Practical Travel Guide
Almost everyone needs a visa for Pakistan. Pakistani visas are only issued in your country of residence. Don’t leave home without a visa if you plan to visit Pakistan, getting one on the road is impossible (unless you send your passport back home). We got our visa in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Different embassies have different rules. Here are a couple of general pointers:
- Recommended cities for itinerary: Islamabad, Taxila, Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi
- Avoid mentioning: Gilgit/Hunza, Peshawar, Chitral, KPK province, Balochistan province, trekking in north, entering via China (Sost).
- Get LOI even if not stated as a requirement. We got ours from Snowland Tours, but are not sure they are still in operation.
- LOI is valid for 3 months. So you must submit your application to embassy in 3 months.
- Letter of employer is only necessary for business visa.
- Officially you need a confirmed plane ticket. We faked ours, but heard reports of people not needing one at all
- Visas usually issued for 1 or 3 months. Ours was issued for 45 days.
- Your visa will have a “good for journey up to” date. You must enter Pakistan before this date.
- We had no problem getting a Pakistani visa, obtaining ours in one day. Some were not so lucky
Pakistan is an extremely cheap country. At the time of writing €1 was 117 rupees and $1 was 100 rupees.
Food & drinks
- Water or soda: 30 – 50 Rs
- Tea: 10 – 30 Rs
- Breakfast and lunch: 30 – 60 Rs
- Dinner: 60 – 150 Rs (there is street food galore)
- Budget hotels: 800 – 1,200 Rs
- Mid range: 1,200 – 3,000 Rs
- Museums: 20 Rs
- Historical sights: 500 Rs
- National Parks: 800 Rs
- Mosques: free
For more info, check out our backpacking in Pakistan budget report.
Pakistan has a myriad of transport options. Train, bus and minibus are most common for long distance travel. For shorter distances use either rickshaws (south of Islamabad), taxis (Islamabad) or Jeeps (north of Islamabad).
Pakistan has an extensive rail network. Trains are relativly comfortable, albeit a bit slow. Prices are reasonable, unless you want AC class. It is advisable to book your ticket ahead of time, and with the help of a local. English is rarely spoken, and without help you might end up with a standing-only ticket.
Check the Pakistan Railway website for schedules and fares. The website is not the easiest to use, but it’ll do.
Bus and minibus
Pakistan’s array of bus options is sometimes dizzying. From crappy minibuses, to bedazzled local buses and a superbly run Daewoo service, you have a lot of choice. Our preference goes to Daewoo, or it’s northern equivalent, NATCO. These services are professional, leave on time and are very comfortable. Definitely worth the extra rupees.
Prices depend on the type of bus, we’ve had super luxurious buses with WiFi and all, but generally you pay around 1,500 Rs for a five hour journey. You can usually book tickets the same day at the bus station or through your hotel. Note that Daewoo has its own stations, so make sure you go here and not to the local bus station.
Prices for local buses are much cheaper, but don’t be surprised if you have to share your seat with a goat. Or sit on the roof.
For shorter hops there are usually minibuses available. Sometimes there is a minibus yard, sometimes they leave from a roundabout and sometimes nobody knows from where they leave. Make sure to ask several locals if you’re not sure. Minibus prices should be set, but don’t be surprised if the ticket hawker tries to make a little extra money. A minibus shouldn’t be much more than 200 Rs for a five hour journey. If the prices seems to high, try to negotiate.
Rickshaws have a somewhat bad reputation, but in our experience they’re a great way of getting around. There are no set prices, though, and sometimes you have to drive a hard bargain. As a basic rule of thumb, the actual price is 50% of what the rickshaw driver quotes you. In some cases even less. Our strategy was to counter 70% below what the rickshaw driver quoted, and we usually got to a decent price.
Don’t be afraid to walk away if the price seems to high. There are thousands of rickshaws around, and chances are the driver will change its mind and give you a decent price after all.
Pricing is a bit tricky, but a 30 minute drive should cost about 150 Rs.
The only place you really need a taxi is Islamabad. In our experience taxi drivers are a lot less friendly, and a lot more stubborn, than rickshaw drivers. If at all possible, ask a local to arrange the taxi and negotiate on the the price. Otherwise you’ll have to bargain hard yourself. Half an hour of driving should cost around 500 Rs.
Many places in the Northern Areas, such as Fairy Meadows and Deosai, are only accessible by Jeep. We’ve been told there are public Jeep routes, but never found them. So unless you’re in the know, you’ll have to rent a Jeep yourself.
Prices are usually fixed, and on some routes, such as to Fairy Meadows, non-negotiable. It pays to wait around and see if you can share a Jeep with other people going your way. A Jeep to Fairy Meadows is 6,500 Rs, and a Jeep to Deosai is 8,000 Rs for a day trip and 12,000 Rs for an overnight trip. Hotels can arrange Jeeps for you, but it will usually be more expensive. You’re best bet is to ask friendly locals what a decent rate should be.
Afghanistan – Pakistan border
Although there are several border crossings, all are closed to toursits. This seems unlikely to change in the near future.
China – Pakistan border
Open to tourists. You can either take a bus from Sost (in Pakistan) or go individually, although the latter requires a guide on the Chinese side, which is very expensive. This border crossing is the highest border crossing in the world and is open from April to November. Check locally since weather conditions could affect this.
Iran – Pakistan border
Due to several incidents in the past, this border has a bad reputation, and many people decide to fly from Iran or take the long way around through other Stans and China. We did this crossing and don’t recommend it unless you have absolutely no other choice.
India – Pakistan border
The only border you can cross with certainty is at Wagah, also the site of the famous border closing ceremony.
Tipping in Pakistan
Tipping is not a big deal, and we’ve never been asked for a tip. If you charter a taxi for a day or take a private tour, it’s nice to tip if you are satisfied, but it’s not expected. If you do tip, don’t give more than 5-10%, since you don’t want to raise expectations for future travelers.
Pakistanis might be the most hospitable people on the planet. Don’t be surprised if you never make it to your intended destination because an amiable Pakistani kidnapped you for tea and food. Don’t worry if someone approached you on the street. No one is out for your money, they just want to talk to you and probably invite you to their home to meet the family and have tea. Accept unless you have to catch a bus or something.
Girls: Although headscarfs aren’t mandatory, it pays to have one on you. Pakistan is a very conservative country, and in some places you won’t see many women on the street, so dress modestly. Pakistani dresses are very colorful though, and we suggest you buy one or two at the local bazaar. People will appreciate it.
Boys: In some places, such as Hunza or Islamabad, shorts are okay, but you won’t see many people wearing them. In general, it pays to dress modestly. We recommend you buy shalwar kameez, a very comfortable Pakistani outfit. Sebastiaan swears by them and wouldn’t wear anything else.
Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, and its laws are based on sharia law. It has some of the most draconian blasphemy laws in the world. You should always be respectful of Islam and local culture. However, foreigners will hardly be hassled, and we’ve met many Pakistanis who openly spoke out against the strict rules.
Women in Pakistan
Unfortunately Pakistan hasn’t entered the 21st century when it comes to women’s rights. There are many places where you won’t see any women on the street, and especially in more rural areas women are treated like second class citizens. They often have no say in whom they get to marry, and are expected to just pop out babies.
Women who speak out against this are sometimes killed in the name of “honor”. As a foreigner you will mostly be treated with respect, though, and besides a lot of stares Alex was never really bothered. If someone does bother you, slap the person and make a scene. Pakistanis are very protective of foreign visitors and someone will come to your aid.