They say that the older we get, the surer we are. That is true to an extent unless you get lost in the process and lose all your inspiration. 2018 was that year that I needed a huge dose of inspiration. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be given that inspiration boost through an amazing trip travelling in Pakistan!
I’d been wanting to visit Pakistan for a very long time, probably due to the influence having several Pakistani friends, and honestly, I wanted to challenge the common perception (based on what I had heard from other people) about the country being unsafe. For this trip, I preferred to travel with a friend and after much persuasion, a close friend said yes! We decided to give this trip a shot and poured our efforts into researching and planning our trip thoroughly. We both agreed to keep an average budget of RM1,200 per pax for 7 days (excluding flights). This budget still allowed us to stay in relatively comfortable accommodations as well as receive great service.
Prepping for the trip
Visa and documentation
Travelling to Pakistan requires a visa (for Malaysians and Singaporeans), which has to be done in person at the Pakistan Embassy (there are no online services, unfortunately). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to receive my visa in 24 hours. If you’re a Malaysian, you’ll have to make the trip to the Pakistan Embassy in KL which is located along Jalan Ampang. To apply for the visa, you would need two copies of your passport photo, your original passport and a letter of invitation by a friend from Pakistan (you can also request this from the hotel you’re staying at or your travel agency). The purpose of the letter is to show that you will be accounted for by a local resident in Pakistan. If you are female and travelling alone, it would also be helpful to bring an approval letter from your husband or father (though not compulsory). Once approved, the visa will be attached to your passport, so do make sure you have sufficient free pages in your passport! The fee for getting the visa was approximately RM33.
Based on my research and from what I heard from my Pakistani friends, some sources mentioned that you should also get a No Objection Letter (a legal document that states you have obligations in your home country which you will return to, i.e. documentation to prove you wouldn’t be staying indefinitely) from the police station once you arrive in Pakistan, and bring 10 photocopies of your passport. This is supposedly needed because the letter would be inspected and a photocopy of your passport will be taken at checkpoints throughout Pakistan during your journey. However, I did not come across this during my travels. I would still advise bringing a few photocopies of your passport, just in case!
Making travel arrangements
We had the good fortune of having someone in Pakistan to help us plan our trip – my friend’s husband was based in Karachi at the time, so he was able to make travel enquiries on our behalf. To travel to Pakistan, bookings are best made through the telephone. You can get better deals, and inquire further about the restaurants nearby, facilities and other services they may provide. Recommendations are best found through word of mouth, as information about Pakistan is somewhat limited online. Thankfully, my friend’s husband helped us find Baber, a Kashmiri man, who is reputable for his tour services and knowledge of the cities. He proved to be a great guide throughout our trip, and because of his fluency in Urdu and Pashtu, he even helped us bargain for the best prices for our hotels.
Packing for the trip
When packing for Pakistan, it’s a good idea to pack for both warm and cold weather, as the temperature can change dramatically, especially if you explore the mountain regions as I did. I’d advise to pack light but to make sure to bring some key essentials, such as:
- Any meds you may need (such as charcoal for stomach pain, Panadol Flu, Clarinase and Dizinel for motion sickness)
- A wind-breaker and a sweater
- Extra cash (as many places will not accept card). A travel waist wallet will be helpful to store your cash.
- An adapter for electronics (Pakistan uses 2-pin round plugs with 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.)
- A dust mask if you are asthmatic as the jeep rides for some of the places you visit will be dusty
- A travel prayer mat and prayer wear for females (so you can perform your prayers easily when you’re on the road)
- Bathroom slippers
It’s also best to pack and fit everything into a reasonably compact bag, as you wouldn’t want to risk your bags not being able to fit in a car boot, given that most of your travels will likely be via car.
Getting to Pakistan
My friend and I had decided to focus our travels on the northern parts of Pakistan. Because the north was the priority and we only had seven days to spare, we decided to go to Pakistan via Islamabad. Though Karachi and Lahore are more populous cities, Islamabad is closer to the north. So to get there, I ended up travelling by flight from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, where I stayed for a few days with my friend, following which we took a bus to Abu Dhabi (about a 2-hour drive), and from Abu Dhabi we took a flight (we took Etihad given its decent price and availability) to Islamabad (about a 3 hour and 15 minute journey). To note, there are no flights that go directly to Islamabad from KUL, which is why we ended up going to Abu Dhabi and taking a flight from there.
When we arrived at Islamabad International Airport, I thought I had arrived back in Abu Dhabi, as the airport is surprisingly modern, which I had not expected. I soon found out that the airport is new and was recently completed in March 2018, boasting a steel structure and many of the latest technologies in immigration. Though to be honest, when we arrived, I was mostly inspired by the interior and back wall of the baggage reclaim wheel 😂 It was beautifully embellished with tiles in bright unique colours.
Credit: @usamabinahmed on Instagram
This unique design is actually inspired by Pakistan truck art, which is a big thing – when you’re in Pakistan, you’ll see trucks that are brightly and intricately decorated, usually hand-painted by the truck owner themselves.
Day 1: Arriving in Islamabad
As we came out of the airport, the first thing I noticed was the spread of rose petals on the ground (from the recent welcome of Umrah pilgrims), and secondly, I was blessed on my first day there with light cold rain. It was a great atmosphere that made me feel welcomed and excited for more. We met Baber (our driver and guide) at the airport and headed towards F7, a recommended area in town to stay at for tourists. Coming from the concrete jungle like Kuala Lumpur, the drive through Islamabad gave me a lot of peace. It was nice to drive through roads where you can see the expanse of large clear skies not blocked by skyscrapers.
If you’re wondering about the name F7, Islamabad is split into different zones, which are in turn then subdivided into different sectors. The downtown area is generally concentrated around sectors named with a letter and number combination, from F7 all the way up to I8.
Before checking into our hotel, we stopped at the famous Bar.B.Q. tonight restaurant and ate like kings. We ordered Palak Paneer, chicken and mutton kebab, Pulau rice, and dhal. For drinks, I had not only the famous mango lassi but also chai on the side. Having grown up in Dubai, the closest I could get to Malay food when I was there was Pakistani food, therefore, I’ve eaten a lot of it for years. But eating the food locally, in its homeland, was a different experience. Finally, we checked into Shelton’s Rezidor Islamabad at 11.30pm and called it a night.
Day 2: Headed to Shogran
Breakfast was included as part of our stay (do note that not all hotels include breakfast, so it’s good to inquire ahead of time to make sure). Shelton’s Rezidor Islamabad, I have to say, make excellent parathas. So crispy, and perfectly matched with the dhal they served every morning.
At 10 am we left and made our way to Shogran. If you can, I would suggest leaving earlier (around 8am), to beat the afternoon traffic. The drive usually takes around 5 hours, but we reached in 7 due to the traffic we encountered This seems like a really long time, but the scenery entertained me throughout.
One second you’re looking at dry land, the next green mountains. You will pass schools and see children walking home, farms, graveyards and trucks – lots of beautiful trucks. You can even stop to buy corn and berries at roadside stalls along the way!
We passed Taxila, which is an ancient city and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. We didn’t stop by to visit it, as our priority for this trip was to reach the north. During the drive, we listened to Baber tell us tales and folklore about Siri, Payee and Saif-Ul-Muluk – fitting for our journey (as we would be visiting those places during our trip) and a great accompaniment as we passed by the beautiful scenery. One tale was about Heer and Ranjha (essentially the Pakistan equivalent of Romeo and Juliet), and another was about a prince named Seif (who was supposedly whom the Saif-ul-Muluk lake was named after) who went on a quest to save a fairy from her master.
If you go on this drive, you’ll know you are only two hours away from Shogran when you see a big grand river winding through the mountains. It’s a stunningly beautiful sight.
When we arrived in Shogran, we drove through a steep muddy road before finally arriving at a renowned local cabin hotel called the Arcadian Sprucewoods Resort Shogran .
#HHWT Tip: The cabin only has 15 rooms so make sure to book early! It’s also good to note that once it’s dark, there are not many choices of things to do. Many people camp out in the garden (when the weather is warm) to pass the time, so stock up on your snacks and games!
We had dinner there, where I had my first introduction to Yakhni soup (Pakistani-style chicken soup. You must try it here, it’s delicious!) We spent the night watching the stars, with a cup of hot chocolate and good company.
Day 3: Journeying from Shogran to Naran
At 9.30 am the next day, we headed towards Siri and Payee with a rented jeep. The journey took around one-hour plus.
Siri and Payee are two beautiful lakes near Shogran, located in Kaghan Valley. Payee was my favourite during the trip – the lake sits in a meadow, with mountains surrounding it.
We could see the K2 (the second highest mountain in the world after Everest) on one side topped with white snow, and green mountains on the other. The lake elegantly lies in the middle of the meadow. There were many free range cows (which villagers milk), horses, and families happily picnicking. We spent at least three hours there, taking in the atmosphere and the beautiful scenery.
#HHWT Tip: To get to the lake, you’ll have to walk towards the meadows (around 30 minutes from where the jeep dropped us off). When we were there we were sad to notice a lot of trash near the drop-off area, but don’t be deterred – just keep walking until you reach the lake.
Around 3 pm, we headed back down to our hotel and checked out, making our way to our next accommodation, the Arcadian Riverside (which is also run by the same group that manages the Sprucewoods cabin in Shogran). The drive took approximately two hours. The hotel is located right next to the river and the sound of it gushing by was wonderful. The Arcadian Riverside, like the Sprucewoods, can only accommodate a handful of guests, so make sure you make your booking before coming.
Note: Naran, Khanian, Babusar top, and Kaghan area has no phone signal or line, meaning you can’t make calls or go online. Make sure to let your friends and family know that you will be off the radar during your days here.
#HHWT Tip: Take a drive at night to see the nightlife in Naran area, and you will come across many restaurants. You will notice that there are a lot more men than women out and about (common throughout Pakistan), which may make women travellers feel a little uncomfortable! But it’s perfectly safe, so long as you’re exercising reasonable precautions.
Day 4: Day trip to Babusar Top
We had breakfast and left by 10 am to make our way to Babusar Top. Going earlier would probably have been better, but wanted to make sure we were well-rested before the next stretch of car travel! The drive up took about four hours – as with our previous journeys, the view was spectacular. We passed multiple glaciers, rivers, rocky mountains, green mountain, valleys, and many campsites. Make sure to stop to buy dried nuts, apricots, and fresh cherries for below 400 rupees.
Babusar Top (also known as Babusar Pass) is a mountain pass that connects Kaghan Valley with Gilgit-Baltistan. The pass sits at 13,700 feet above sea level, making it a stunningly scenic spot. If you go to Babusar Top, you will arrive at a pickup point where you can either hike up or continue by car or jeep. We opted to go in our jeep to save time (there are also jeeps for hire there). It took approximately an hour to reach the top. The road is small with no barriers, so make sure your driver is experienced and familiar with the road there.
Once you reach Babusar Top, you’ll the sign marking the border into the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
The road onwards from Babusar Top apparently takes you to more magical sights like Hunza Valley and the famous Satrangi Lake (known for being the lake of seven colours). But that journey takes another 200km or so, so we decided to leave that for another trip. We spent approximately two hours there, drinking chai while sitting on traditional woven beds call “char pai” that you can hire from locals there. You will likely come across crowds (as it’s quite a famous pit-stop destination for visitors), but don’t let that deter you. If you walk long enough, you will find a spot for yourself.
Once we felt like we had absorbed our fill of the cold fresh mountain air, we headed back down. By this time we had worked up an appetite, and we quickly found a restaurant called Kainat View Restaurant where we could eat and do our prayers.
We noticed the locals taking their whudu’ at the river, and so we did too – the water was cold and refreshing! On our way back to the restaurant, we witnessed the sunset on a lake.
The price for food at this restaurant was somewhat steep, but it’s also worth noting that this particular restaurant was only of several in the area that is in service for only 3 months of the year (during the warmer months). Like most restaurants here, potions are family sized. We ordered fish (fresh from the river), dhal, steamed rice and roti to share.
After Maghrib we headed back to Arcadian Riverside hotel, and because we were still amongst the mountains of Kaghan Valley, it was wonderfully serene to see the mountains at night, in the light of the full moon.
Day 5: Heading back to Islamabad
Though we were told that the Siri and Payee lakes are much more beautiful, you cannot leave Naran without seeing the famous Saif-ul-Muluk, another lake. Before we headed back to Islamabad, we had to visit it. Similar to Babusar Top, you can either hike up to Saif-ul-Muluk or go by jeep, which is what we did.
The large lake of Saif-ul-Muluk is situated between four majestic mountains, making it one of the most picturesque lakes I’ve ever seen.
You can also take a canoe across the lake with one of the local boat owners, for a fee.
Around 2 pm, we headed back to Islamabad, looking forward to stopping at a famous local spot where they served “Chapli Kebab” – meat mixed with spices and fried in oil!
We arrived in Islamabad by 9 pm and checked back in at the Shelton’s Rezidor (where we had stayed our first night in Islamabad).
Day 6 & 7: Exploring Islamabad
We spent our last couple days in Islamabad. It’s a rather quiet, but developing, city. There are a number of attractions you can visit, such as the Art Gallery, the National Monument, and plenty of restaurants. But for me, I wanted to use the next two days to visit old friends and visit the best cafes in town. We managed to visit Burning Brownie (a trendy cafe serving coffee, brunch-style dishes and cakes and desserts), and then lunch at Bid, a famous diner, to eat Khadai and Roti. We also managed to visit the National Mosque at night, and saw its charm in the dark skies of Islamabad.
The next day, a friend was kind enough to take me to Muree (a mountain resort town equivalent to Genting Highlands in Kuala Lumpur), an hour and a half away from Islamabad. Going up the mountain, you will come across many motels and activities for visitors – there are several places to eat and shop for purses, clothes and souvenirs. After a good drive around the area, we made our way back down. I remember being grateful to see the sunset as we drove back down to Islamabad, it made everything look beautiful.
Before heading back to the hotel, I was craving for good Chinese Pakistani food, and therefore we headed to Dragon City Chinese Restaurant Islamabad, and ordered the Dynamite Shrimps, corn soup, fried rice and sweet-sour chicken. Chinese-Pakistani food has a unique taste, you must try it!
#HHWT Tip: Check on portion-sizes when you order! We ordered for two but got a serving size that could have easily fed 4 – 5 pax.
On our last day in Pakistan, we took it easy, visiting and spending time with a relative before we headed to the airport for our flight. To end the trip on a sweet note, while we were on our flight back to Abu Dhabi, we munched on some extra mango we had bought earlier.
Pakistan is a massive country to explore and seven days is definitely not enough! Though the trip was short and we were only able to explore two regions, I feel humbled to have set foot on this land of many histories and wonders.
They say travel teaches you and changes your heart. This trip inspired me to learn more about cultures different from my own and to visit the world’s hidden gems. I feel like no traveller is complete without visiting Pakistan.
If I get the chance to visit again, I plan to take the route from Karachi to witness the hustle and bustle of the famous Karachi market, then to Lahore to experience and savour their cuisine, and up North again to see the Hunza Valley and the seven-coloured lake. Here’s to the next trip, insyaAllah.