*This blog post was edited on January 3rd, 2019.
Hi Guys! Hope you are doing well. Today, I wanted to do a diary post on my trip to Pakistan’s northern areas.
After moving to the United States in 1995, I thought I would never get a chance because these areas are so out-of-the-way and I only visit Karachi to see my aunt and uncle when I travel to Pakistan. Then in 2005 after my college graduation, when my brother and I made the long trip to Karachi for maybe the 5th time since 1995, we were surprised with a trip to what is known as “a bit of heaven on earth” in Pakistan.
As excited as I was to explore this new region, there were quite a few surprises reserved for us. The whole trip turned out to be more memorable than we anticipated as we learned some exotic aspects of Pakistan we didn’t know about. First of all, unbeknownst to me, getting there was an adventure in itself. We decided to take the slow but, a culturally engaging method of transportation out of Karachi– Pakistan’s railway. Our first stop was Lahore, where we stayed a few days with a local family my grandfather knew. They showed us all the sites – from Wagha Border ceremony to Old Lahore since they’d live there for so long. We saw majestic mosques and Mughal residential palaces and gardens like the Badshai Masjid, Sheesh Mahal, Shalimar gardens, and Minar-e-Pakistan. Lahore is also scattered with beautiful historic sights like Lahore Fort, Lahori Gate, Shahi Hammam, and Hiran Minar. Lahore is also known for its lush and maintained gardens. They even have annual flower shows and competitions that floral enthusiasts participate in. Everything in Lahore is sort of well-preserved, yet still very beautiful. While centuries ago, Mughal kings & queens lived in what is called Hindustan today or Indian Sub-continent during that time, they had palaces and mosques all over the region for various political purposes. The best piece of architecture Mughals were known for was the Taj Mahal of course. I could picture Mughal princesses in their ornate attire walking and doing their everyday tasks in some of these beautiful palaces.
After a few days in Lahore, we took a bus ride to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. We spent about 3-4 days here taking in all the sights from Faisal Mosque to the Parliament Building. We even visited an old zoo and park where I use to play when I lived in Islamabad. Islamabad is a very modern city comparable to western standards. The best part of being in Islamabad is renting a car (if you are a tourist, of course) and going to Daman-e-Koh for beautiful vistas of the city below. It is a beautiful city and I have wonderful memories from here!
After Islamabad, the real adventure began. We chartered a bus and drove up to all the famous places in Punjab like Muree, Bhurban, and Taxila. While Muree and Bhurban are a few miles apart from each other and definitely worth an overnight trip, Taxila is one place where we spent only a few hours. Mostly an archeological site today, it includes a fun museum; there is very little left of the once-thriving city. To stand over these ruins that are thousands of years old definitely felt like a bucket list moment. I could compare the feeling to when I went to Rome, Italy in 2001 and saw ruins thousands of years old (See HERE).
After driving north from Taxila, we officially entered the “northern areas”. Unfortunately, I don’t remember many names of the charming towns we passed by, but what stood out for me was seeing the little cafeterias along the rivers & roads. I swear, I drank the best chai (cardamom tea with milk and sugar) in indoor/outdoor dhabas next to the most beautiful vistas. Here, there is always a light chill in the air so you always need a light sweater or a wool shawl to protect yourself. You will find many of the locals to appear shy, but the truth is that they want to give tourists space. If you would like to strike up a conversation in Urdu, speak slowly & they will open up to you & tell you the best stories about the region.
The next two weeks were spent traveling from little town to little town. These were the best road trips I have taken & I have taken some memorable ones (like the Highway 1 in California & through the Death Valley in Southern California to Las Vegas). When we did stay in one town for a couple of days, the activities included hiking the beautiful glaciers in-between seriously rocky mountains, trekking or horse-back riding the rolling hill-tops, & having picnics or snacks next to the most turquoise-blue lakes. Most of the traveling was done in jeeps (sorry no horses!). The rides in these jeeps were so dangerous at times. Imagine driving over a few places on the mountain where the road is a few feet away from the edge and sometimes narrower. To name a few places that I remember visiting: Shogran, Manshera, Naran Kaghan, Balakot. Other natural sites were Lake Lulusar, and Lake Saif-ul-Malook. One thing I took from the whole experience was how hospitable the locals were. There was a wonderful local family that gave us dinner in their stone-walled home – built in the valley at the foot of the mountains, mind you. They had close to nothing, but they gave us a wonderful home-cooked meal with hot chai & a smile. Of course, we gave them some money to show our gratitude. Shopping for souvenirs is better here than in the commercialized towns of Muree and Bhurban because the prices here are so inexpensive. Not a lot of people come here. Muree and Bhurban, on the other hand, are popular vacation spots accessible to many.
On the way back down to Karachi, we took the same modes of transportation & stayed overnight in Islamabad. There I caught a bad case of food poisoning from Chinese food and pretty much spent 4-5 days being sick. I think we may have even changed our train itinerary and ended up staying in Lahore with the same local family because we couldn’t get hotels last-minute. Terrible health experience.
Overall, this trip was a great learning experience. I highly recommend people explore the “northern areas in Pakistan”. I will advise going there as part of a group tour. For tourists without a Pakistani passport, I recommend flying into Islamabad and requesting any hotel arrange the tours for you. Granted my experience was before rumors of Taliban attacks on Muslims were prevalent & disastrous earthquakes hit the area, I never did feel threatened in any way. Instead, I hung with family and many friends from America! Happy Travelling!