Recommendations/advice/reassurance for a trip to Pakistan?
December 29, 2013 7:08 AM   Subscribe

My colleague (who is from Pakistan originally, is well-traveled, and is well-known/liked within the science community within Pakistan) has invited me to join him at a scientific conference (all-expenses-paid) in Bahawalpur (Punjab province) in February. After consulting with my wife, I accepted, and I'm excited, but I'm also a bit nervous. I could use recommendations, advice from those who know Pakistan (and especially this area), and especially reassurances, as many people look at me as though I'm crazy when I mention that I'm going to Pakistan.

The colleague in question is likely taking care of all the arrangements, and I trust him entirely to ensure everyplace we go is safe. I also trust that he'll do everything possible to make sure I have a good time, and I think it's important to him that I do.

At the same time, mid-February seems REALLY close to me, and I don't really know any of the plans yet. For example, I haven't yet applied for a visa (he said a month is more-than-adequate). I've looked into flights a bit and let him know my preferences (I think we'll likely fly through Dubai and into Multan), and he was talking about arranging a desert safari. (Bahawalpur is, apparently, the gate to the Cholistan desert.) I'm entirely set on the conference, and I'm sure all the details will work out, but I'm trying to find more information about logistics and not finding much; Bahawalpur is not, apparently, a popular destination. I've looked at Lonely Planet, WikiTravel, etc, but there's not a whole ton there. (I suppose this might be a reflection of Bahawalpur, which seems like it might be the Cedar Rapids (or perhaps El Paso?) of Pakistan?) Are there things I should see? Particular crafts to bring back for friends/family? Best places to buy them? What should I expect in terms of accommodations, etc?

I'm not as anxious a traveler as this question probably makes me sound*, but I like to have semi-reasonable expectations going into things, and I am finding myself entirely without a clue. Recommended reading (fiction or non) for this part of Pakistan would be welcome as well. Finally, given the more-or-less perpetual State Department warning about travel in Pakistan, I could use reassurances that this isn't some horrible idea. (If it IS a less-than-stellar idea, please think twice before telling me; I have family who's all-too-happy to try and make me second-guess this decision.)

Anything else I should know? Thanks in advance!

* I have traveled quite a bit, and often without plans, but Pakistan is a bit exotic compared to other places I've been. I've also not traveled to any Muslim countries; until my current passport, that would have been made difficult by Israeli stamps (in my US passport), but my current passport doesn't have any. I assume my somewhat Jewish name won't be an issue in Pakistan? (I am not particularly religious in case that matters)
posted by JMOZ to Travel & Transportation around Bahawalpur, Pakistan (9 answers total)
Re: crafts/gifts: scarves (dupatta?)! They're beautiful.

My favorite gifts from Pakistan have been scarves (and a bull carved out of some local stone). Unfortunately, I can't help you out with any of your more practical concerns, as I've never been.
posted by nobejen at 7:30 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Memail bardophile.
(and give her a big hug from me when you do).
posted by adamvasco at 7:56 AM on December 29, 2013

Can't help really - but I do know that if I want to travel to a conference on my university employer's travel insurance (which I do because it has helicopters and repatriation costs and stuff) to somewhere the FCO - the UK's equivalent to the State Dept. - advises against, I have to go through a laborious documentation and negotiation procedure with central admin that takes considerably longer than now to mid-February. So there's that.
posted by cromagnon at 2:11 PM on December 29, 2013

I wouldn't believe him about visas. Citizens of a country usually have very little idea what a visa process actually involves and tend to be over optimistic about it, since they and their family never had to get one. I'd look into that yourself, starting now. It's not like it's possible to get it organised too soon.
posted by lollusc at 3:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

You could try posting the same question on the Pakistan subreddit.

Seconding the visa advice, the Pakistani Embassy states 4-6 week processing time on their website.
Make sure you register with the US consulate or embassy in Pakistan as well.
posted by Snazzy67 at 4:13 PM on December 29, 2013

Hugs back to adamvasco. :)

Practical stuff:
- The Pakistan visa process is usually not terribly laborious. If it's being organized in connection with an academic conference, a month is more than adequate. (I used to have to apply for Pakistani visas, before they started recognizing dual nationality.) That said, applying early never hurts.
- Your Jewish name will not be a problem. I am assuming that you are fair-skinned compared to most Pakistanis. This will make you stand out more than your name or religion. In a place like Bahawalpur (more on this later), this is likely to make you the subject of stares, extraordinary hospitality, and random strangers walking up to you to make conversation.
- It used to be that I would tell all my American friends that all the worries are overblown. I no longer do that; however, as long as you are with a local host, I would say you are perfectly safe (or as safe as you would be anywhere else in the world).
- Accommodation, if taken care of by the organizing body, may be somewhat spartan, but adequate. It may well be luxurious. Without knowing who is organizing it, I can't really say. If you have any dietary restrictions or special needs, make sure they know well in advance. I have never met a Pakistani unwilling to accommodate a guest's reasonable and unreasonable requests, but it would be nice if you could give them advance warning.

Touristy stuff:

Bahawalpur is, indeed, the gateway to the Cholistan desert. Pakistan does a terrible job of PR about its tourist attractions. The Cholistan and Rajasthan deserts are right next to each other, and have a lot of cultural similarities. There is much to see and a variety of crafts that you should look into taking back. To my mind, Bahawalpur is to Karachi and Lahore as Santa Fe is to New York and Boston. Definitely not Cedar Rapids. I've never been to El Paso.

Were I to go to Bahawalpur (and it is a reasonably popular local tourist destination), here are the things I would probably do:

- Buy souvenirs
- Silverware and silver jewelry
- Chunri fabrics (this is a distinctive tie-dye textile), in silk, chiffon, or cotton
- Khussas (brightly embroidered leather slip-on shoes). Khussas can be found in many different parts of the subcontinent, but those from the Seraiki belt (Southern Punjab) are quite distinct in style. If you do buy them, try to make sure that they are all leather, not faux-leather pasted on to leather.

- Go see the Derawar Fort.

- Try to get to some night-time singing in the desert.

February is probably the best time of year to visit Punjab. I would ask your friend about the possibility of organizing things so that you could spend a couple of days in Lahore. There are always many, many cultural events going on at that time of year. And it would give you the chance to drive down to Multan, seeing the Punjabi countryside when the mustard flowers are blooming. Not that I am sentimental about my home, at all.

General Reassurances:
Foreigners who visit Pakistan in a private capacity generally come away quite amazed at the hospitality.
The minority of very publicly and criminally crazy Pakistanis have resulted in the reasonably sane majority bending over backwards to make sure that visitors understand that the majority is reasonably sane.
The US State Dept has been telling people not to travel to Pakistan for at least as long as I have been living here (On and off since the early 80s). I regularly get advisories from the US Embassy that I should not shop where I shop, live where I live, travel where I travel, etc. By and large, Pakistan is no more dangerous to visit than anywhere else in the world. And we have better food. :)

Feel free to memail if you want further information.
posted by bardophile at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2013

Well, I'm still waiting for my visa (and the funding approval so I can book tickets), but the trip is approaching and I'm getting excited. I still don't have my exact itinerary, but I think we're going to do about a day (or maybe two) in Lahore (with my colleague), and then go to Bahawalpur. Apparently, the plan is to fly from Lahore to Bahawalpur, though finding decent flights is a bit tough. Follow-up question- is driving from LHE to BHV reasonable/worthwhile/safe/a good idea?
posted by JMOZ at 4:57 PM on January 28, 2014

I know that the drive to Multan is perfectly doable and safe. I'll check with a friend about road conditions to Bahawalpur, and get back to you.
posted by bardophile at 9:04 AM on February 2, 2014

So, visa issues and funding issues came up, but the trip is now back on, albeit in March and with no trip to Lahore.... Thanks again to everyone (especially bardophone!) for helpful advice.
posted by JMOZ at 4:32 PM on February 19, 2014

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