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Top Tips for Pakistan

I had been looking forward to my trip to Pakistan, one of the few countries that were still on my “must-see” list, and the reality surely met my high expectations. People are friendly (they give you a bit more space than their Indian neighbours), the food is very good (if you like meat) and the country looks quite cheerful thanks to the colourful decorations of vehicles and even food stalls. Pakistan has become more accessible since it eased its visa requirements a few years ago to a fairly simple e-visa, and the region has seen less violence since 2021 although there is plenty of internal conflict left. Herewith are some tips for travelling to Pakistan as a WH Traveller.

1. Take in many of its TWHS

Pakistan only has 6 WHS to date. All are fully deserving and are rated between 3 and 4 stars by our community. But India, with whom it shared most of its history except for the past 75 years, has managed to get to 42 WHS! So Pakistan which is about a quarter of its size could easily aim for 10-12 as there is plenty of potential still lingering on its Tentative List.

As a consequence, any Pakistan itinerary for WH travellers should contain a high number of TWHS. I went to 9 of its Tentative Sites and found them all worth visiting. Among those, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (photo 1) and the monuments of Uch Sharif are outstanding – and as Solivagant already wrote: “The Badshahi has only to push against an open door if it wished to go for inscription”. This could be as an extension to Lahore Fort, but I would gladly see it as a stand-alone WHS as in some ways it is "better" than the Fort.

2. Visit its Sufi shrines

What Pakistan adds to the general heritage of the Indian subcontinent is the veneration of shrines associated with Sufi men who came to spread Islam. This can be experienced at the tomb TWHS of Multan and also is covered by the WHS of Makli, although the active religious life at the latter is not as prominent. A visit to Pakistan is not complete without a visit to a Sufi dhamal session, a combination of whirling dance and meditation. We visited two, one in Sehwan Sarif and one in Lahore. The first one was the most memorable to me as it was held in the very fine setting of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine at Sehwan Sarif, and especially the trance-state the women got in was frightening! The one in Lahore was a rowdy affair, more of a boys’ night out.

3. It needs a Visit Pakistan campaign

There have been successful Visit Rwanda and Visit Saudi media campaigns (among others), and Pakistan is in dire need of such global rebranding as well. Under Imran Khan as a Prime Minister (2018-2022) tourism was promoted as a way to earn hard currencies. When we encountered electric carts to shuttle around tourists at Rohtas Fort and Makli, we were told that this was "thanks to Imran Khan". Since he has been removed from office, the question is whether the subject of tourism will be left to the individual provinces again. We noticed vast differences in the handling of tourists between the provinces of Sindh and Punjab for example - a 'foreigner' ticket for a WHS costs 3,000 rs in Sindh (that's about 2 meals plus drinks in a nice restaurant), while it is a more reasonable 500 rs in Punjab. Sindh also still sends police convoys out with tourists who visit remote sites such as Moenjadaro. 

The boost in investments should also benefit the conservation of the sites, although overall I think it has improved over the past 10 years compared to the situation in 2013 as described by Solivagant. Lahore Fort and Rohtas Fort (photo 2, this is the interior of the Haveli Maan Singh) still have a long way to go to get rid of all the graffiti and introduce more oversight.

4. Be prepared for "A country cleaned by men"

Pakistan has been described in books as “A Hard Country” and a “Tinderbox”, but one of my tripmates came up with “A country cleaned by men”. It nicely captures Pakistan's two least appealing facts, (1) that women have no place in public life in Pakistan and (2) that the country isn’t very clean. Plastic rubbish is found everywhere, they're lightyears away from a ban on disposable plastics and don't seem to care. Except for the better ones in the big cities, hotel rooms or bathrooms are never really clean – surely a brush has gone quickly through them and the sheets have been washed, but don't look into corners or touch too much. One statistic about the position of women in Pakistan tells a whole story: only 54% of Pakistani women are literate, while that's 70% in India.

5. Reconnect with the Mughals

Although the Mughal Empire connection already has 10 entries, more examples of their architectural skills can be found in Pakistan. Especially in and around Lahore there are unmissable sights from that period, such as the previously mentioned Badshahi Mosque and Jahangir's Tomb, which of course cannot "win" a comparison with the Taj Mahal but still is a wonderful artistic masterpiece.

Els - 24 December 2023

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