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|Introduction to Pakistan
Few Westerners know much about Pakistan beyond media impressions of Islamic fundamentalism, communal violence and martial law, but it contains some of Asia's most mind-blowing landscapes, extraordinary trekking, a multitude of cultures and a long tradition of hospitality.
It's the site of some of the earliest human settlements, home to an ancient civilisation rivalling those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the crucible of two of the world's major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. It's far more than the last hurdle before reaching India.
Travellers are advised to avoid Karachi after 5 people were killed and 20 injured after a suicide bombing in a Shia mosque. This sparked street riots where 6 workers at a fast food outlet were burned alive. The attack followed a similar suicide bomb in Islamabad where 19 were killed and up to 100 injured in late May. Fears of further sectarian unrest makes the city an unsafe area for travellers.
Several of Pakistan's provinces present security challenges to travellers. Military operations occur regularly along the Kashmiri Line of Control. Keep abreast of latest developments.
Avoid travel to Waziristan, to northern and western Baluchistan, western North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Agencies (FATA), and border areas other than official crossings. In Sindh Province, anti-Western sentiment occasionally bubbles over into violence. Visitors to upper Sindh are encouraged to notify authorities beforehand.
Sectarian violence in Punjab Province has eased, although Christians are still occasionally targeted. Trekkers heading for Gilgit, Hunza, Chitral and the upper Swat Valley should hire reputable guides to ward against assault.
Full country name: Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Area: 803,940 sq km
Population: 150.69 million
Capital City: Islamabad
People: Punjabi, Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashtu, Urdu, Baloch, Hindko, Brahui
Language: Urdu, Panjabi, English, Sindhi
Religion: 97% Muslim, 3% Christian and Hindu
GDP: US$282 billion
GDP per capita: US$2,000
Annual Growth: 5%
Major Industries: Textiles, sugar, vegetable oils, agricultural products, cement, fertilisers, steel, chemicals, sporting goods, carpets
Major Trading Partners: US, Japan, Germany, UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE
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Visas: A 30-day landing permit will be issued to most Western nationals entering Pakistan without a visa, but it's probably safer to get a three-month tourist visa in your passport before you set off (with the possible option of a three-month extension).
Health risks: malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, Japanese B encephalitis (This occurs in rural areas)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +5
Dialling Code: 92
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Nationwide celebrations include Ramadan, a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting which changes dates every year (as the Islamic calendar differs from the Gregorian one); Eid-ul-Fitr, two to three days of feasting and goodwill that marks the end of Ramadan; Eid-ul-Azha, when animals are slaughtered and the meat shared between relatives and the needy; and Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, which celebrates Mohammad's birthday.
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|Best time to Visit
The best time for travelling to Pakistan depends on which part of the country you intend to visit. Generally speaking, the southern parts of Pakistan including Sind (Karachi), Baluchistan, Punjab and southern North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) are best visited in the cooler months between November and April. After that it gets uncomfortably hot. Northern areas like Punjab (Islamabad and Lahore), Peshawar, Azad Jammu Kashmir and northern NWFP are best seen during May to October before a frosty winter sets in. The weather may be a little stormy during this time, but the mountain districts are usually still accessible.
Try to avoid visiting Pakistan during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which occurs in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar (not the Gregorian calendar). Check the web for Ramadan dates or you may find yourself involuntarily joining in the fast, because activity is kept to a minimum and food is hard to find during daylight hours.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Pakistani Rupee
By staying in hostels or dorms and eating like a local you can get by on as little as US$10-15 a day. If, however, you were looking for a moderate touch of luxury you could spend as much as $30-40 a day which could get you accommodation that included a satellite TV, a desk, a balcony and a spotlessly clean bathroom. As in any place you can spend as much as you like to live in the lap of luxury and stay in swanky hotels. It's worth noting that rooms and food are cheaper in the north than in the south.
Both travellers' cheques and cash are easy to change throughout the country, but commissions on cheques can be high. Apart from top-end hotels, most places won't accept credit cards as payment although you can often use them for cash advances at western banks. Facilities for validation seem better for Visa then MasterCard. Occasionally a tattered note will be firmly refused as legal tender, and often in the smaller towns the appearance of a 1000 or 500 rupee note will cause consternation and an inability to provide change, so make sure you get some smaller notes when buying your rupees.
Baksheesh isn't so much a bribe as a way of life in Pakistan. It can apply to any situation and is capable of opening all sorts of doors, both literal and metaphorical. Anything from a signature on a document to fixing a leaking tap can be acquired through the magic of baksheesh. Most top-end hotels will automatically add a 5-10% service charge to your bill, so any extra tipping is entirely up to you. Taxi drivers routinely expect 10% of the fare, and railway porters charge an officially-set Rs 7. The only time that a gratuity might not be welcome is in the rural areas where it runs counter to Islamic obligation to be hospitable.
If baksheesh is a way of life, bargaining is a matter of style, particularly in the many Pakistani bazaars. Unlike the western hesitancy for bargaining, shopkeepers in Pakistani love to bargain as long as it's done with style and panache. Bargaining usually begins with an invitation to step inside for a cup of tea followed by a little bit of small talk, a casually expressed interest by yourself in a particular item, a way-too-high price mentioned by the seller, a way-too-low counter offer by yourself and eventually, after much comic rolling of eyes, a handshake and mutual satisfaction for both parties. Bargaining should always be accompanied by smiles, good humour and an ability not to get fixated on driving the price into the ground.
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Azad Jammu & Kashmir
The main asset of the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir is their natural beauty - unfortunately, Pakistan's 16km (10mi) security zone means most of the truly scenic parts are now off limits. What's left is Neelum Valley, Jhelum Valley and forested highlands to the south.
However, even these areas may be out of bounds, depending on the fluctuating political climate; make sure to check restrictions before you travel.
There are flights daily from Islamabad into Muzaffarabad and Rawalakot. Crossings into Muzaffarabad by land are restricted to Bararkot in Manshera, or Kohala in Murree. You can enter Rawalakot by bus or wagon from Rawalpindi. Other more direct routes are off limits to foreigners as they run close to the government research centre in the Punjab.
Pakistan's commercial centre and largest city is a sprawling place of bazaars, hi-tech electronic shops, scurf-infested older buildings and modish new hotels. Its sights are spread far and wide, so a taxi or rickshaw is necessary to travel between them.
A good place to start is the Quaid-i-Azam Mausoleum, a monument to Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. More impressive is the white-marbled Defence Housing Society Mosque with its single dome, claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world. Above the mosque is the birthplace of the Aga Khan.
The capital of Punjab is Pakistan's cultural, educational and artistic centre, and easily the most visited city in the country. With its shady parks and gardens, its clash of Moghul and colonial architecture, and the exotic thrill of its congested streets and bazaars, it's not hard to see why.
A collection of some of the city's attractions include: The Mall, an area of parks and buildings with a decidedly British bent; Lahore Museum, the best and biggest in the country; Kim's Gun, the cannon immortalised in Kipling's classic Kim; Aitchison College, an achingly beautiful public school that boasts Imran Khan as a former pupil; Lahore Fort, filled with stately palaces, halls and gardens; and the Old City, where a procession of rickshaws, pony carts, hawkers and veiled women fill the narrow lanes.
The Northern Areas see few travellers, but those who brave the unruly terrain normally end up in Gilgit. There's not much in the city, save a bazaar that's full of Central Asian traders, but it's an excellent base for alpine walks, trout fishing and historical ruins in the countryside.
Baltistan, once an unexplored dead end, is now privvy to world-class mountaineering, fine treks and lovely scenery. More accessible and just as striking - check out the irrigated terraces rippling down the slopes - is the region of Hunza, Nagyr & Gojal towards the Chinese border.
Northwest Frontier Province
Most visits begin in Peshawar, the rough and ready provincial capital. The highlight here is the Old City - a brawl of vendors selling everything from tribal jewellery to leather pistol holsters, while clopping horse-drawn tongas choke the crowded streets.
Just outside Peshawar is the Smugglers Bazaar and it's definitely not what you'd expect: turbanned merchants in tents have been replaced by Westernised malls stocking the latest TVs, VCRs and refrigerators. There's even a shop flogging Marks & Spencer's merchandise.
Punjab is Pakistan's most fertile province, rich in both agriculture and ancient history. It's also one of the more stable of the country's regions, and travellers should have few of the problems that are faced further south and in the north.
The prosperous and hospitable town of Bahawalpur is a gentle introduction to the area. From here you can journey into Cholistan - a sandy wasteland dotted with nomadic communities and wind-swept forts - or the Lal Suhanra National Park, an important wildlife reserve.
The capital and only place of any size in the parched, barren province of Baluchistan may be light on ancient monuments but it's fit to bursting with a vigorous blend of peoples, wide tree-lined boulevards and sterling British architecture.
Even more compelling, Pakistan's fruitbowl has a dramatic setting, with a mountainous backdrop on all sides. Don't miss the impressive Archaeological Museum of Baluchistan, the fort or the city's many colourful bazaars - great places to pick up marble, onyx and the finest carpets in Pakistan.
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