Pakistan may regularly feature in international news for all the wrong reasons, but these five foreign tourists were far from being deterred from visiting the country. Although they were aware of the news about terrorism and bomb blasts coming out of Pakistan, they are glad they took the plunge and had an experience they are unlikely to forget anytime soon.
This Independence Day, The Express Tribune shares the unique stories of five foreigners who took a chance on Pakistan.
Alex and Sebastiaan quit their jobs, sold off all their belongings and went off on a tour around the roads less traveled of Asia such as Iran, Kazakhstan, and their personal favourite, Pakistan.
The two 20-something backpackers from the United States and the Netherlands, visited Pakistan for six weeks this year. “Our journey in Pakistan began at the end of May, and lasted for six weeks. We saw Ramazan begin, feasted on Eid, and finally escaped summer’s heat in mid-July.”
Entering from Iran, they travelled extensively across Pakistan visiting the urban cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad as well places like Sehwan Sharif and Larkana in Sindh and, of course, the northern areas. But their favourite city was Lahore. “It’s a big city, but the people are super friendly… and perhaps dangerously hospitable. Despite it being Ramazan, people showed us around every day, and stuffed us with more food than we’ve eaten in our entire lives. We made some great friends in the process, and really hope to head to Lahore again soon.”
Although they admit that before coming to Pakistan, they had only heard bad news about the country, any fears they had flew out the window the moment they arrived. “Even the Levies in Balochistan were smiling and kind. Everyone we met along the way was hospitable beyond words, and we soon learned the views the West holds of Pakistan and Pakistani people are not true at all. A few bad people does not a bad country make.”
They also have an Independence Day message for Pakistan. “Enjoy your Independence Day celebrations! You should be (and are!) proud to live in such an incredible country, with so many beautiful people and places. Just remember that with independence comes responsibility. Celebrate the day to its fullest … but make sure to clean up afterwards! Pakistan is a beautiful country, and you need to take care that you don’t spoil it by leaving trash everywhere.”
The two highly recommend Pakistan to foreign tourists. “Forget your fears – go visit Pakistan. It’s far from the easiest country to travel in, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable country of people. Add to that rich cultural history and diversity, stunning nature, and you have a perfect destination for adventurous spirits. Just do it. You won’t regret it.”
Sophee Southall, an Australian travel blogger, had intended to stay in Pakistan for two weeks only but floods and the ensuing damage to roads between Sost and the Khunjerab Pass meant her visit was extended to three weeks. For her, it was a blessing in disguise.
“This time last year, I was in Pakistan. I remember Independence Day celebrations kicking off while I was travelling along the Karakoram Highway,” she says.
The delay in her plans actually had lots of perks. “We had the opportunity to chill out at Borith Lake, socialise with the local villagers, explore the giant glaciers and pluck fresh apricots from the trees every morning for breakfast. It was absolute bliss.”
Southall shared some of her unforgettable memories in the country, one of them being eating parathas. “My time living with a family in Islamabad is an experience I’ll never forget. The house chef made the best, melt-in-your-mouth parathas I’ve ever tasted. The sunset views from the Margalla Hills were captivating, with the capital’s glistening city lights and Faisal Mosque commanding appreciation.”
However, for her, the jewel in Pakistan’s tourism crown was the journey along the Karakoram Highway. “It’s not to be missed, by locals and internationals alike. Winding roads guarded by mammoth mountains, iridescent lakes peppered with technicolour boats, an ocean of organic honey and fresh fruit, humble villagers ready to welcome strangers with tea and bread, rickety suspension bridges over raging rivers, off-the-beaten-track treks for the wild at heart and an intangible mystery that’s utterly magical … the KKH is something special.”
Like many other foreigners, her knowledge of Pakistan was also confined to what was being said in the international media. “Upon arriving in Pakistan, I was quite nervous. Will I accidentally offend the locals? As a woman, should I keep my mouth shut at all times? Will Pakistanis act aggressively towards us because we’re Westerners? Are we driving straight towards danger? These were some of the thoughts running through my head at the time.”
However, all that changed soon. “Within minutes of crossing the Wagah border, where I enjoyed a friendly chat and cup of tea with the security staff, my impression of Pakistan started to change. By the end of my trip, it had done a complete 180. The locals treated my travel buddies and me like family; we were granted unconditional hospitality of the highest order. I never felt unsafe and, even as a Western female tourist, I felt valued and respected. It was a heart-warming and enlightening experience.”
She has nothing but good wishes to send Pakistan’s way. “I wish Pakistan a bright future – a future characterised by peace, positivity and progress. May Pakistan be defined on the global stage by its magnificent natural beauty, welcoming citizens, vibrant spirit and admirable contributions to the world.”
She goes on to give some great travel advice to would-be tourists. “A journey to Pakistan isn’t a holiday; it’s a life-changing adventure, an education and an off-the-beaten-track experience you’ll never forget. Expect to be surprised, moved, inspired, challenged and supported. Enhance your journey by travelling with an open mind, a beaming smile and a warm heart. Pakistanis will return your optimism and kindness a thousand times over.”
Southall says she would love to return to Pakistan next year to film the “incredible scenery, communities and cultural practices”. “I know my time in Pakistan hasn’t come to an end and there’s a lot more for me to discover.”
Cynthia Ritchie, who hails from the US, found a lot of similarities between Pakistan and her home country in her travels. “Common factors between American Southerners and Pakistanis: we value our faith, family and food. We are known for our hospitality and we love our tea!”
A world traveller, Ritchie has not only been to various countries in the world, she has also travelled extensively in Pakistan. “I first traveled to Pakistan in 2010, and have lived in Pakistan for a couple of years at a time. Currently, I divide my time between Pakistan and USA.”
When asked what kind of impression she had of Pakistan before coming here, she said, “I was a tabula rasa(blank slate) prior to arriving in Pakistan – so I didn’t allow the media to unfairly contort my view of the country. Much of my experience in the country has been good.”
“However I have seen challenges in education, health care, gender parity, to name a few. Yet, these challenges are additional things America and Pakistan have in common. Some of the challenges I initially witnessed still persist. Yet, I remain hopeful for the country, and inspired by the people who take the initiative and are practically working to improve their country,” she added.
Ritchie, who is a producer at Rose Lane Studio, is working on a documentary about Pakistan. “It is an adventure travel log. I traverse the country, learning about the faiths and cultures; exploring challenging topics and reasons to hope.”
She also has immense respect for Pakistan’s armed forces. “My recent time with the Pakistan Coast Guard, Pakistan Army Rangers, female aeronautical engineers and fighter pilots of the Pakistan Air Force, and female commandos of the Elite Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has taken my respect to a new level.”
She hit upon all the reasons Pakistanis have to be proud of their country. “From the young social and tech entrepreneurs, to women and girls breaking down barriers and the men and communities who support them, Pakistanis have many reasons to be proud patriots.”
Ritchie also shares some tips for people wanting to visit the country. “Pakistan is one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world. From the convergence of the world’s three largest mountain ranges: The Himalayas, Hindukush, and Karakorum; to charming European-type villages; expansive forests; to salt mines, desert planes below sea level. The various cultures and sub-cultures are endless. It’s also an archeologist’s heaven! I fulfilled a lifelong dream of being an archaeologist on an active dig site uncovering an ancient Buddhist monastery.”
However, she says, “Before you go, make friends with the Pakistani Diaspora where ever you live; they are a tremendous resource that can help prepare you for your travels to Pakistan. Your new friends will invite you to their home, cook for you, make recommendations for places to visit, and connect you with their friends and family in Pakistan who will welcome you as their guest. Once you’ve completed your tour, you will have a new adoptive family and place to call home.”
In the end, she adds, “Pakistan has a story to tell. It’s a vibrant kaleidoscope of civilisation possessing a rich history, which takes a while to absorb. So don’t be rushed. Be prepared for the adventure of a lifetime.”
Henrik Jeppesen has been to every country in the world, literally. Here’s what he’s got to say about Pakistan. “The media gives you a bad impression of Pakistan. It is all negative, but I really enjoyed my visit. Pakistan is underrated and it’s sad, the [security] situation means only a few tourist a year visit the country,” Henrik Jeppesen said.
Jeppesen visited Pakistan in 2014 and spent four days in the country. When asked how his experience of visiting the country was, he said, “I found Pakistan to be friendly and similar to travelling in India. It wasn’t difficult to travel around and people are very friendly.”
Before coming here, however, he had certain reservations due to the security situation in the country. “Four days total in the country. It’s not much, but it’s not an easy country to plan a lot beforehand due to the current situation. I was too afraid of visiting Peshawar, but I’m still young so I can visit it in the future if the situation improves.”
The world-traveller, who is originally from Denmark, also has some tips for those wanting to visit Pakistan. “Pakistan is easy to visit. You must get the visa in your home country which is annoying for many world travellers. The visit isn’t too hard to get. Just get an invitation letter from a local tour operator and you should be good to go. Pakistan has a lot to offer. I really like it’s not like India where there are too many tourists at many of the sights. Just look at Taj Mahal. It’s difficult to take a photo there.”