When we mentioned we would travel to Pakistan, our friends thought we were somewhat crazy. And since our trip there, the first question people ask is the same. Is Pakistan safe to travel to?
To give some context to our travel, we explored Pakistan for two months from mid-July to mid-September. We spent most of our time in the north of Pakistan, mostly around the Gilgit-Baltistan mountainous area, and around the Karakorum Highway. We also spend some time around Chitral, the Kalash Valleys, as well as Islamabad and Lahore in Pakistani Punjab.
These two months are by no mean making us Pakistan experts, nor should there be an absolute reference about all things Pakistani. We knew nothing about Pakistan before we arrived, and while we still don’t know much, we are a little bit less ignorant. And because of our own assumptions pre-trip, we hope to break some of the misconceptions one might have when thinking about Pakistan.
So what’s our take after these two months? We loved our time in Pakistan, and we hope that after reading this blog post, you will also feel the urge to visit this extraordinary country as what most people think of it might be limited on how TV portraits it – very rarely but usually less than favorable. Granted, not everything is perfect, but overall, our trip to Pakistan is one of the highlights of our world trip so far (in the top 3 with Mongolia and Papua New Guinea).
Again, these reflections are from our personal experience. Safety is a particular notion, and we can only recommend you to check the advice of your government before visiting for their official Pakistan travel advice.
This post contains affiliate links, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using these links – at no cost to you.
Why Travel to Pakistan?
We love the mountains, and the high peaks and summits of Pakistan are what drew us first to the infamous Central Asia country. But as we would quickly realize, the stunning landscape and snowy summits are not the only amazing aspects of Pakistan.
So if you wonder what to make of Pakistan, think about:
- Hiking and trekking some of the highest mountains in the world. K2 anyone?
- Dancing with the Kalash, some of the oldest cultures in Pakistan dating back to the pre-Islamic time
- Admiring one of the fancily decorated psychedelic trucks
- Trying salt tea or pink tea as per its color
- Driving along the stunning Karakoram Highway
- Experiencing the incredible Pakistani hospitality, one of a kind in our mind
- Learning about the ancient treasures of the Indus Valley civilization in the Mohenjo Daro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Hearing the diversity of the country with one of the 74 living languages of Pakistan.
- Learning about the traditional way of life and village life
What is this all about, you may ask? Well, let us share some of our trip experiences.
Endless Pakistani Hospitality
Pakistani hospitality is unsurpassed.
We have traveled in over 50 countries, from Africa to Europe, the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia. We have been welcomed in so many places, in so many different ways. But the Pakistani hospitality stands high above them all. We came to the mountains, but we stayed for the people.
Right from our first days in Islamabad, a simple “As-Salaam-Alaikum” greeting would change a stern face into a smiley one, or at least a nod of the head and smirk. And as we engaged in discussion with Pakistanis, they would more often than not wonder why we came to visit Pakistan, so few people travel to the country. We were frequently asked for selfies by people of all ages, women and men equally.
Cups of chai after cups of chai, so many strangers invited us in their modest home where they kindly share their meager resources. Fellow travelers paid for our meals as we rode together the dusty roads snaking along the raging rivers. I was invited to dance during a festival by women; we attended a baby girl homecoming ceremony, funeral, or the opening of a new mobile library. Seats were offered in crowded buses, sleeping cots in a home, dry apricots by the side of the road…
Here are some of the most selfless acts we experienced.
- A complimentary boat ride as we were looking at boat options in Attabad Lake (even though we offered to pay for a ride).
- A construction plank brought by one of the nearby workers for crossing a wide creek as he saw us searching for a narrower spot.
- A delivery right to our guesthouse of the hiking poles I had forgotten in the hitchhiked ride a few days before, for which the driver drove three hours back and forth to do so (though we had first offered to come and pick them up ourselves in the morrow).
- A tuk-tuk driver, with whom we had agreed for a 500 RPs ride, offered to pay for our Lahore Fort entrance tickets. Which we quickly stopped, especially as the prices for Foreigners are usually way higher than for local Pakistani (average 30-100 rps for Pakistani, compared to 500 rps for foreigners).
- A student we went on the bus heading to Machollo came back to check on us hearing we had issues finding our bus. We caught a motorbike ride through Kaphlu without compensation, the owner even refusing money for the gas.
- A jeep driver came to our hotel – not only once, but twice – to ensure we got on the right bus after he heard that two foreigners were headed toward his village.
- A top-ranking police officer took us on a wild ride on his motorbike as we chased down the NATCO bus that had forgotten us at the checkpoint.
Pakistani Culture: A Country of Deep Traditions
Part of that incredible hospitality in Pakistan is thanks to its Muslim traditions, where a guest is a blessing and must be given the best welcome possible.
And Pakistan is a deeply traditional country, where men and women still wear traditional clothes. In cities like Karachi and Lahore, you might see more people wearing Western garb, but the Shalwar Kameez and Kurtas are by far the most common sights among men and women.
Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, was our first stop. The neighborhood we stayed in is a mix of small shops, a couple of hotels, a few local restaurants, all lined around a handful of trees and side streets. What struck me first was men filling shops and restaurants. Many with thick beards or mustaches, all wearing the traditional Shalwar Kameez, the long pant and chemise outfit. Very few to almost no women and the rare ones we saw wore the veil.
In my ignorance of anything Pakistani but with my mind filled with Western-media news and programs, I immediately (and shamefully) thought of highly conservative Muslims. Being the only woman around, though, in the company of Bruno, I felt some unease. Stares followed us as we walked, and we sat at an open terrace restaurant to get some food. Again the only woman there, I was not sure whether I could stay or not.
What we came to realize as the day passed, and even more so as we explored different areas of Pakistan, is that many Pakistanis dress traditionally, and while of course Pakistani are mostly conservative Muslim, that doesn’t equate extremism and terrorism.
Culture of Pakistan
With over 70 languages spoken, it comes to no surprise Pakistan is a mix of culture and social customs. The population of Pakistan is mostly Sunny Muslims, but also has Chia Muslims and even non-Muslims populations like the Kailash, Hindus, and Catholics. Some areas are more conservative than others.
Chitra tends to be more conservative. We saw several young travelers from Karachi, girls and boys wearing jeans and going camping with friends in northern Pakistan. Lahore bears some similarities to its neighboring Delhi in terms of colors and food. Islamabad is a planned city featuring Faisal Mosque, Pakistan’s largest, and where some areas see very few women in the streets though other.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to the culture of the mountains. Some valleys are Sunny, others Chia, some Ismaleies, some Kalash. Depending on the valleys, women can be seen from full chador like around Chitral to no shall at all as we saw around the Hunza Valley.
Conditions of Women in Pakistan
Pakistan is home to a traditional Muslim society, where society is strongly patriarchal. Many women cover their hair, even little girls. In some places like Chitral, a few women even wear the full covering burka. Most shopkeepers are men. And Sharia Law is part of the Constitution of Pakistan, and honor killings are not unheard.
Yet the same constitution officially recognized equality between men and women. Women are present in offices as in judges, ministers, even holding high positions in the army as Major General. Benazir Bhutto was, of course, the most famous Pakistani woman, as she held the position of Prime Minister of Pakistan, not only once, but twice, in the 1990s. We met women doctors, teachers, scientists. Organizations like the Aghan Khan help women to create their own businesses, and fathers forgoing the traditional customs of being new clothes to save money and send their little girls to schools. Women travel freely by themselves, as we saw several times on overnight buses, or driving cars in the busy streets of Lahore.
As a woman, I was expected to be ignored, and to my surprise, many men would speak to me directly. Sitting among men in buses, no hand wandered, no unfriendly behavior occurred. Several men even extended their hands as greetings. While many women wear a scarf, not all do. I was by no mean obligated to wear one, though I did wear one when visiting mosques.
While women were usually reluctant about being taken in photos, several young ladies approached me to get a selfie with me and sharing their pictures on their own social media.
English as Pakistan Official Language
Though the 70+ languages are well alive, Pakistan gives a high priority to Education and English education in particular. Indeed, while Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, so is English. Many English-schools deliver the curriculum in English from primary schools to universities. Kids learn science, mathematics, and most of the classes are taught in English. As such, English is commonly spoken, though in various levels of mastery. Even in the furthest corner of remote villages in faraway villages, we met with English speakers, English teachers, and also discussed Bonaparte and French history with a Physics teacher. Most of Pakistanis speak at least three or four languages, that includes Urdu, English, their local village dialect, and ones from their nearby villages. Incredible! And most of them were sorry for their level of English they deemed poor! Who else speaks four languages?
A porter in Fairy Meadows worked hard to send his daughter and son to the local English schools. Remote villagers gather money to establish their own college, renting facilities and teachers so that boys and girls could pursue higher education. They try to give sponsorship to children from low-income families. We found that in most corners of the country, education in Pakistan is important all Pakistani.
Foundations like the Felix Foundation in the Hushe Valley Valley and the Agha Khan Foundation throughout the rest of Pakistan have been essential to support local education programs for girls and boys.
The fact that so many spoke English definitely made our experience in Pakistan more delightful, as we were able to communicate and exchange with Pakistanis. It made for more accessible travel and deeper connection. That connection got to see us invited in all corners of Pakistan, as we chatted with people in buses. Many times such discussions would end up extending our travel plan as we got invited to visit the ancestral village or told to visit another valley or region, one more beautiful than the others.
Transportation in Pakistan
Traveling in Pakistan is quite an experience. From the busy streets of Islamabad, the hole-filled broken roads to Gilgit, the modern highways to Lahore, the dusty roads under construction to Skardu, the cliff-hanging stone road to the Fairy Meadows, traveling through Pakistan is not for the fainted of hearts.
Given the terrain, rockfalls that cut roads are frequent. Earthquakes too, as Pakistan sits on several major faults. The heavy rains of the monsoons usually lead to flooding as the many rivers swell and carry away whatever stands in the way. We got stuck for several hours on the road from Islamabad to Gilgit due to rockfalls, as we waited for the bulldozer to come and clear the path. Or sometimes, the roads are too narrow for two buses or trucks to meet, and vehicles have to move back and forth to make way.
Manpower is also often the only option to clear the road, like our driver Jamil and local villagers helped remove a large rock as we drove from Skardu to the Hushe.
Flights to Gilgit are an alternative on PIA Airlines, though they get canceled often due to the rapidly changing weather conditions around the Gilgit mountains area.
Pakistan Trekking Safety
Pakistan is home to some of the highest mountains in the world, with many peaks above 8,000 meters, like Gasherbrum I (K5) at 8,080 meters ((26,510 ft), Gasherbrum II (K4) at 8,035 meters (26,362 ft), and of course K2 (Chhogori) at 8,611 meters (28,251 ft). The Karakoram mountains. With such height comes the risk of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness), which can be deadly. The remoteness and the distance of these treks add further danger as any accident was to happen as rescue might arrive in a timely fashion.
The location of the Karakoram mountains close to the borders of Ladakh in India and Xinjiang in China makes it also sensitive destinations. Depending on the political climates, more restrictions might apply.
Hence why most trekking in the Karakoram requires securing a permit ahead of time.
Is Pakistan Safe to Travel?
So now that we shared what we saw and experienced in Pakistan, and what the country has to offer, let’s come back to the essential question: how safe is Pakistan?
During our two-month stay, we felt safe. Granted, this short period doesn’t make us any expert by a long shot. And our overwhelmingly positive experience doesn’t negate the issues the country is facing and the challenges that lay ahead.
Pakistani army and police were highly present in many parts of the country, especially the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) area, a region that had seen troubles throughout the years, and around the borders with Afghanistan, China, and India. Regular checkpoints were part of the daily life in GB, where we had to have copies of our passports and visa ready for local registration.
Pakistan is so worried that any misgiving might happen to foreigners visiting the country that armed guards and police would follow visitors on wheels. Even hiking in some areas around the borders required police escort, especially when going to villages close to the Afghan border or the Karakorum mountains near China. Camping was only allowed in limited places, even when Pakistanis would be camping. Guards also went searching for us while attempting to camp in the Fairy Meadows and asked us to camp within the compound of hotels for safety or stay in guest houses in the Phander Valley. While these restrictions were annoying as we could not enjoy many of the outdoor traits of Pakistan, we do understand the position of the country in working its best to ensure the safety of visitors.
In Chitral, we had to register at the Police Station right after we arrived and were assigned an armed police officer who accompanied us everywhere, even spending the night in our hotel. The city is close to Afghanistan and felt definitely more conservative than other places in Pakistan. Less welcoming to some extent, Chitral is the only place I thought it was wiser to cover my hair to limit any potential issues. I want to stress that no one asked me to; instead it was a personal decision to “fit in” and be culturally conscious.
Though we had a permit to attend the Baba Ghundi Festival in the Chipursan valley close to the Pak-Afghan border, the army deemed it unsafe for us and asked us to leave as the sunset came down. As with camping around in the Fairy Meadows or Phander Valley, many Pakistanis did so freely, as this is a popular activity in Pakistan. On the other end, the police worked with the army to let us hike in an area close to the Afghan border, an area that had been closed for travelers for over five years due to safety risks. The police provided us with an armed guard that accompanied us on the hike and arranged with the army post to let pass for the day. As annoying as it could be, the army and police only mean well to safeguard us.
Areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are included in the Balochistan province and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, usually get a “Do Not Travel” as Pakistan Travel Advisory by many government agencies.
Violence and Attacks
Dangerous conditions are real in Pakistan. While we were there, a dozen girl schools around Chilas were burnt, and police officers killed during the night around Gilgit. And more recently, thousands demonstrated and turned violent in the streets of the main cities of Pakistan after a Christian woman was acquitted of blasphemy against Islam by the Pakistani Supreme Court.
So, there are definite concerns in Pakistan, but in today’s world, we feel that no corner is genuinely safe. In France, eating in a restaurant or attending a concert in Paris, grocery shopping around Carcassonne, or watching firework celebrations in Nice, should be safe activities that took deadly turns. Equally fatal events happened at a Berlin Christmas Market, in London, Brussels, and Barcelona, to name only a few. In the end, the majority of people, Pakistan included, is trying to live a peaceful life, looking to feed their family, improve their conditions, regardless of where they life or what they believe in.
Our overall impressions are that Pakistan felt safe to travel. Is it entirely safe that nothing will ever happen? Of course, nobody knows, and as mentioned before, we can only recommend travelers to review the travel advice for Pakistan as provided by their governments. Our Pakistan travel blog posts reflect our personal experiences.
Pakistan Travel Impressions
Sooo… yes, there are potential dangers in traveling in Pakistan, but there are also tremendous opportunities for learning about the traditional way of life, meet kind people, explore stunning mountains, and break the cycle of TV-infused vision of the world that focuses on their network 5 min of sensational news.
Even in two months, we did not get a chance to visit the whole country, as we took our time to enjoy life in small villages, and drinking way too many cups of tea!
Would we return? In a heartbeat? Indeed, returning we shall, with more valleys to explore, ancient sites like Mohenjo-daro to admire, trails to trek, and traditions to learn. Pakistan, we will come back if we can!
Pakistan Safety Travel Tips
Once again, these travel tips are based on our own experiences. Please leave a comment if you feel we missed something essential. Many of these tips would apply to any travel, but some can apply more specifically to Pakistan.
- Be street smart: pay attention to your surroundings at all time, don’t display any sign of expensive items
- Talk to the local people. They know the area, they talk the language and can provide insights about potential tensions. Or they can even invite you to stay with friends or family in the area.
- Check on the local news. Any signs of troubles or protests will most certainly be flagged
- Respect the local traditions and customs. Being a conservative country, be sure to dress accordingly. Women should cover their shoulders and wear pants or skirt to cover down to the ankles. Always have a scarf handy to cover the hairs, a must while visiting a mosque or any religious places. Men should also wear long pants, or at least below the knees. Be also respectful during Ramadan, the most only religious event
- Check with the local police station: they can also advise, or have you register, or provide permits or authorizations if you want to travel to specific areas. Always have copies of your passport and visa ready.
- Permits are indeed required for particular treks and might take up months. Plan early.
- Watch the seasons, and avoid traveling during the wet season as rain will make travel even harder, and a potential hazard in the mountains
- Because of the unreliability of the roads, your journey will take longer than expected. Always carry water and snacks
- Trekkers will want to watch over AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) and ensure trekking permits
We have more stories to share about our Pakistan travels, with an upcoming Pakistan travel guide, experiences in Chipursan, Hunza Valley, and more.
In the meantime, if you have any Pakistan travel tips to add, we would love to hear from you in the Comments section.
Stay tuned for more adventures
from our travel around the world!
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