Trip Report: Americans in Pakistan

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Dec 26th, 2018, 05:20 PM
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Trip Report: Americans in Pakistan

We spent five full days in Pakistan as part of a two-plus week trip around South Asia. Pakistan is a fascinating place and the people are among the warmest and most hospitable that we have encountered anywhere. Pakistan does have some drawbacks: the historical sites are fairly mediocre and poorly maintained, and the visa is expensive and not so easy. Pakistan is somewhat of a “Muslim India” (with the colors, sounds, smells, traffic, chaos, etc. that are ubiquitous in the subcontinent), and it offers a raw and authentic experience in a country that sees very few Western tourists. Below are some trip notes.

OUR BASIC ITINERARY

Day 1: Enter Pakistan via the Wagah border; afternoon in Lahore; overnight in Lahore

Day 2: Full day in Lahore; overnight in Lahore

Day 3: morning in Lahore; afternoon trip to Shalimar Gardens and Wagah Border Ceremony; overnight in Lahore

Day 4: Lahore to Islamabad via Rohtas Fort; overnight in Islamabad

*Day 5: Taxila and Peshawar day trip from Islamabad; ISB-KHI 10:00pm-11:55pm on Pakistan Air (PK); overnight in Karachi

*Day 6: Sightseeing in Karachi; overnight in Karachi

*Day 7: Day trip to Chaukhandi tombs, Makli necropolises at Thatta, Shah Jahan Mosque; overnight in Karachi

*Day 8: early morning flight from KHI-DOH on QR

[*When we arrived at ISB airport, we learned that our ISB-KHI flight was cancelled for reasons we’ll never know, leaving us stranded overnight in Islamabad. After two unpleasant day trips with mediocre guides and drivers and not really being excited about Karachi in the first place, we ended up staying overnight at ISB airport and changing our KHI-DOH flight on Day 8 to ISB-DOH on Day 6. So, we never made it to Karachi and did not do Days 6 and 7 of our itinerary.]

TRIP PLANNING

Our original plan was to do a Karakoram Highway trip, starting in Xinjiang, China and traveling by road from Kashgar into Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region and then into Islamabad and Lahore. We almost went forward with this, but then scrapped it when we realized that Xinjiang seemed like a total disaster. We read that the Chinese government essentially turned Xinjiang into a giant prison camp, and that the cities are dead because people are afraid to leave their houses. We couldn’t get responses from guides/drivers, hotels, etc., and heard that the government had been hassling these types. It also seemed like we missed the boat on visiting Kashgar, as the government destroyed the historical old city.

Having scrapped our China-to-Pakistan itinerary, we then considered doing an out-and-back trip from Islamabad and Lahore to visit the Gilgit-Baltistan region. After much research, we completely scrapped the idea of going to G-B.

We found the logistics of a G-B trip to be a colossal hassle if we wanted to spend about a week there. For one, the daily flight between Islamabad and Gilgit is cancelled 50% of the time due to visibility issues, making it irresponsible to plan a short trip without allowing several buffer days. The alternative to the unpredictable flight is to take either an overnight 14-18 hour bus or a two-day trip with a private driver. With a driver, that would be 4 full transit days just to get to G-B from Islamabad. We also did not like the fact that, once in G-B, we would be stuck at the mercy of a private driver for getting around and seeing the various sites and scenery.

Since G-B is said to be among the highlights of Pakistan, we wondered if it was sacrilege to go all the way to Pakistan and not get to G-B. We looked at a lot trip reports and photos and started to get the sense that G-B wasn’t necessarily a must-see. Sure, it looked pretty. But we’ve seen beautiful mountain scenery in plenty of other places, and we found it hard to imagine that the G-B scenery was unique. The most appealing aspect of G-B actually seemed to be the Ismaili people, rather than the scenery. If we had a couple of weeks and could have managed on our own (without a driver), perhaps G-B would have been a nice place to visit. But it G-B just didn’t seem worth the trouble and didn’t seem like something we’d regret missing.

In the end, we opted for a cities-only trip to Pakistan, visiting Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi.

LETTER OF INVITATION & KARAKORAM BIKERS

We used Karakoram Bikers to get a letter of invitation for the Pakistani visa. KB will provide a LOI if you book as little as a one-day private guided tour.

There is a lot of conflicting information on the Internet about Pakistan LOIs for Americans. A couple companies like KB were willing to provide a LOI with the purchase of a minimal amount of services. At the other extreme, several other companies told us that we needed to book an entire private tour including hotel bookings and guides for all days. Other companies required something in between.

Our takeaway is that there are no hard-and-fast governmental rules for what tour companies must do to issue LOIs to Americans. The more lax companies perhaps have better connections with the government or are taking advantage of gray areas in the system or lax enforcement. The more strict companies might just be hoping to rope tourists into an expensive all-inclusive tour price. Also, the fact that we were given 1-year multiple-entry visas with a LOI showing a 6 day trip is strong indication that the Pakistani government doesn’t care one bit what you do once you have the visa. Pakistan is definitely not like Iran, where Americans are required to have a guide with them at all times.

KB is run by an Australian woman, Lizzy, and her Pakistani husband, Shah. Lizzy handles all the communications and LOI details, and she is very professional, responsive and friendly. We corresponded with Liz extensively about various itineraries (when we were contemplating a trip to G-B), and she was great to work with and has a wealth of knowledge about the country. Most other companies we contacted were very unprofessional, took days to write back, didn’t properly answer questions, etc. Since Pakistan doesn’t have a huge tourist infrastructure, most of these companies haven’t yet learned out how to run a proper tour company and deal with Westerners. It was great to work with Lizzy because she “gets it.”

The LOI was AU$130 (about $90), and we only had to pay for one LOI since we were a married couple. Lizzy sent us a PDF of the LOI within a few hours after we made payment and sent our passport copies.

We opted for a day trip from Lahore to Islamabad via Rohtas Fort as our one “required” tour with KB. KB is a small company and did not offer much of a choice for our one required tour, and their tours were very expensive. KB’s website offered two different 4-5 hour city tours of Lahore at $135 for two people. They also offered us a trip from Lahore to Islamabad via Rohtas Fort (and seeing the Faisal Mosque and Pakistan Monument in Islamabad) with a private car and driver for $180 for two people, which was not on their website. We preferred to explore Lahore on our own and we needed to get from Lahore to Islamabad anyway, so we figured that $180 would provide us a fair amount of value whereas $135 would provide us little useful value.

Our tour with KB turned out to be very mediocre at best. Our guide was Shah (Lizzy’s husband), and he seemed like he was totally going through the motions and didn’t want to be there. He barely said anything to us the entire day, and we just felt uncomfortable and that we were a burden on him. At the Rohtas Fort, he just followed us around and didn’t tell us anything about what we were looking at. The driver, Hassan, was a really nice guy and we got to talk to him alone at lunch time about Pakistani culture and society while Shah left to make phone calls; it would have been much more enjoyable if we just had him.

We were fairly annoyed that KB showed up at our hotel at 7:45 am when our start time was 7:00 am. We didn’t get an explanation for the delay, or any regrets. KB also took us to a lunch place that took an hour and a half to bring the food. Our guide was annoyed at the restaurant, we thought they should not have put us in such a situation. As a result of all these delays, by the time we arrived in Islamabad, the Pakistan Monument was already closed and we had to see the Faisal Mosque in the dark. In general, we felt our tour with KB was rather unprofessional – especially considering the not-cheap price of $180 for a single day’s tour.

While our tour with KB was disappointing, KB is still likely the best company for Americans to use to get a Pakistan LOI. Lizzy is great, they require an all-inclusive tour package, and their LOI “works.”

GETTING THE VISA

Getting our Pakistani visas at the Los Angeles consulate was amazingly simple. Armed with our LOI and the properly completed paperwork, we were issued 1-year multiple entry visas on the spot. I went walked in our applications alone, and my wife didn’t even have to come in.

The consulate’s website states exactly what to bring, and it’s just a matter of following directions. The $192 visa is quite expensive; most other countries who want to stick it to the US charge $160.

The only twist was that the agent who collected our initial paperwork asked me for business cards for me and my wife. Luckily, I was able to immediately get ahold of my wife and have her email over a copy of her card, which I then emailed to the agent for him to print out. The website says nothing about bringing proof of employment and I’m not sure if they’re asking everyone this, but our experience dictates that it may be a good idea to bring a business card or proof of employment just in case.

The agent who collected our paperwork was very nice, and told me to have a seat and that I may be interviewed. I waited for about 30 minutes and saw various people going back and forth with our passports and paperwork and saw them photocopying our stuff and putting it in a Fedex envelope. I got nervous that our application was going to Islamabad for review and that it would take weeks, which apparently happens sometimes.

Then, a more older/senior-looking official called me over, handed me the passports, and wished me a nice trip. There was no interview or questioning.

We’d read various horror stories about visas taking weeks and did not know what to expect, so we were thrilled at the on-the-spot service. We were somewhat optimistic because Lizzy told us that the LA consulate is generally very easy.

CROSSING THE WAGAH BORDER FROM INDIA INTO PAKISTAN

We arranged a driver from our Amritsar hotel to the Wagah border. The drive was about 45 minutes. We reached a checkpoint, where our passport details were written down in a log book that looked like something out of the British Raj era. Then the driver took us to the Indian immigration office, and we parted ways.

We filled out departure cards, received our Indian exit stamps, and then our luggage was scanned. The old customs officer was the stereotypical bored guy on a power trip at a seldom-used border crossing who had nothing better to do than try to stir something up with some Western tourists to justify his existence. He asked us to open our bags, and made a half-baked attempt to look through them. He pulled out our zip-lock bag of health / emergency stuff with Advil, anti-diarrheals, antibiotics, sleep-aid, bandages, antihistamine, etc. He seemingly saw a bag with pill bottles, and figured it was a good excuse to hassle us. He asked, “where prescription.” We told him that they’re over-the-counter and basic medications as written on the bottles, except for the antibiotics which have the prescription taped to the bottle. This went back and forth for 3 minutes, with him mostly repeating, “where prescription.” Then a younger female officer and quickly looked at the zip-lock bag, and presumably told him that it was fine. Then he told us we were free to go, without even finishing looking through the bags. If we had a brick of cocaine in the 2nd bag, he wouldn’t have even noticed. Not an atypical lazy and incompetent officer on a power trip at an isolated land border crossing. This would not have happened at a major Indian airport that serves millions of people.

We walked out of the Indian immigration office, and were directed to sit on a shuttle bus. We waited on the bus for about 15 minutes, and then drove for 2 minutes to the Indian stadium at the border.

The actual border point is the gate between the Indian and Pakistani stadiums where the famous daily border closing ceremony is held. We walked through the Indian stadium, and our passports were checked several times before we walked across the gate.

Freshly in Pakistan, we walked through the Pakistani stadium and were directed to the Pakistani immigration office. Formalities on the Pakistani side were very routine – arrival card, luggage scanned, customs declaration. The agents were all friendly, and none of them acted as if Americans crossing over was any cause for concern.

We were asked if we had any alcohol, and I told them that we didn’t. I subconsciously “forgot” to mention that we bought a mini-bottle of souvenir Old Durbar whiskey we bought in Nepal. We don’t even know if a de minimus amount of alcohol was permitted or not, but our bags were not searched.

On both sides of the border, “porters” will accost crossers and take over their luggage. There’s no requirement that you use them (signs even say so), even if they try to force themselves on you. Unless you have lots of heavy luggage without wheels that you can’t handle yourself, you’re better off just shooing them away. They’re annoying and will slow you down.

Once we were processed into Pakistan, we were directed to a waiting area. We ended up waiting a half-hour for a Disneyland-esque toy train car to take us to the parking lot. It probably would have been a 10 minute walk, had we known.

While we were waiting, we realized that Uber and Careem won’t pick up at the border – despite everything that we had read online. We figured it would be better to change a small amount of USD cash into PKR to have money for a taxi rather than have to negotiate a taxi fare in USD. The porters handing around the waiting area all operate as money changers. They pretended to be reluctant to take a small USD bill, but we got a porter to give us a close-to-market rate for a $10 bill.

Once we arrived at the parking lot, we again checked and realized that there would be no Uber or Careem, So, we were prey to the taxi mafia. We’re generally very good taxi negotiators and don’t get ripped off much, but taxi mafia was completely ruthless and wouldn’t give an inch. We were obviously sitting ducks. Every negotiation tactic failed, and it was impossible to isolate the drivers and play them against each other. None of them were going to break rank and undercut the others. In the end, the mafia price was either 800 PKR for a tuk-tuk or 1000 PKR for a car, and we opted for the latter. Going the other way in an Uber, it would have been 400-500 PKR.

The drive from the border to our hotel in downtown Lahore ended up taking over 1.5 hours – double what we’d read it was supposed to take. The driver didn’t seem very bright, and kept getting lost and asking people where to go and didn’t seem to want to look at our Google Maps.

SITES IN LAHORE

We had 2.5 full days in Lahore, which was a little excessive. About 1.5 days (1 day to take in Lahore itself and a half day to visit the Wagah border ceremony) would be sufficient. We’d read that Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan and thought it would be useful to have some extra time to relax and take in the city. But we felt that the “cultural capital” bit is an exaggeration, and we didn’t at all get that kind of impression of Lahore.

The true highlight of Lahore was walking around, interacting with the locals and seeing the bustling walled city in action. The Wagah border ceremony was also pretty awesome. The historical sites in Lahore were mostly disappointing, gouge foreigners with rip-off entry fees, and are in terrible shape.

These are the places we visited in Lahore:

- Badshahi Mosque. This is a huge Mughal-era mosque. If you’ve seen the Jama Mosque in Delhi, you’ve basically seen the same building. The best part of visiting this mosque was interacting with all the locals – and non-local Pakistanis who had come from all over the country to visit. The small gallery near the entrance was worth seeing. It has relics from the time of Muhammad, including slippers that he supposedly wore.

- Lahore Fort. This is a huge Mughal-era fort, similar to the Red Fort (Delhi) and the Agra Fort. It’s in much worse condition than the Mughal forts in India; the buildings are crumbling, the grass is poorly maintained and there is quite a bit of trash. We weren’t really impressed. The foreigner entrance fee of ~$5 was confiscatory given the lack of any restoration work.

- Hazuri Bagh (Mughal Gardens). These gardens are between the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort. They look pretty, but, unfortunately, they’re now roped off and off limits.

- Iqbal Park and the Minar-e-Pakistan. There is a huge park adjacent to the Mosque and the Fort. The “Minar” is a huge modern minaret, and it’s in the middle of the park. Many locals were picnicking and hanging out in the park, and we made many friends just strolling along in the park.

- The Walled City. The walled city is near the Mosque and Fort, and it’s a crowded and bustling maze of narrow streets. It ended up being our favorite place for people watching and interacting. There are all sorts of shops – butchers, breads, garments, sweets, juices, etc. Some of the buildings are quite old and interesting to see. Several of the old gates into the walled city are in good shape.

- Wazir Khan Mosque. This Mughal-era mosque is the most known “site” within the walled city. It’s a colorful mosque, but badly in need of restoration. The shoe attendant wanted an excessive sum to allow us to climb the minaret, but we declined and he was annoyed. The views didn’t seem like they would have been impressive, so it wasn’t even worth the bother to negotiate him down to a reasonable price.

- Anarkali Bazaar. A huge night bazaar just south of the walled city. There was some good street food, but the stalls were nowhere as interesting as the shops in the walled city. Most of the stalls were selling Chinese-made garbage for locals (i.e., junky knock-off Western clothing), rather than culturally interesting local products.

- Jangahir’s Tomb. We had extra time and thought it might be worth a quick visit. It’s substantially north of the walled city, and the trip turned out to be a waste of time. It took a good 30-40 minutes each way due to traffic. We arrived and it looked dilapidated. We didn’t feel like paying the confiscatory ~$5 foreigner entry fee, and got fed up and left.

- Shalimar Gardens. These Mughal gardens are halfway between Lahore and the Wagah Border, and they’re commonly visited on the way to border ceremony. The gardens were a big disappointment – trash everywhere, structures badly in need of restoration, and lawns poorly maintained. This was yet another poorly maintained site with a confiscatory ~$5 foreigner entry fee that is likely not being directed to where it should.

- Wagah Border Closing Ceremony. This was a definite highlight of our Pakistan trip. We weren’t sure if the ceremony would be interesting in person when we had already watched YouTube videos of it. But the live atmosphere of the ceremony – the soldiers marching, the one-legged pre-ceremony performer, the audience cheering, the jingoism – made this very special in person. As foreigners, we were seated in the VIP section with proper chairs rather than bleachers. We couldn’t find exact timing information, but we were told that the ceremony begins at “sunset.” You should arrive very early to make sure you’ll get through the various security checkpoints and be comfortably seated in time for the ceremony. We showed up at the border about 2 hours before sunset, and it didn’t feel like we were too early.

ISLAMABAD & PESHAWAR

We were only in Islamabad itself for a brief overnight stop, so we didn’t see much. Islamabad is a planned city and it is surprisingly very green with trees and parks all over. There isn’t much in Islamabad in the way of “sites,” and the only “sites” we planned were the Faisal Mosque and the Pakistan Monument. We missed the Pakistan Monument because our KB guide did a poor job with the timing (see above), so the mosque was the only thing we really saw in Islamabad itself.

The Faisal Mosque was quite impressive. Modern mosques are often not so interesting because they’re just big and gaudy, but this mosque’s architecture was rather unique. Unfortunately, non-worshipers can’t go inside the main hall of the mosque.

Islamabad has two nearby World Heritage sites, Rohtas Fort and Taxila. We visited both:

Rohtas Fort was lame and hardly worth visiting. The fort is a much worse version of the Chittorgarh Fort in India. The fort is in really poor condition. The structures are falling apart. There is heaps of trash all around the major points of interest. There is a lot of ugly graffiti. There just isn’t much to see, and this is one of those sites that looks better in photos than in person.

Taxila was pretty interesting. Some of the ruins are in quite good shape, and it was neat to see potentially 3000 year old ruins – and ancient Buddhist ruins in Pakistan, no less. The custodians / guards were really annoying. They insisted on following us around and telling us useless information in broken English that we could barely understand, in the hopes “guide money.” They wouldn’t even leave even after we’d politely tell them to go away and that we won’t pay them. We skipped the museum; it was a rip-off separate ticket of an additional ~$5/person, and we generally are not keen on the typical dark, dusty, and outdated third-world museum.

Peshawar was quite fascinating. Our visit was rushed due to the incompetence of our driver from ATP, and we wish we had a little bit more time to explore. We mainly walked around the old city and explored and interacted with the people. Within the old city, there is a British clock tower, a historical mosque, and excavations of the city’s past. Peshawar, which is right near the Afghani border, almost seemed like a totally different country than Lahore. The Pashtun people look and dress very different than that of the Punjabis in Lahore, particularly the unique eye colors (think Afghan Girl). They were overwhelmingly warm and welcoming.

THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN

A major feature of visiting Pakistan is that the country is totally unspoiled by tourism and offers genuine interactions with the locals. The Pakistani people were truly a major highlight of our visit.

The vast majority of the Pakistani people we interacted with were genuinely nice, kind-hearted and amazingly hospitable people. Most people just wanted to meet us, shake our hands, talk to us, take selfies with us, and show us around – and had no ulterior motive. Street food vendors would often give us food and not let us pay for it. Almost every time we walked into a sweets shop, they would just hand us samples that we couldn’t refuse. Random folks who spoke decent English would show us around places and give us mini walking tours of their areas.

This is a country that sees very few Westerners, let alone Western tourists, and judging from the stares and attention we got, it seemed like a lot of people had never even seen a white person before. The Pakistanis are definitely not shy, and the ones who spoke some English were very curious about us.

Several people generously invited us to their homes, but we chose not to go to anyone’s home due to safety concerns. It’s disappointing to miss out on opportunities like this, but we didn’t think it was worth the small chance that somebody was up to no good. One interesting man we met, who was a former pro cricket player, said he’d love to have us over to his home but he thought it wouldn’t be smart for us to go to a stranger’s home.

That being said, we did run into some bad apples and noticed an aggressive streak from some of the people. On perhaps two or three occasions, religiously-dressed men came up to us and told my wife that it’s an Islamic country and she should cover her hair. (We were not in a mosque.) On one of these occasions, a group of hijab-clad teenage girls happened to be walking by and overheard this, and told my wife, “don’t listen to him, you can wear whatever you want in Pakistan.”

Some people were also overly aggressive or outright rude about selfies. It was flattering to feel like celebrities and have locals mob us for selfies all day. We’d do selfies with almost everyone, but a number of people were inappropriate about it. For example, a group of teenage boys was getting a little too close for comfort to my wife, and it made her uncomfortable. They had already taken plenty of selfies in many different combinations, but they kept wanting to take more and just wouldn’t take no. We said we had to go, and they kept following us and running up and trying to grab us for more selfies. Some other people would want selfies at the worst possible time (e.g., if we literally had food in our mouth or were trying to look at a map or were in the middle of taking a photo ourselves). We would tell them to wait, but they would just come up and take their selfies without waiting.

We also found it insulting that several women took selfies with my wife, but wouldn’t allow my wife to reciprocate. We’d sometimes take our own selfies with folks using our phones after they would take selfies with us using their phones. But my wife was rebuffed by other women on several occasions. They would say something about being Muslim women. We didn’t fully understand the logic – given that they were already posing for photos – but we found it disrespectful to my wife.

These bad apples take nothing away from the fact that the vast majority of the Pakistanis we interacted with were amazingly good people.

SAFETY

We had absolutely no safety issues in Pakistan. It would be naïve to think that Pakistan is a perfectly safe place where nothing can happen, just as it would be uninformed to think that Pakistan a nationwide terrorist training camp. With reasonable precautions, you’re probably as safe in Pakistan as in any major European city, if not safer.

We entered Pakistan the day after four days of violent nationwide riots by Islamists over the Pakistani Supreme Court vacating the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was convicted of blaspheming Muhammad on the basis of what the Supreme Court found was flimsy evidence. We saw photos of Islamists with clubs hitting cars and burning things on the roads. It certainly would not have been totally safe to be in Pakistan during these protests.

The reality is that Pakistan does have a sizeable Islamic extremist population, and there is a non-zero risk of something bad happening. In Iran, we felt that the overwhelming majority of the people in the large cities we visited were very secular and anti-government. But in Pakistan, we felt that there are a relatively greater number of fanatics out there and that we wouldn’t have wanted to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Do your research and try to get up-to-date information on what parts of Pakistan are safe. Certain parts of Pakistan are considered safe now, but they were very dangerous places several years ago. Anything can change.

We strictly adhered to our usual practice of telling everyone that we were Canadian, rather than American. Hundreds of people a day would ask us where we were from, and we felt that it wouldn’t be smart to needlessly make ourselves into potential targets. Our KB driver did tell us that the hardline types do have a great deal of animosity towards the US.

A WARNING ABOUT ADVENTURE TOURS PAKISTAN (ATP)

KB’s range of services is very limited, and we sought another local tour company to make some arrangements that we couldn’t make ourselves (driver for day trip to Taxila and Peshawar, driver for day trip in Karachi, book hotels that didn’t respond to our email inquiries).

Our driver for the Taxila and Peshawar day trip was totally incompetent. It seemed like he had never been to Taxila before, and he kept getting lost and aimlessly driving us around the site. At one ruin, he parked and had us walk with him for 15 minutes before we hit a dead end and had to walk back. It turned out the entrance to the ruins was a 2 minute walk the other direction.

And when we got to Peshawar, he drove us around the old city for an hour trying to find parking. We pleaded with him to either just let us out of the car and we could call him when we were ready, or to leave the old city and park somewhere nearby with better parking and take a tuk-tuk with us into the old city. It was just totally poor planning on his part. We wasted a ton of time due to his ineptitude.

Having such a poor experience with this driver, we decided we wanted to cancel our upcoming day trip with ATP in Karachi. We spoke with ATP’s manager while we were in the car, and he agreed to give us a full refund. He told us that a representative would meet us at the airport and give us our money back. The representative showed up gave me $64 less than the correct amount. We argued with him and told him that we were promised the entire amount, and he started to make various lame excuses that didn’t even make sense. After 15 minutes, he agreed to give us $40 more, and said he was told to give those additional $40 “if we argued.” After further argument, we ultimately couldn’t get him to give us the remaining $24 as per ATP’s agreement. We really had no leverage, and there was nothing to be done.

After we got home, we emailed ATP and told them that we were wronged and politely asked for our $24 back. We figured that chances were slim of ever seeing the $24 again, but thought they ought to know what happened. But ATP wrote back and said that they already gave us the entire refund of the full amount as they promised. We then wrote back and said once again that the representative withheld $24 – after previously withholding $64 – and that he must have stolen the $24 money if ATP actually did give him the entire amount to give to us. Then ATP wrote back a really nasty note saying that we were rude to the representative and we were lucky to get any refund at all. At that point, we weren’t going to get anywhere with them.

So, ATP couldn’t get its story straight – it’s not clear whether the representative stole the money ATP covered for him when we pointed it out, or whether ATP lied that they were ever going to give us a full refund as they promised. Either way, Adventure Tours Pakistan (ATP) is a dishonest and unprofessional tour company and should be avoided.

HOTELS

Hotels in Pakistan are much more expensive than elsewhere in South Asia and, at any given price range, there just aren’t many options from which to choose. Also, a lot of hotels did not even respond to email inquiries. These hotels probably aren’t at all used to dealing with foreigners. We generally stay at mid-range (3*) type of places, and this is where we selected:

Lahore – Hotel One Downtown. The location is very convenient to the walled city and the major tourist sites, it is apparently a well-regarded Pakistani chain. The room itself was very clean and comfortable. They upgraded us to a deluxe room, which was very large. There did not seem to be any other mid-range hotels that were conveniently situated for tourist purposes. While hotel is close to the tourist sites, the hotel it is rather creepy and seems isolated. The hotel is on a desolate street and occupies several floors in what appears to be a deserted office building. We thought we were the only ones staying in the entire hotel until the last night, when we happened to run into another tourist (whom I know from travel forums) who also thought he was the only one staying there. Separately, it was really weird that the included breakfast was served in the room, but there was no menu and we were to tell the breakfast guy (who barely spoke any English) what we wanted without having any idea what was available. We booked directly with the hotel by email, and paid 4999 PKR + 16% tax per night.

Islamabad – Hill View Hotel. This was a mid-range hotel that seemed to be a popular upscale hotel for local businessmen. The room was spacious and everything worked properly, and there were tons of staff around. The buffet breakfast was fairly extensive and tasty. The hotel is centrally located in Islamabad, not that there is much in the way of tourist sites. Our main complaint is that we got woken up at ~4am by a seemingly nearby call to prayer, but luckily we fell back asleep. We could not get a response to our emails, and booked through ATP for $73 for the one night.

Karachi – Hotel Mehran. We didn’t actually stay there because we didn’t make it to Karachi (see above), but this was our choice of a mid-range hotel that had good reviews and seemed similar in quality to the type of places we generally choose.

FOOD

Pakistani food was great. Street food is everywhere, and we ate almost exclusively street food so we could see what we were getting and not have to deal with any menu miscommunication. Pakistani food is similar enough to Northern Indian food, with a big emphasis on meats. The sweets (similar to Indian sweets) are delicious and all over. Fresh squeezed juices are also great. And the street food is dirt cheap – most street food items were probably the equivalent of ten or twenty cents.

We thankfully did not get sick it all, but we were careful what we ate and took the usual recommended precautions.

The food is very heavy and the vast majority of food is fried and/or drenched in oil. We noticed that a good portion of the Pakistanis – men, women, and even children -- are overweight or even downright obese. This certainly wasn’t at all the case elsewhere in the Subcontinent. We weren’t sure if Pakistani food is less healthy or if the Pakistanis are just better off and can afford more food.

GETTING AROUND WITHIN THE CITIES

We heavily relied on Uber to get around within cities. Uber was extremely convenient because it eliminated the language barrier of having to communicate our destination to a taxi driver who likely didn’t speak much English, if any. It also saved us the headache of negotiating fares, dealing with scammy taxi driver shenanigans, etc. It’s worth obtaining cellular data access in order to use Uber.

Uber offers both regular taxis (sedans) and tuk-tuks. We used either, depending on where we were going. It’s faster to take a tuk-tuk for short distances in congested areas, especially near the walled city. A sedan is more comfortable for longer journeys.

As previously mentioned in the Wagah border crossing section, Uber and Careem do not work at the Wagah border. The only time we took regular (non-Uber) taxis was twice at the Wagah border (entering the country, and returning from the ceremony). The taxi mafia is awful at the Wagah border, as previously discussed.

FLIGHTS (PAKISTAN AIR)

Pakistan Air (PK) is a totally unreliable mess of a third-world airline. As previously mentioned (see Basic Itinerary), we showed up at ISB airport to find that our Pakistan Air (PK) to KHI had been cancelled. We have no idea why the flight was cancelled, but it supposedly had been cancelled three days prior. We looked online the afternoon of the flight, and it showed an on time departure. PK “said” they tried calling to notify us of the cancellation, which I don’t necessarily believe. PK certainly did not email us using the email that was on file and used to purchase the tickets. Absolutely unacceptable.

The next flight to KHI was not departing ISB until 10am the next morning, which would have put us at our hotel in Karachi until 1pm or so, thereby ruining two thirds of the day. After two unpleasant day trips in Pakistan with lousy guides and drivers, we weren’t looking forward to our day trip with a driver in Karachi. We then made a decision to call AA and change our QR award flight from KHI-DOH to leave the next morning from ISB-DOH.

We asked the PK agents at ISB to provide us with a hotel room for the night since it was 10pm and they left us stranded, and they refused. A nice young Pakistani woman who spoke perfect English overheard what was going on. She took sympathy on us and told us that PK is awful and not to let the airline be a reflection of the rest of Pakistan, and she argued with them and got them to agree to give us a hotel room.

The PK station manager took us into his office to get our tickets refunded and get us booked into a hotel. This guy was one biggest buffoons we’ve ever dealt with, and made American DMV workers seem highly competent. We figured that he must have got his job through family connections. We sat around for two hours watching him try to send emails to people to request refunds for our tickets. He kept doing nonsensical things like putting our PNR in the “To:” field of the email, and seemed totally confused why Microsoft Outlook was giving him an error message when he tried to send the email. We tried offering to him, and he just wouldn’t listen.

We got so tired of the station manager that we figured it’d be morning by the time he arranged our hotel. We figured we’d just try to check in early for our flight and sleep in the elite lounge. We told him that we were going to the bathroom, took all our stuff, and never saw him again.

Six weeks later, PK still hasn’t fully refund our tickets despite dozens of emails back and forth and saying they’re working on it and assuring us that it will be done. More incompetence from PK. We disputed the charges with our credit card issuer in order to protect ourselves in case the refund never comes through, which we suspect won’t.

For what it’s worth, QR’s check-in counters were open for the 3am flight to DOH but they would not let us drop off our bags for our 9am flight so that we could head to the air-side lounge. However, the QR agent directed us to sleep in a secured and private VIP section of the airport with nice leather couches. It turned out to be a much more comfortable night’s sleep than what the lounge would have been.

ISB AIRPORT LOUNGE

The shared elite lounge at ISB airport is the CIP lounge, and it is very mediocre. It is clean and looked new-ish, but there is barely enough seating at peak times. The morning food selection was very minimal and consisted of cereal, stale cookies, raisins, etc. The foot was not refilled as it was eaten up. No showers, one single-person bathroom for each gender, no toothbrushes, no alcohol.

MISCELLANEOUS:

- Money: We used an ATM once, in Lahore, and it worked fine. Our Lahore hotel took credit cards, but almost nowhere else in Pakistan besides hotels is likely to take credit cards.

- Pollution: Consider bringing a respirator, particularly for use when riding in tuk-tuks. The pollution in Lahore didn’t seem as bad as in Dhaka and Kathmandu, but it was disgusting enough for all spending more than 5 minutes in a tuk-tuk.
LAX_Esq is offline  
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Dec 26th, 2018, 11:53 PM
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Join Date: May 2004
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WOW!!!!! What a trip report--on so many levels!! Great, honest, informative, funny detail and description.My heart was in my throat imagining it was like to go through some of this, eg the immigration checkpoint. How on earth do you keep your cool?
You and your wife are gutsier than I, that's for sure!
I was briefly in Pakistan in "the good old days" in 1971, prior to entering India, and have wonderful memories of Peshawar in particular. To read your updates is fascinating!
Smart to say you are Canadian. Coincidentally, I'd just re-read about the horrific kidnapping of Daniel Pearl in Karachi. Your timing was lucky, coming after protests regarding the Aasia Bibi verdict.
Seeing the Wagagh Border ceremony from the Pakistani side must've been especially fascinating! Did you get into the spirit? We did from the Indian (Atari) side, crying "Hindustan Zindabad!" while those across the border shouted "Pakistan Zindabad!" If only international diplomacy could be of this friendly if passionate nature!

Thanks! Kudos to you for the trip as well as the report.
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Dec 27th, 2018, 01:18 AM
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Fascinating trip report LAX esq. I can't say that Pakistan has ever been on my "to do" list and probably still isn't but all kudos to you for going to such a destination with all the problems it entails. It's probably not the most relaxing/enjoyable trip you have ever taken, but I'm sure it wil have been one of the most memorable.
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Dec 27th, 2018, 03:27 PM
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Thanks so much for the wonderfully detailed TR, which brought back some memories! I was fortunate to travel through Xinjiang and down the Karakoram Highway back in 2001 (with an Intrepid tour group). I have to agree that now is not the time to visit Xinjiang, and the towns were already being Han-ified in 2001. However, I absolutely loved driving the Karakoram and spending time in the northeast, and wish I might to do that again. While the Ismailis were pretty relaxed (alcohol was even available if you knew how to ask), further down the Highway people seemed much more fundamentalist and covering up essential for women. I missed out on Peshawar as we had crossed the border the day of 9-11 and to leave earlier than planned.

Don't know whether it's still operational, but in Islamabad I visited the folk museum as well as the mosque.

I was interested by the need for an LOI. Back in 2001 I had no issues with getting a visa, and most people in the group got theirs at the border. However, I was traveling on a UK passport and the others were Aussies and Kiwis.
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Dec 28th, 2018, 09:43 AM
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WoW!! You provided complete detail. Did you visit Gilgat, Kashmir and hill stations?
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Jan 3rd, 2019, 04:19 AM
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Absolutely phenomenal trip report. I've been to 90 countries and I can't imagine doing what you did! Congratulations on having the cojones to dive right into a place like that, survive it and make it back out with your sense of humor and perspective intact.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 03:12 AM
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WOW this winter i visit Deer & Swat it,s Very Beautiful place in Pakistan.
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