Help me make the most of my time in Islamabad.
June 7, 2010 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me make the most of six months in Pakistan.

In August I will be heading to Islamabad on a six month contract with a telecommunications firm. Whilst there I'd like to see as much of the city and country as possible. Can you please suggest sights/activities and help with any pointers you wish you'd had before you went?
I'm not a timid traveler, and I'm obviously aware of the importance for respecting Islamic culture and traditions. I speak Arabic (though I know they speak Urdu in Pakistan) and in October last year spent several months traveling around Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
posted by Biru to Travel & Transportation around Pakistan (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Biru: Be prepared for it to be very different from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. :) Arabic will be of no help to you whatsoever, in terms of communicating with people. If you can read Arabic, it will help you in making sense of the signs, given that Urdu is written in the Persian script.

Those of us who live in Islamabad mostly speak some combination of Urdu, Pashto, English, and/or Punjabi.

What sights you should see depends a great deal on what your interests are. The mountains are gorgeous, and accessible from Islamabad, though you'll want to get advice on which parts are currently safe to visit. And when I say gorgeous, I mean, you have never ever seen anything like them. They're just magnificent beyond belief. I'm almost sad that they were the first big mountains I ever saw, because I've never really been able to be impressed by the Rockies, for example.

If you have any interest in history, be sure to see Taxila. I'm being lazy and not pointing you to links. Will try to do that tomorrow.

Those are the first two things that come to mind. If you're there for six months, do make the time to go to Lahore and/or Multan, particularly if you're interested in history. Lahore is a tremendously interesting city, otherwise, as well. A great deal of cultural activity, fantastic food.

I can't tell how much free time you're going to have. And honestly, it would help to know what kinds of things interest you. Pakistan has a tremendously rich culture and landscape. One would point you in very different directions depending on what you fancy.

It's late right now. More tomorrow.
posted by bardophile at 12:48 PM on June 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your response bardophile. I should have most weekends free (am I right in understanding that Pakistan observes a similar weekend to most Islamic countries where Sunday is the first working day of the week?) and will be able to do things in and around Islamabad in the evenings. Ideally I want to come away from the six months with a broad sense of what Pakistan is all about. To be able to understand the culture and the people and explain it on my return to another westerner who has had no experience with Pakistan. If that makes sense.
posted by Biru at 2:02 PM on June 7, 2010

Best answer: No, the weekend is Saturday/ Sunday. However Friday has an extra long lunch break for prayers, and many people take it as effectively a half-day.

Islamabad itself is a bit of a bubble isolated from the rest of the country. It's a great place to be, and especially good if you're at all curious about how political power works in the country. But you must certainly make an effort to go beyond it, and if possible take a week or two off some time to explore. You can go to Lahore on weekends by a 40 minute flight or 3-5 hour drive/ coach ride.

In Lahore, go to the Shah Jamal shrine on a Thursday evening. It's a Sufi shrine where the country's best drummer plays on most Thursdays and his devotees perform ecstatic dances under the influence of (a LOT) of hash. It's a remarkable experience. However, I've not been there for a year or so, so I don't know if it's been affected by the bomb blasts etc.

Try to make local friends who are willing to go to interesting places with you (like Shah Jamal -- you can go there by yourself, but it will overwhelming). Pakistan has a strong sense of private vs public spheres of life, and having a local with you can make a huge difference.

Try to get out of the cities. It's especially good if your local friends take you -- and once you do, you'll find that they are great about going out of your way to show you the 'real' Pakistan. A lot of people have farm houses outside Islamabad which are basically huge playhouses for the rich and a taste of ridiculous bubbles of luxury. On the other hand if you go with someone who has a real home in a village, it should be another experience altogether.

If you go to Karachi, try going into interior Sindh (though be warned, there are risks of bandits there), even if it's for a day's drive. If you go towards Sehwan Sharif, the landscape is majestic -- arid hills, bleak nothingness, then suddenly the golden shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar who is the inspiration for some of the greatest Sufi music. If you go east towards Thatta, it's a wet, semi-tropical, desperately poor area where people live on sand bars in the middle of the sea. I've never been on the Gwadar coastal highway drive towards the west, but I believe it's beautiful. However, find out about restrictions on foreigners going there, since much of Balochistan is off limits. Again, Balochistan is another world from the rest of Pakistan.

From Islamabad, a lovely day trip is to Khanpur lake. If you're into activities, there are loads which start from Islamabad (I went paragliding at Khanpur) and are much cheaper than their equivalents overseas.

I don't know what the situation in Hunza is like with the recent landslides and flooding, but if it's good, then that is one of the most beautiful and safe places to visit. Amazing culture and people, beautiful scenery, right on the border with China. Driving or flying to the north are both incredible experiences.

As for tips and pointers. My now-husband was a foreigner in Pakistan, so I can tell you what he found. For one he found it almost impossible to learn Urdu whilst there as everyone, from rickshaw drivers on, wanted to practice their English with him. Everyone wanted him to go their homes for meals etc. He was stared at -- don't worry, staring is a Pakistani sport and foreigners get the worst of it. Don't shake hands with women unless they offer or are working women.

He was there before things started getting hairy, so you might not be able to move around with quite that level of ease but I can ask for more specifics.

I am from Lahore myself, and haven't spent much time in Islamabad since the troubles began, but I have plenty of friends there, so if you would like specific information I (or I'm sure bardophile) can happily find out. Feel free to memail me.
posted by tavegyl at 12:25 AM on June 8, 2010

Best answer: hello tavegyl: nice to meet a fellow Lahori, here.

OP: Yes, the Shah Jamal drummer is quite an experience. Do try to see him. The Wazir Khan mosque is another place you should ask someone to take you (also in Lahore, and not on people's usual list of places to take tourists).

tavegyl makes excellent suggestions. In general, everyone I have ever met who has visited Pakistan comes away wowed by the hospitality.

You haven't said, but I have made the sexist assumption that you are male. Is that correct? I would have slightly different advice if you are female. Or perhaps I should say more advice. Everything tavegyl and I have said would still make sense.

Islamabad has been harder to move around in for the past few years, but I'm sure your coworkers will be able to give you more advice about that. There are some good hiking trails just outside Islamabad. Kaghan and Naran are beautiful, but I don't know if they are accessible right now.

Will post more as I think of it. Feel free to memail me also.
posted by bardophile at 12:44 AM on June 8, 2010

Response by poster: Yes I am male. Thanks again for your advice. I leave (fly out to Islamabad that is) in about six weeks, and I shall take all your advice on board and try to see as much of Pakistan as I can.
posted by Biru at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2010

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