculous amounts of free food and chai. The friends I made in Pakistan remain some of the best I have made on this trip; Pakistanis have a great sense of humour and many of them are real adventure travel enthusiasts.
Backpacking Pakistan Travel Costs
So, how much does it cost to travel to Pakistan?
Visa requirements for Pakistan
If there’s one thing that sucks about Pakistan, it’s getting hold of a visa. For most nationalities, visas can only be obtained from the embassy in your country of origin – this means that you can’t get a visa on the road. Visas are pretty expensive, for British nationals they are a whopping £100, and before you can even apply you need to get a letter of invitation (LOI) from a Pakistani tour company stating that, basically, they will accept responsibility for you. There are various Pakistani companies online offering this service and quite a few of them are very expensive, I have partnered with my good friends Lizzy and Shah, who run motorcycling adventure around Pakistan, they can hook you up with your LOI through the form on this page. Depending on what country you are from, you may be able to get your Pakistan visa relatively easy – Unfortunately, British passports seem to have some of the most difficulty getting a visa and the truly, utterly, useless ‘official visa service’ of Gerry’s in London never answer the phone, emails or indeed seem to even open their office.
I have on both occasions ended up sorting my Pakistani visa through a visa agency – VisaHQ, however these guys are fucking shit and charge a fortune so I no longer recommend them. The same may be true for other nationalities struggling to get a Pakistan visa. If you simply want to get your visa sorted with the minimum of the hassle then using a visa service is usually the best way to go however I have heard reports that it’s very easy to sort Pakistani visas in Australia and France; it truly seems to vary from country to country. Make no mistake though, it is IMPOSSIBLE to get your Pakistani visa outside of your country of nationality unless you have a residency visa in the country you are applying in.
Transport in Pakistan
There is a HUGE variety of transport options in Pakistan; the local NATCO buses are usually the best value for money but if you want to splash out on something more comfortable go with Daewoo – I caught a ride inside a Daewoo minibus and it was ridiculously plush. Hitchhiking in Pakistan is possible but you will encounter problems at police checkpoints. Whenever travelling any distance in Pakistan, you should have multiple photocopies of your passport and visa to hand over at checkpoints – on one journey, from Islamabad to Gilgit, I had to hand over a total of eleven photocopies. If you do not have the photocopies at the checkpoint, this will cause delays.
Sometimes, you may need to hire a car and driver to explore an area; cars are expensive in Pakistan. To rent a car and driver for a whole day of gallivanting in Hunza, or to drive up to the China border area, costs around fifty to eighty dollars. I strongly recommend buying or renting a motorbike (1500RS a day – possible from Islamabad) to explore the country. You can arrange motorbike rentals through Karakoram Bikers and Broke Backpacker readers get a discount. Flights in Pakistan are relatively cheap – around eighty dollars from Islamabad to Gilgit – and a good way to skip some truly horrific bus journeys.
Accommodation in Pakistan
With a few exceptions, much of the accommodation in Pakistan is fairly expensive and not particularly well set up for budget backpackers. On some occasions, police would take me directly to a hotel and insist I stayed there; you can sometimes get out of this but other times you cannot. There is some backpacker friendly accommodation around and, during low-season anyway, it’s possible to score a room for around 500 rupees (five dollars). I recommend Couchsurfing in Pakistan wherever possible, you’ll meet some amazing people, and bringing a tent or camping hammock for trekking.
Below is a list of cheap backpacker style accommodation options in Pakistan… I highly recommend downloading the free app, maps.me, it works in Pakistan and you can use it without phone signal as long as you have previously downloaded the region you are exploring. You can then type in the GPS codes listed below and find the accommodation with less hassle – we have tried to make the GPS codes as accurate as possible but it has all been done through Google maps and memory.
|Lahore||Lahore Backpackers||If you're not Couchsurfing, you'll probably end up in Lahore Backpackers - The owners speak good English and there's a KFC nearby if you are craving western food!||GPS: 31.561763, 74.318469 (Lahore backpackers)|
|Islamabad||Harvey Guest House or||3000 rupees with WiFi and breakfast, this is one of the cheaper options in Islamabad itself.|
|Rawalpindi||Hotel Al - Jamal||Some hotels in Rawalpindi won't take foreigners.ls in Rawalpindi won't accept foreigners, Al Jamal does accept foreigners but is not so great - you're better off staying in Islamabad itself.||GPS: 33.611931, 73.066033
|Gilgit||Pak China Gateway Hotel||Pak-China is right next to Gilgit South/East Bus station. Good for a night, NATCO bus stops here if coming from Islamabad/Rawalpindi. Also good if you want to catch the bus back South or head up to Hunza. Taxis get expensive in Gilgit so it's a good option if you're on a tight budget. Hotel has WiFi and there's a couple of basic shpps around.||GPS: 35.899276, 74.369235, If wanting to go west to Chitral via Shandur Pass, NATCO tickets can be bought from this bus station: GPS: 35.923883, 74.302709|
|Medina Guest House,||Foreigner friendly place, down an alleyway. Owner speaks good English. OK WiFi.||GPS: 35.922304, 74.313923|
|Medina II Hotel||Cheap, reliable, English-speaking owner. OK WiFi.||GPS: 35.920523, 74.328940|
|Fairy Meadows||Greenland Hotel||Operated by Gul Muhammad Ph. No. : 03555124070||GPS: 35.384597, 74.580365
|Shangrila Hotel||All visitors to The Fairy Meadows begin their trip at Raikot Bridge - Shangrila is the only hotel here.||GPS: 35.491526, 74.591979|
|Hunza||Old Hunza Inn||Has (slow) WiFi, nice landlord who speaks OK english. Can organise Treks. Here is their Facebook .||GPS: 36.318915 74.666178|
|Karimabad Inn||Another cheap option, basic but good backpacker vibe and great views of the valley. My number one budget choice for Karimabad.||GPS: 36.318776, 74.667137|
|World Roof Hotel||Personally didn't stay here but was recommended as a cheap hotel option.||GPS: 36.323045, 74.669675|
|Gulmit||Rehman Homestay||For those planning to stay with Rehman, this is a rough location of where he lives. He can come to Karimabad or meet you in Gulmit. Message him for details. Find out more about my experience staying with Rehman here.||GPS: 36.405012, 74.866814|
|Passu||Borith Lake Hotel||Basic accommodation and restaurant on the lake, there's also a camping area.||GPS: 36.428057, 74.864054|
|Skardu||Mashabrum Hotel||Expensive and dirty but some rooms are blessed with absolutely stunning views that make it worthwhile.||Coming soon!|
|Shangrila Resort||Many folks rave about the views at Shangrila Resort but, to be honest, I was underwhelmed. An expensive option.||Coming soon!|
|Astore||PTDC hotel||You can camp outside the PTDC hotel in Rama for free.||Coming soon!|
|Peshawar||Hidayat Hotel||Rooms for 600PKR, near the Bala Hisar fort, accepts foreigners, super friendly staff.||GPS: 34.016041, 71.573489, Address: G.T. Road | Firdous Chowk, Peshawar 25000, Pakistan
|Chitral||Al-Farouq Hotel||Rooms available for 600PKR, friendly staff and very clean.||GPS: 35.855608, 71.787096, Address: Naya Bazaar, Chitral 54000, Pakistan|
|Kalash Valley||Engineer Khans Homestay/Guesthouse||Excellent English, good food.||GPS: 35.771545, 71.694037|
|Swat Valley||Swat Valley Backpackers||For contacts within SWAT VALLEY. Please message Swat Valley Backpackers on Facebook.|
Most places around Pakistan also have a PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) Motel and although these aren’t the cheapest, they are a solid bet for foreigners. A big thanks to veteran adventurer Olly Manson for doing a lot of the leg-work on this table.
Activities in Pakistan
Entrance to Pakistan’s most breathtaking sites, the mountains, is free. If you want to visit attractions in the cities then it usually costs foreigners 250 rupees to get in. For some treks, you may need to hire a trekking guide – be sure to haggle, a fair rate for a day’s work in Pakistan is probably around 500 – 1500 rupees a day depending on the area. I did not have to hire a trekking guide as I was lucky enough to make friends with locals along the way who showed me around for free.
Solo Travel v.s. Group Tours in Pakistan
Travelling solo in Pakistan is an incredible experience but for many, it can be daunting. To help open up Pakistan, I have recently launched Broke Backpacker Adventure Tours to help adventurers get the most out of this amazing region. My good friend Shah has recently started running motorbiking adventure tours in Pakistan for foreigners.
Staying connected in Pakistan
Pakistan is a great place to unplug… partly because there’s very little wifi around and frequent power cuts in many of the mountain towns. Your best bet for staying connected is to buy a Pakistani sim card, I recommend Zong, and load it with as much data as possible. You will need to go to the Zong HQ in Lahore and not one of the franchises. Telenor works best in the Upper Hunza area.
Backpacking Pakistan Travel Guide – Where to go
Firstly, this map took about four hours to put together… so look at it!
The Paris of Pakistan and the starting point for many a Pakistan backpacking adventure, Lahore is one of my favourite cities in the world. The colours, the sounds, the smells, the vibrant-in-your-face-ness of it all is best experienced on the back of a motorbike; make friends with some locals and get them to show you around! Be sure to visit Badshahi Mosque; One of the most impressive sites in Lahore and the seventh largest mosque in the world, the courtyard can accommodate 100,000 worshippers and the attached museum contains many holy relics belonging to the prophet Mohammed. The Grand Jamia Mosque is truly stunning, a quiet, peaceful place that is lit up at night; I recommend an evening stroll inside. Lahore Fort is impressive and worth a visit if you have time to spare.
For a truly unique night out, be sure to track down a Sufi Dance Ceremony – there is one every Thursday at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal. Lahore has everything, even underground raves and its very own Eiffel tower…
When it come’s to finding accommodation in Lahore; It’s easy to find a Couchsurfing host, a friend on The Karakoram Club Facebook Group or you could try your luck with Let’s Go To Pakistan; a homegrown Pakistani initiative launched off the back of Humans of New York. Lahore Backpacker Hostel is a friendly enough place where you can crash on the floor for a couple of hundred rupees; bargain hard. From Lahore, you can catch a five hour bus to Islamabad.Book Your Lahore Hostel Here!
Backpacking Rohtas Fort
This mammoth Rohtas Fortress is between Islamabad and Lahore and it is possible to hitch here in just a couple of hours. I was hoping to camp within the fort grounds but the Ak-wielding security guards point blank refused me despite me trying every trick in the book. Eventually, insisting I would be eaten by wild animals, they pretty much just marched me to the entrance and told me to go back to town. I managed to hitch a lift with a couple of locals who, in normal Pakistani fashion, then insisted on taking me for dinner and dropping me at a guesthouse.
The capital of Pakistan and a surprisingly clean and beautiful city, Islamabad has a few sites worth visiting but can be happily conquered in just a day. I found a Couchsurfing host with no problems. If you need a hotel, I recommend Harvey Guest House (3000RS with wifi and breakfast). Centaurus Shopping Mall represents your last chance to stock up on anything you may need in the mountains. If you fly into Islamabad, a taxi from the airport to the main city is 800RS. Just a stone’s throw away from Islamabad is some woody hills and nice picnic spots, best explored with the help of a Couchsurfer and a car…
From Islamabad, your best bet is to head North… Really, most of Pakistan’s most breathtaking sites and jaw-dropping backpacking treks are in the North and in the summer the South of the country is unbearably hot anyway. From Islamabad, the bus journey to Gilgit takes eighteen hours and costs around 1300 rupees. Be sure to have multiple photocopies of your passport and visa and, if possible, get a seat right at the front – the views from The Karakoram Highway are truly stunning. The bus station is in Rawalpindi, not Islamabad itself. Rawalpindi is a thirty minute drive from Islamabad.Book Your Islamabad Hostel Here!
Arriving into Gilgit, you may encounter the police who will want you to check into a specific hotel. I managed to get out of this and went to find my own hotel, taking a taxi (200rs) further into the main town and scoring a double room with passable wifi for 1000 rupees at Madina Two Guesthouse. There are cheaper options around, for about 800 rupees, but at the time I desperately needed wifi to make some Skype calls and try to sort my bitch of an Indian visa. The nearby ‘OK restaurant’ serves up tasty yak steaks. There is not a whole lot to do in Gilgit itself unless you have a local friend to show you around; it took me ten minutes to meet a friendly dude who showed me around all day and took me to hang out with his mates in the evening. From Gilgit, you can catch busses to multiple destinations within the mountains. It is likely that you will have to return to Gilgit more than once as this is the transport hub for the Hunza region. I’ll be honest… I dislike Gilgit, try to avoid staying here if possible and simply pass through. There is a visa office in Yadgar Chowk and you can get your visa extended here for one to three days; bring your passport, passport photocopies, 2 passport photos and a letter from your guesthouse stating you are staying there. Gilgit has an airport.
Qasim Ali speaks excellent English and is a great guide to backpacking the Gilgit area, he can also arrange onwards travel to Skardu. He charged me nothing for a day of adventuring around Gilgit. In this situation, I tend to try to buy my new friend’s dinner – it’s a polite way of saying thank you. It can sometimes be very hard in Pakistan as the people are so damn generous and hospitable that they simply won’t let you pay for anything. There are some Couchsurfers in the Gilgit area. If you’d rather stay at a hostel, Hunza is the closest city to Attabad Lake & has an airport that you can fly into.Book Your Hunza Hostel Here!
Backpacking Fairy Meadows
To reach Fairy Meadows catch a two and a half hour minibus from Gilgit to Raikot Bridge (going towards Chillas City) for 200 rupees and check in with the police at the outpost there where you will have to hand over your passport details for the millionth time. You will then need to arrange a jeep to take you to the trailhead, the price of the jeep is an eye watering 7000 rupees so it helps if you can fill it – six passengers would be ideal. The jeep owners will INSIST that foreigners cannot share with Pakistanis but this is all part of the racket; after getting the friendly police to intervene I was able to share a jeep. Try to sit on the left hand side as this has the most adventurous views…
From the trail head, it’s a two to three hour hike to The Fairy Meadows. Anybody with reasonable fitness can do the hike but it’s also possible to rent a horse for 1000 rupees – bargain hard.
The Fairy Meadows is one of the most stunning places in all of Pakistan and you can camp here relatively cheap (but you need your own tent). Rooms are available here but are expensive – starting at 2000 rupees a night and rising all the way to 7000 rupees. Despite the expense, it is well worth it to view Nanga Parbat; the ninth highest mountain in the world. You can trek to Nanga Parbat’s base camp and do plenty of other awesome treks in the area.
Gull Muhammad – available at 05811484687 – can arrange a jeep and rents out log cabins at The Greenland Hotel which is where I recommend staying (rooms start at 2000 rupees). You can buy food in the Fairy Meadows but the most basic of meals will set you back 500 rupees… If possible, bring a camping stove, a tent and supplies. You could easily spend a few days up there. I visited during February, which is definitely the wrong time of year to go, it was fucking freezing although totally gorgeous; the best time of year to travel in Pakistan is between March and November. There is, apparently, sometimes electricity in the Fairy Meadows; it did not make an appearance whilst I was there. There is phone signal in one specific spot; get the local guys to show you.
There is a good chance that one of the local police officers will come along for the ride. If they like you, they may even guide you around The Fairy Meadows – they expect nothing in return but a tip of 500 rupees at the end (of the total Fairy Meadows trip) is fair if they have gone above and beyond the call of duty.
UPDATE: I visited The Fairy Meadows again in August 2016, I highly recommend hiking to Nanga Parbat basecamp. Keen photographers should consider staying at Bial Camp; a one hour hike from The Fairy Meadows and a quieter place to camp. I strongly recommend taking a tent to the Fairy Meadows if you are on a budget – here’s a breakdown of some of the best tents to take backpacking.
The jewel of Hunza and the jumping off point for more fantastic treks, Karimabad is about two and a half hours away from Gilgit by bus. The Old Hunza Inn is a fantastic place to stay with friendly vibes, gorgeous views, knowledgeable staff and occasional power. A double room (in low season) cost me 800 rupees. There are many fantastic things to do in Karimabad and you should definitely check out both Altit Fort and Baltit Fort for some stunning views of the ancient Silk Road leading to China. You could easily spend a few days wandering around the cobblestone streets and going on day hikes. You can arrange treks from one of the many outdoor shops that line the town.
Backpacking The Eagles Nest
For some of the most stunning views in all of Hunza, get a taxi to drive you up to The Eagles Nest and pitch your tent, or rent one (around 2000RS) there, to spend a night – it is well worth it. It’s a twenty five minute drive and a return trip costs 1500RS.
I strongly recommend staying with a local friend of mine, Rehman, in the very small village of Ghulkin, a wonderfully traditional place just a stone’s throw away from many incredible treks, glaciers, camping spots and backpacking adventures… Ghulkin is a three hour journey from Gilgit and you will pass the stunning Attabad lake, one of the bluest lakes in the world.
To read up on my full experience staying in Ghulkin, check out my homestay in Pakistan article which includes Rehman’s contact details. This is hands down, the best way to see the area and was a highlight of my Pakistan backpacking adventure. Rehman’s family will provide you with a truly incredible experience and a place to sleep and food whilst you go on epic adventures upon the nearby glaciers. A donation of $15 – $20 per day per person is fair and I recommend staying three to four days. Be sure to try some dried apricots…
Backpacking Khunjerab Pass
The highest border in the world and an incredible feat of human engineering, the road to the Pakistani-Chinese borders is full of stunning peaks and makes for a great day trip. It’s expensive to rent a car for the return trip – 8000RS – and there is no public transport that I could find. This is an adventure best attempted if you have your own transport. I highly recommend skipping Sost (although there is an immigration office here that might be helpful for travelers heading to China) and making time to stop at Hussaini Bridge, Passu Bridge and the stunning Passu Glacier.
Passu Basecamp Trek
A stunning six day trek that can be done without any permits, Passu Basecamp is just one of many incredible hikes available in the area. Take a guide, I recommend Rehman. More information coming in 2017.
The town of Skardu is a popular backpacking hub and many travelers in Pakistan will find themselves here. It’s a five hour rough drive from Gilgit (expect to be thrown from side to side) by local transport (500RS) departing Gilgit’s main bus station at 9 am – arrive earlier to get your ticket. Skardu also has an airport. The prices in Skardu, especially during high season, are on the high side as this is the focal point of tourism in Pakistan. Skardu was the only place in Pakistan where I felt that the locals were interested in ripping off foreigners. In all honesty; I recommend spending as little time as possible in Skardu itself. I recommend staying and eating, in the Diwan-e-Khas restaurant and hotel (rooms from 1800RS). There are some cheaper options around but this is by far the best value. Mashabrum Hotel is expensive and dirty but some rooms are blessed with absolutely stunning views that make it worthwhile. Many folks rave about the views at Shangrila Resort but, to be honest, I was underwhelmed.
It’s worth taking a look at Khaplu Fort and Upper Kachura Lake where you can swim in the lake and dine in a local restaurant on fresh-caught trout. Skardu is famous for its gemstones and crystal mines; I have heard it is possible to trek to some of these mines and get very cheap rates on precious stones – an enterprising backpacker may consider filling their backpack…
An eighteen day trek (doable in fourteen days if you are super fit) leading to the base camp of the second highest mountain in the world. It’s possible to do it for about 150,000 RS but most companies will try to charge more. I do NOT recommend booking your trek in advance; simply rock up and sort it out in Skardu, you will get a much better price.
Backpacking Deosai National Park
The best time to visit Deosai is between July and mid-August when the entire plain is covered in a blanket of stunning wildflowers. This is one of the best spots in the world to view the stars and I highly recommend camping for a night. Be careful where you pitch your tent – I was awakened by four bears a mere three meters from my camp. It costs 800RS to enter Deosai and unless you have your own transport, you will need to hire a jeep. Jeeps are very expensive but, if you haggle, it is possible to get an OK rate…
I managed to negotiate a jeep and driver for two nights and three days, with camping and fishing equipment thrown in, for 18,000RS. We drove from Skardu to Deosai (three hours), camped a night, and then drove to Rama Lake (four hours) where we camped again. The next day our driver dropped us in Astore and we caught a local bus to Raikot Bridge (three hours) where we caught a jeep to the trailhead for the Fairy Meadows. You could also connect from Astore directly to Gilgit.
Backpacking The Astore Valley
With rolling hills and herds of horses, The Astore Valley kind of reminds me of Switzerland… There are many fantastic hikes to be had here and I highly recommend visiting Rama Lake where you can view Nanga Parbat, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. You can camp outside the PTDC hotel in Rama for free and, from the PTDC, it’s a four kilometre journey to Rama – depending on road conditions it is sometimes possible to do two kilometres of this by jeep; my jeep became stuck for two hours, I wouldn’t recommend trying it if the roads are a river of mud… Read up about my friend Joan’s experience hiking in Astore.
Chitral and The Kalash peoples
The Kalash people are Pakistan’s smallest religious community and, every year, they hold a series of incredibly colourful festivals. From Gilgit, it is possible to catch a 14 hour Natco bus, crossing the stunning Shandur Pass, to Mastuj. From Mastuj, you must then take a four hour jeep to Chitral where you can visit the Kalash Valleys and stay with Engineer Khan at the Kalash Guesthouse. The Kalash people retain many of their traditional beliefs and a visit to the valleys is a unique opportunity to see this small community, said to be descended from the armies of Alexander the Great. To find out more, check out this article. If you want to visit the Bumbaret and Kalash Valleys, you must first register at the Foreigner Reigstration Office in Chitral Police Station. In Bumbaret, Kalash Continental Guesthouse comes recommended as a place to stay. It is now possible to get to Chitral from Swat by Jeep or from Gilgit via NATCO bus.
04/08/2017 Trip Report from Felix Lenzing: The bus ride to Chitral from Gilgit is about 14 hours (scenic ride). The bus is NOT GOING TO CHITRAL OR EVEN MAJUD! In Gilgit you buy a ticket for Majud, but they will write down a small village 25km before Majud as the final destination. It’s written in Urdu so it’s not understandable for most foreigners. They won’t explain this… my host in Gilgit bought the ticket for me and told me the bus will ride to Majud as this is what he was told by the bus company. A few kilometers before Majud there are two landslides which are not crossable for the NATCO-bus. So the bus will just stop at the last police checkpoint before Majud and that’s it. Then the game starts… the police won’t let you through and so there are two options available: Either waiting for a “special car” coming from Majud or staying overnight at the Guesthouse which is right next to the checkpoint… What a coincidence
Most of the people in the bus decided to start walking since one of the police officers said it’s roughly an hour walk till we are on the other side of the landslide. There would be cars waiting for us on the other side, we were told. After three and a half hours walking (fully equipped) in the dark we finally crossed two landslides and the police picked me up from there to escort me to a hotel. These two points are definitely not crossable for any vehicles at the moment!
I arrived at the TPDC motel in Mastuj and could stay for free (at the phone the owner offered me a room for 2150, I declined and asked if he can offer me a place to camp). I think he just offered to stay for free because he knew that my bus to Chitral is leaving at 5am. From Majud jeeps (150 Rps) are not going straight to Chitral, they’re going to Booni where you have to change to a van (130) going to Chitral.
Before leaving Gilgit, buy enough water for at least one and a half days. I forgot to buy water the day before I left from Gilgit and this was a big mistake. There’s no shop in Gilgit which is open at 6am. There’s only one stop on the way where you can buy something. Use this! If you don’t have water at Shandur Pass you will feel the altitude. Shandur pass has “sleeping facilities”. There are two tent hotels along the way. Don’t expect anything special. Sit on the left side of the bus, you’ll see more of the beautiful scenery on the way. Al Farooq hotel offers great single rooms for 600Rps a night – Wifi is the best I had in Pakistan so far.
Backpacking The Swat Valley
One of the most conservative places in Pakistan and a must-visit for keen hikers, Swat is a very interesting place indeed…. All of the women here are in full-clad Burkahs and many of the men are not used to seeing a women’s face. The main towns are Mingora and Saidu Sharif but the real beauty of Swat is to be found in the forests….
Swat Valley was once the cradle of Buddhism and is still littered with important Buddhist monuments and relics. The Taliban invaded in 2009 and did their best to destroy the statues in the brief period they occupied the valley. They were kicked out after six months with a huge loss of life to both Pakistani and Taliban forces, the area now has a very heavy military presence but is largely considered safe, I encountered no problems. The most impressive of the Buddhist monuments is the towering Jehanabad Statue, try to catch it for sunset.
Whilst around Mingora, be sure to visit Udegram, an ancient Mosque, as well as Malam Jabba; the best place in all of Pakistan to catch some powder and strap on your skis. You will need your own transport whilst in Swat or to make friends with a local couchsurfer; taxis are insanely expensive and there are not many public transport options.
Swat offers adventurous backpackers many opportunities to trek into valleys that have probably never been visited by foreigners before; I spent an incredible, yet arduous, couple of days trekking around Beshigram Lake where I stayed for free with local shepherds. The best treks in Swat are supposed to be around Kalam and Daral Lake but sadly I did not make it up that far as I was unable to find affordable transport and the heavy army presence makes hitching impossible. Multi-day rafting and trekking expeditions are possible in Swat, I met one local who had built a raft and headed down the river…
Not many travelers backpacking in Pakistan make it to Swat; officially you need a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to get in although some Pakistani locals may tell you different. One thing that does seem to be clear is that you definitely need a Pakistani friend in the region. Security is tight and you will notice the increase in machine guns and army personnel – don’t photograph them. Ihsan, my host in Swat, is trying to bring tourism to the region and puts up backpackers in a room attached to his house – it’s basic but homely and if you are visiting Swat, you will need a contact. Ihsan is reliable, speaks good English, has the most up to date intel on the Swat NOC situation and is a keen hiker. Ihsan has now set up a facebook page – Swat Valley Backpackers and can assist with your NOC and provide backpackers with a place to stay; I couchsurfed with him for four days. Ihsan is a keen hiker and a conservative Muslim. Please make a donation of $15 – $20 per person per day to cover your food, accommodation, transport and activities whilst staying with Ihsan. Once you are into Swat Valley you will have an incredible opportunity to meet with the local people and to explore the stunning scenery of lush green fields, glacial lakes and cloud-cropped peaks.
It’s a six hour Daewoo bus from Islamabad to Swat, 600RS, and it is also possible to get to Chitral from Swat via Kalam (ten hours) by jeep (I, unfortunately, had to give this a miss as the cheapest price I found was 20,000RS). If you want to head up north to Gilgit do not go back to Islamabad – instead, travel from Mingora to Besham and then catch a bus from Besham to Gilgit – this will save you nearly ten hours.
In some parts of Pakistan, especially Swat, it pays to dress a little more conservatively. Women should keep their hair covered and their body shapes hidden and men should buy a salwar kameez; a super comfortable set of loose pyjama-like robes. Note; this only really applies to Swat…
Pakistan Travel Guide – FAQs
How can I get a letter of invitation for my Pakistani visa application?
To apply for your Pakistani visa, you will need a letter of invitation (LOI). You can attain an LOI from anybody living in Pakistan, however, there have been numerous reports of complications and even some visas being rejected when the LOI is not from an official tour company. My friends Lizzy and Shah run a registered tour company in Pakistan and are able to provide LOI’s cheaper than anybody else – you can submit your application for an LOI on this page. I receive a small commission from this so if you’ve found this guide useful, please do arrange your LOI through this page.
Can I apply for my Pakistani visa outside of my home country?
Unless you have a residency visa in the country you are applying in, it is impossible to get a Pakistani visa from outside of your country of nationality – you can, however, post your passport home and go through a visa service. You do not physically have to be in your country to make the application, your passport does however and there is no way around this at the moment.
Can I extend my visa in Pakistan?
It is possible to get a free two week visa extension in many places in Pakistan; I sorted mine out in just four hours in Gilgit. Skardu and Lahore also have visa offices. You can very easily extend visas by up to six months according to sources. By all reports, Gilgit is the easiest place to extend your Pakistani visa.
When is the best time of year to visit Pakistan?
September is the best month to visit Pakistan, August is absolutely rammed full of local tourists and prices go up.
March – April is also good and Karimabad is simply gorgeous early March. It’s possible, but tough, to get into the Fairy Meadows even when they are snowed under if you call Gul Mohammed. If you make it up there, you will almost certainly be the only people there.
What the fuck is a NOC and do I need one?
Most backpackers travelling to Pakistan will not need a No-Objection-Certificate (NOC). NOC’s are only required in areas with heavy military control – such as Kashmir, the Afghan border area and Balochistan. I required an NOC to enter Swat but word on the street is that it’s now possible to enter Swat without an NOC – talk to Ihsan, he will know the latest about NOCs in Swat.
Can I get into Pakistani Kashmir?
I entered Kashmir on public transport, hidden at the back of the bus. I was spotted at the second military checkpoint and hastily turned around. You could only enter Kashmir with the relevant NOC but despite many backpackers trying, nobody has yet been issued a NOC for Kashmir.
What should I wear in Pakistan?
In most of Pakistan, you can dress pretty much as you would at home although I recommend keeping tattoos covered and a tank top is an obvious mistake. Women should have a headscarf with them but will not have to wear it most of the time. Swat is a different story – be conservative in Swat. Men should buy a Salwar Kameez; they are super comfy…
Is Pakistan safe for women?
In general, foreign women travelling around Pakistan will be treated with the utmost respect. If you encounter any issues simply slap and make a scene; nearby Pakistanis will rush to your aid. I will be releasing an article soon comprised of interviews with female explorers in Pakistan packed with lots of useful info; stay tuned. I have been getting a lot of requests from solo female travellers heading to Pakistan for more info so I have set up the Backpacking Pakistan facebook group. If you are interested in connecting with other backpackers heading to Pakistan, this is the place to do it. Check out this post for in-depth interviews with four female travellers in Pakistan.
Can I travel solo in Pakistan?
If you’re travelling to Pakistan on a solo trip and want to meet up with other backpackers heading that way, or are keen to pick the brains of myself and other Pakistan backpacking veterans – join this Facebook Group: Backpacking Pakistan and feel free to fire away with questions!
What are the Pakistani people like?
Pakistanis are a lovely bunch and are usually falling over each other to make sure you have enough chai, food and hash to keep you happy. Make an effort to get to know the locals; some of my best friends are Pakistani. I quickly learnt that everything is possible in Pakistan; even totally insane underground raves.
Should I tip in Pakistan?
Tipping is not expected but if you encounter amazing service or want to tip a guide then go for it – just keep the amount reasonable so other backpackers are not hit by guides expecting heavy tips. Five to ten percent is plenty.
Should I Volunteer in Pakistan?
If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road and really get to know a country. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
Can I fly in Pakistan?
Several cities have airports and flights are a good way to get around and to catch some stunning mountain views. Note that flights are frequently cancelled in Gilgit and Skardu due to bad weather – the pilots operate using sight and not fancy AI equipment.
Is Pakistan safe?
Pakistan is one of the safest countries I have ever visited and is packed with friendly and inquisitive individuals who are always happy to meet somebody backpacking in Pakistan. The extremely helpful army and the sometimes helpful police will always keep an eye out for foreigners and they are absolutely everywhere. If you encounter any problems I suggest finding the nearest soldier; most of the officers speak some English. For tips on staying safe whilst backpacking, check out backpacker safety 101.
Books to read on Pakistan?
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot- From tea with warlords in the countryside to parties with drunken foreign correspondents in the “dry” city of Kabul, journalist Kim Barker captures the humor and heartbreak of life in post-9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan in this profound and darkly comic memoir.
Three Cups of Tea– The astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his humanitarian campaign to use education to combat terrorism in the Taliban’s backyard. Anyone who despairs of the individual’s power to change lives has to read the story of Greg Mortenson, a homeless mountaineer who, following a 1993 climb of Pakistan’s treacherous K2, was inspired by a chance encounter with impoverished mountain villagers and promised to build them a school.
In Other Rooms- A collection of stories that make up a vivid portrait of feudal Pakistan, describing the advantages and constraints of social station, the dissolution of old ways, and the shock of change. Refined, sensuous, by turn humorous, elegiac, and tragic, Mueenuddin evokes the complexities of the Pakistani feudal order as it is undermined and transformed.
Magnificant Delusions- Husain Haqqani has a unique insight into Pakistan, his homeland, and America, where he was ambassador and is now a professor at Boston University. His life has mapped the relationship of the two countries and he has found himself often close to the heart of it, sometimes in very confrontational circumstances, and this has allowed him to write the story of a misbegotten diplomatic love affair, here memorably laid bare.
Pakistan- A Hard Country- With almost 200 million people, a 500,000-man army, nuclear weapons, and a large diaspora in Britain and North America, Pakistan is central to the hopes of jihadis and the fears of their enemies. Yet the greatest short-term threat to Pakistan is not Islamist insurgency as such, but the actions of the United States, and the greatest longterm threat is ecological change.
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How can I rent a vehicle in Pakistan?
Sayiah Riders, based in Islamabad, hire out motorbikes with insurance for 1500 rupees a day. Having your own transport for Pakistan is definitely the way to go as long-distance bus services are pretty uncomfortable, taxis are expensive and hitchhikers can encounter issues with curious police and army personnel. At some points, you will have no choice but to hire a jeep – be sure to agree in advance that fuel is included in the cost. If you fancy exploring Pakistan by motorbike on an organised tour, get in touch with my friend Shah.
Sex, drugs & rock n roll!
Pakistan is typically a dry country, however, you’re permitted to purchase alcohol if you’re a non-Muslim tourist with a permit. You can find home brewed alcohol around, but only if you’re looking in the right places. Imported alcohol is also available if you are connected. It’s possible to find ecstasy if you are at raves outside Lahore or Karachi but you’ll have to be well connected.
In the north of Pakistan Marijuana plants grow wild, so it’s super easy to find something to smoke. Pakistan’s opium trade is flourishing, so it’s pretty easy to find. Chances are, your guide will offer your something to smoke while you’re backpacking Pakistan. Most Pakistanis have never smoked weed but smoke hash frequently. Check out my article, Blazed Backpackers 101 on how to stay safe whilst partying.
Do I need insurance for Pakistan?
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
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Useful apps to download before backpacking Pakistan
Be warned, it’s often hard to download new apps on the move in Pakistan so I suggest downloading the following before you travel to Pakistan.
uTalk Go – The backpacker’s secret weapon when it comes to learning languages, I cannot recommend uTalk enough; whilst backpacking in countries like Iran, India, Nepal and Pakistan, it has proven worth its weight in gold…
Maps.me – My favourite offline maps app.
VPN – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Pakistan Travel Guide – Getting in and out of the country
Pakistan has four land borders; India, Iran, China and Afghanistan.
I’ll give you a quick run-down of what I know, please note this info changes frequently…
Border crossings between India and Pakistan are easy enough; I used the Wagah Border crossing. Getting my Indian visa whilst in Pakistan was a total god-damn nightmare and despite asking for six months (the standard Indian tourist visa) I was only granted six weeks. It took three days of hanging around the embassy to get my passport back – technically, you have to apply in Lahore and they then send your passport to Islamabad. You cannot apply in Islamabad but you can turn up at the embassy and make a fuss… I strongly recommend getting your Indian visa before your enter Pakistan as the Indian embassy in Pakistan is staffed entirely by fucktards.
Border crossings between China and Pakistan are simple as long as you have your Chinese visa pre-sorted. I do not know how easy it is to arrange a Chinese visa within Pakistan but the two countries have good relations so I imagine it should be doable.
Border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan are not advised. I looked into this for weeks but everybody I met told me that the border guards are not currently letting foreigners across and even if you do get across you will find yourself in a part of Afghanistan which is not famed for its stability. Better to enter Afghanistan from Tajikistan… that’s my plan anyway.
For more information I recommend you guys head to Caravanistan; when I myself am researching border crossings and visas, this is the site I use.
Pakistan travel information is frequently changing; I am returning to the country in both 2016 and 2017 and will continue to keep this page up to date.
Still not convinced? Here are ten reasons you should travel to Pakistan!
Keen to explore Pakistan with a group of like-minded adventurers; check out Broke Backpacker Adventure Tours.
Have you recently travelled to Pakistan? Got anything to add to this post? Email me at [email protected]
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