The unexpected highlights of northwest Pakistan

written by Riazat Butt

updated 6.01.2020

Returning to her Pakistani roots, Riazat Butt visits her home country as a tourist and discovers the unexpected highlights of Pakistan's northwest.

It takes four buckets of water and half a bottle of shampoo to wash the Hindu Kush out of my hair. I've come from Chitral, across the icy and rugged wilderness of the Shandur Pass, to a motel in Gupis. The speed of the open-top jeep whipped up clouds of dust and bitter winds that hardened my ponytail so much it lashed the cheek of my fellow passenger. At points it was so cold that my travelling companions and I draped ourselves over a jeep bonnet to stay warm while others took photographs.

I’m here on a tour of northwest Pakistan. It's my first trip as a tourist and I'm free to explore the country's natural beauty which, having my roots in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, comes as a complete surprise to me. These dramatic landscapes, cleaved by the Indus River, are a far cry from the genteel charms and brunch spots of the capital, Islamabad. The lush green valleys and snowcapped mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are unspoiled by mass tourism.

View on the new silk road or Karakoram highway, This highway is the friendship project offered by China © khlongwangchao/Shutterstock

Karakoram highway © khlongwangchao/Shutterstock

“Pakistan: not as bad as you think”

Prior to heading off around the north, my group had dinner at Islamabad's Kabul Restaurant, where I suggested tongue-in-cheek tourism slogans over heaps of kebabs and naan. I came up with “Pakistan: not as bad as you think”, although a kinder soul proposed “Pakistan: so much potential” as an alternative.

Pakistan's promise as a destination for intrepid travellers and backpackers has long been lauded. But I didn’t fall into either of these categories – and I was hesitant about what the week had in store.

I soon learned, however, that this part of the country is teeming with culture, energy and history.

The trip itself started in the Kalash Valley, before that icy drive took me here, to Baltit Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Karimabad. I know. “Pakistan” and “UNESCO World Heritage” don't often appear in the same sentence, but the country has ancient history in spades. This 700-year-old fort is not the oldest or the most spectacular man-made structure in Pakistan, but its rugged backdrop and imposing setting make quite the impression.

From here, we head southwest towards Islamabad. The journey takes around twelve hours, much of it on narrow roads with no room for overtaking, but the garnet stones we spot at the side of the Karakoram Highway – which connects China and Pakistan – are a reward for our frayed nerves.

Our destination is Taxila, an ancient city of the Gandhara kingdom and a centre of Buddhist learning. UNESCO describes the settlement as one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia, and as well as Buddhist monasteries, a mosque and a madrassa (religious school) it also has a mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of four settlements.

“Mughal splendour that could rival the attractions of Istanbul”

It's a short drive from Taxila back to the capital, during which we spot thousand-year-old petroglyphs (rock art) at the side of the road. Like many of the historical sites in Pakistan these are not so much neglected as they are overlooked – a recurring theme throughout my trip.


Wazir Khan Mosque © bluelake/Shutterstock

There are scores more undiscovered treasures like these throughout the country. In Lahore, for example, the mausoleums of Shadhara Bagh and the Mughal splendour of the Wazir Khan mosque could rival the attractions of Istanbul with a bit more care and attention. As it is, their enduring beauty owes more to the quality of their architecture and design than heritage initiatives.

Tragically, bad press and political instability have left Pakistan off of most travellers’ itineraries for the last few decades, and the country sees very little foreign tourism, especially compared with its neighbour, India. It's time this changed. I don't want Pakistan to be overrun with visitors, just enough to push the country's sites and monuments front and centre. Until then, just pack some Imodium and batteries for the best camera you can afford.

Need to know

Flights Pakistan International Airways (PIA) is currently the only airline offering direct flights to and from major cities in the UK and New York in the USA. Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Gulf Air require layovers, which can add hours onto a journey, but offer cheaper fares.Tours Travelpak, a specialist tour company based in London, organise small group tours. They can help with visas, accommodation, flights and itineraries, and provide on-the-ground support.Where to stay The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation has a list of clean, comfortable and cheap motels across the country. For something more luxurious, try The Residency in Lahore, the Pearl Continental in Karachi or the Serena in Islamabad.

Explore more of Pakistan with these stunning photos. Book hostels for your next trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Riazat Butt

written by Riazat Butt

updated 6.01.2020

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