I first travelled to Pakistan in 2008 for a personal photographic project.
One of the biggest issues was telling my family where I was going. News of my upcoming trip was often received with a moment of silence on the phone, followed by a very anxious reaction.
Within a couple of days of landing in Pakistan I was confused. What I was experiencing was not supposed to be like this. Everyone outside of this country will tell you what a dangerous place Pakistan is, yet I had never been so warmly greeted by total strangers in a foreign country. I was treated with overwhelming generosity, kindness and hospitality. The other stuff the media focuses on is there but you have to go looking for it. What I experienced was completely at odds with my expectations.
The traffic is the craziest you will ever see but the locals have awesome driving skills. Many things defy logic, but this country defies expectations at every turn. That’s what makes it such an amazing travel destination. You have to see it if you consider yourself to be a globetrotter, and here are just a handful of the highlights.
Research reveals the country to be the second most popular place in the world for mountain climbing. Five of the world’s 14 peaks above 8,000 metres in height are located in Pakistan. Since 2008, I have been back to the country a number of times to lead photographic tours, and one of the regions I love to visit is the meeting place of the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges in the northern part of the country.
The capital Islamabad is a useful stopover to get my bearings and meet my guide — Saeed Khan — now a close friend, as we have worked together many times. The first leg of the journey is the long drive north towards Gilgit-Baltistan along the Karakoram Highway (KKH). In 2008 this 650-kilometre stretch of road was little more than a long series of large potholes with a bit of road around them. Ten years on, the improvements to the KKH have been huge and the drive north is now much faster and more pleasant.
The scenery along the way is incredible. Eventually the mountains make an appearance in the distance. Regardless of how far away they are, you know they’re big. Nanga Parbat (8,126 metres high) is the first peak you’ll see. Eventually you’ll come to Gilgit and Hunza in the Nagar valley. The views are breathtaking, the local food is delicious (I hope you like meat), and did I mention the people are very welcoming? Glaciers, traditional villages and historic forts are the main attractions.
The drive from Gilgit to Skardu across the Deosai plains (the highest series of plains in the country at 4,120 metres above sea level) is also worth every minute of the time you’ll spend in your jeep. Skardu itself is a pleasant town. It’s a well-known destination for mountain climbers as it’s the starting point if you are heading up to K2 (the second tallest mountain in the world) base camp. It’s ‘only’ a five-day trek.
The region around Skardu consists of sandy desert with huge sand dunes — unexpected at this altitude. The Shigar Valley and its huge dunes are a must-see. Another location well worth seeing is Upper Kachura Lake — the only natural spring-water lake in Pakistan and the highest natural spring in the world. It’s great for a dip if you have the courage (the water is cold!).
Rather than backtracking, it makes sense to fly from Skardu back to Islamabad. On the 45-minute flight over the Himalayan range, I am always left speechless. There is ice and snow as far as the eye can see. It’s best to sit on the left-hand side of the plane to enjoy the view.
Islamabad itself is well worth exploring, together with its twin city Rawalpindi (Pindi). This city is older than the capital and the Raja bazaar is a must-visit, if like me, you love getting lost in the back streets of a market. The Markazi Jamia Masjid mosque (also known as the blue mosque) is the oldest mosque in the city of Pindi and has a fantastic colorful mosaic at its entrance.
In the markets, visitors are stopped many times. ‘Hello sir. How are you? Where are you from? Is everything OK? Welcome to Pakistan!’ Half-way through each trip I lose count of the numerous cups of tea I am offered, and the number of strangers that come up to me for a hug and a selfie! Yes, you read correctly. In this country, you’re a ready-made celebrity! If you really have time for a chat with the locals, start talking about Australia vs Pakistan in cricket…
The majestic city of Lahore — four hours’ drive southeast of Islamabad – is another must-visit. Inside the old walls of this city, tucked away in the back streets, is Wazir Khan Mosque. I have seen this place three times during recent trips and each time I find myself staring at it as if I were seeing it for the first time. Then I remember to take some pictures! This mosque is in all the Pakistan guide books. You have to make time to go and see it. Right next door you will find the Shahi Hammam — a Persian-style bathhouse built in 1635. It’s very well preserved.
Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque can easily take a whole afternoon to visit. Be sure to take plenty of water. There is a lot to see and once again, you’ll be stopped many times for a selfie and quick chat with the locals. When you get hungry, the restaurants in Food St Fort Road are great places to see the grand mosque at sunset and enjoy a local curry or BBQ.
The people of Pakistan are very proud and extremely patriotic. This is evident in a visit to the Wagah border with India, east of Lahore, for the daily flag lowering ceremony. Each country puts on a show trying to outdo the other, and the display of patriotism from both sides is overwhelming.
These are just some of the highlights of visiting Pakistan. I now host an 11-day photo tour to this fascinating country twice a year, which I call ‘an introduction to Pakistan’. After my most recent trip, I am already counting the months until I can go back with photographers of every level who are eager to see, experience, and learn new things from this incredible culture.
Do you have any tips for first time travellers to Pakistan? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Travellers to Pakistan should exercise a high degree of caution. Check www.smarttraveller.gov.au for the latest regional security updates.
Cover image: Andrea Francolini
Andrea Francolini is a Sydney-based sailing photographer. He conducts regular photo tours to Pakistan for small groups up to six people. Tours to other destinations such as Japan and Italy are in the making. He is also the founder of My First School — a trust which has the aim of facilitating education in northern Pakistan.