A Different Side to Pakistan

touch down in Islamabad in the early hours of the morning. It
is pitch-black, besides the colourful specks on the runway and some
scattered streetlights. I feel a mix of excitement and trepidation
in my stomach.

Pakistan is not an obvious holiday destination. Media coverage
rarely paints a pleasant story of the country, which is the seventh
most populated in the world, but remains shaken by military coups
and terrorism. Prior to my trip, I faced concerns from anyone and
everyone who asked me about my summer plans. But Pakistan has
another story to tell; one of people misjudged by western media who
feel their country is portrayed as just a war zone, and want to
prove otherwise. Some regions, especially Balochistan on the Afghan
border and Kashmir, are not safe – especially not for a white
western woman. But the country does have non-violent areas, such as
the Punjab region and Gilgit-Baltistan, both of which can be
explored as long as you get acquainted with some basic security
measures and keep updated on the current situation. And it’s worth

Monkeys and selfies in Islamabad

Islamabad is very different from what you see in Homeland, when
Carry runs down dusty streets full of screaming people. It’s calm,
quiet and very green. Along the roadsides young men sell fresh
mangos and the markets of the 6th and 7th district are filled with
shops and even some western fast-food chains. On one side of the
city, the Himalayan Massif starts building up with beautiful
rainforests and monkeys screaming from the top of the trees. In the
middle of it, Faisal Mosque, a gift from Saudi Arabia, looms over
the city.

The rainforests of the Magla hills are perfect for hiking and I
admire the scenery from Dam-ne-koh, a viewpoint from where you can
see the entire city and look out over endless stretches of green.
While I’m standing there, I catch the interest of absolutely
everyone. Women, men and children all want to get a closer look at
my white skin and light hair. The women give me compliments on how
well my kameez – the traditional Pakistani two-piece suit worn by
women and men alike – suits me. Everyone wants to take a selfie
with me to show to their families. By the end of the day, I’m quite
certain that half of Islamabad has seen my slightly sunburnt face
smiling out of a smartphone screen somewhere.

Time passes fast in a city which yields new treasures at every
turn. I discover Islamabad’s best ice-cream parlour hidden behind
the shopping mall and a scoop of kulfi ice cream – a heady mix of
cardamom, rose, saffron and pistachio – becomes a daily ritual,
much like getting dressed up in my beautiful, airy kameez.

Himalayan village adventures

A week later I find myself on a very antique propeller plane
heading to Gilgit, a small city in northern Pakistan. The plane is
an experience of itself, cruising between incredibly high mountains
and casually following the turns of small valleys as we fly over
tiny villages and sprawling goat herds.

I join a bunch of young Pakistanis from Karachi who are
exploring their home country in a small van. We have a guide
showing us around, which is a must. Not only do they know
everything about the local security situation and take you to
places which are impossible to find on the internet, a tour also
gives you the opportunity to make Pakistani friends. When the
weather allows, we sit on the top of our small bus as we make our
way deeper and deeper into the Himalayas. With the wind in my hair
and the sun in my face, I think: this is freedom. After exploring
the Karakorum highway and the beautiful mountain village of
Karimabad, (Pakistan’s top honeymoon destination) we head to
Skardu. This remote town in the middle of the mountains is the
starting point of mountaineers aiming to conquer K2, the world’s
second highest mountain. It is a wild endeavour and none of the
expeditions reached the summit in 2016.

Walking through this almost forgotten town, a 16-hour drive from
Islamabad, I discover the simple life. Fresh naan bread, spicy
chicken and goat meat grilled over the open fire taste like
adventure – but those are the only dishes you can find in this
remote place, where high altitude means little grows. Here, it
feels like the world could collapse and you would know nothing of
it. With sparse internet and phone reception, people live in a
different reality: their days revolve around making a living from
selling goats and drying apricots.

I hire a guide to take me on hikes through the mountains and up
to Deosai, the world’s largest plateau which sits at 4000m above
sea level. The only way to get there is to hire a Jeep that takes
you on a five-hour ride up deadly steep dirt tracks through open
land. It’s not for the fainthearted, but when you reach the top
you’re rewarded by soft hills carpeted in bright green, sprinkled
with little purple flowers that can be blooming in the sun one
second and swept over by a snowstorm the next.

In the evenings we sit, talk and drink tea looking over the
Indus River. Pakistan’s youth find themselves caught somewhere
between secret raves in Karachi’s basements and buying alcohol on
the black market, and longstanding family customs such as arranged
marriage. The country is in torn between traditional ways of living
and an educated younger generation keen for change. But when
individuals depend on their family or spouse’s goodwill; village
communities carry the function of lawyers, healthcare and education
system rolled into one; and societal rules evolve around religion,
this change is hard to come by.

It’s rare for my travel companions to talk to someone from
Europe, especially a female. They are shy at first, not knowing if
they are allowed to address me as a woman directly. But once they
have gathered some confidence they ask me every question
imaginable, from the what happened in the Holocaust to what I eat
for breakfast.

The streets of Lahore

The last destination is Lahore. It’s without doubt Pakistan’s
most bustling city, full of life and home to the best street food
in the country. After some not-so-comfortable travel, a little bit
of luxury is needed so I check into the sumptuous
Pearl Continental Hotel
. The spa and swimming pool area where
Islamic dress code can be discreetly disobeyed behind closed doors
finally gives me the chance to soak up the sun which has been
shining merrily ever since I arrived. I spend my days wandering the
narrow streets overflowing with food stalls and unassuming shops,
embracing the busy vibe of the city.

When I board the plane back to Copenhagen after three weeks, I
experience a pang of sadness. It’s the feeling you get when an
adventure comes to an end but you feel you haven’t seen half of
what there is to explore. All Pakistanis I met told me: “Go home to
Denmark and tell your friends that Pakistan is not as bad as it
seems, they should come visit us!”. I don’t know if my friends will
come, but I will definitely be back.

Tips for Travelling in Pakistan

Getting around

Air: Pakistan International Airlines offer
domestic flights. It’s recommended to fly if you plan to visit
Gilgit-Baltistan Region or Karachi, because distances are long and
road travel is not safe in some regions.

Road: The journey from Islamabad to Lahore is
safe and affordable. You can buy a ticket on the day at Islamabad
bus station.

Public transport: Do not use public transport
because buses are regularly subject to attacks. In Lahore, there
are bike taxis which are safe, cheap and a fun way to explore the

Taxis: The easiest and safest way to get around
is by taxi. Use Careem cab which is available in Islamabad and
Lahore and can be ordered by phone. Avoid stopping them on the
street due to security reasons.

Where to stay: In the cities look out for
western hotel chains which have higher security standards, such as
Pearl Continental
(Islamabad and Lahore). In Gilgit-Baltistan you can find small
hotels in most of the villages.

Acting appropriately

Dress thoughtfully: There is no need to wear a
headscarf but arms, shoulders and legs should be covered – this
applies to both men and women. The best option is to visit Khadi,
the Pakistani version of H&M, and buy some shalwar kameeze.
They are perfect for the hot and humid climate and will make you
blend in with the locals a little more.

Respect the rules: Familiarise yourself with
common customs in Pakistan. For example, men should not shake
women’s hands or address them directly as it can be be taken as an
insult. In cities people are generally more tolerant towards
tourists but in rural regions be extra careful.

Talk to the locals: They have the best tips for
restaurants, sights and general travel.

Staying safe

Get a Pakistani phone number: Buy a SIM card to
call taxis and stay in touch with your tour guide, Pakistani
friends and for emergency calls.

Photocopy your passport and visa: When
travelling outside of the cities you’ll hit roadblocks quite
frequently. They are harmless but you must sign a form and leave a
copy of your passport and visa with the authorities.

Inform your embassy that you’re going: Almost
all countries have a list where travellers can register if they are
currently in Pakistan and they will be informed in case of any
security concerns. The embassies also offer useful information on
vaccinations and recent developments.

Check the map: Stay clear of the border with
Afghanistan, the Balochistan region, Peshawar and
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. – Stay alert. Remain aware of your surroundings
and steer clear of any military facilities, large gatherings and

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