When somebody says, “I'm going backpacking,” and you reply, “where are you going?” Pakistan is not what you expect to hear.
Let's face it, the country has had its fair share of bad press and negative stereotypes develop over the years.
Yet, 29-year old adventure blogger Will Hatton, AKA The Broke Backpacker, who is somewhat the epitome of the gap year, is on a mission to dispel the myths about Pakistan.
Will truly believes if you're even just a little bit intrigued by adventure, you need to go to Pakistan.
A 26-year-old Will first visited Pakistan in 2015, following an epic seven-year journey through some of our world's most wicked and wonderful places.
All of this on an impossibly tiny budget, often no more than $10 a day.
Despite seeing the orange sunsets on Thai beaches, or the ancient Latin ruins built into Machu Picchu, Will considers Pakistan to be “simply the greatest country in the world” for adventurers.
But why? We asked Will.
1. The Diverse Cultures of Pakistan
Pakistan is home to dozens of languages, with its official language, Urdu, being only the fourth most commonly spoken.
There are hundreds of culturally unique communities across Pakistan, following an array of different faiths, participating in distinct social practices, and speaking a considerable number of different languages.
Pakistan is perhaps one of the most multi-ethnic countries on the planet, with the average person able to speak three or more languages.
English-speaking visitors should not find themselves afraid, as many in Pakistan speak excellent English – a mark left by the compulsory introduction of English in schools during the rule of the British Raj.
2. The Gargantuan Mountains and Enormous Glaciers
Pakistan is home to an astonishing variety of climates.
Its diverse landscapes range from sweeping arid desert plains to vast, towering ranges of ice-covered peaks to temperate forest valleys brimming with wild-flowers.
Few countries on Earth can match the varied beauty and mystique of Pakistan.
“Perhaps one of my funnest moments, ever, was being able to name my own mountain.
Because Pakistan is so unexplored by Brits and Americans, there’s still the opportunity to act as if you’re a 19th century explorer — except with a bit more respect for the locals of course — uncovering things for the first time.
My own personal challenge is to climb and name a new mountain every time I go to Pakistan.”— Will Hatton
In the furthest northern reaches of the country, the Karakoram Mountains dominate the skyline.
These daunting peaks are often mistakenly included among the neighboring Himalayas, a testament to their grand scale.
Among these peaks, four of the world's most massive glaciers can be found, some dozens of miles long.
Having participated in expeditions across these glaciers, Will Hatton describes them as “like worlds unto themselves,” reflecting on the surreal experience of being surrounded by miles of ice at the top of the world.
Though Will has also spent many months exploring the Himalayas through several countries, he still regards the Karakoram mountains to be the most stunning he has ever seen – and a real paradise for trekkers.
All found in a place many would never expect it to be.
3. The Wealth of History in Pakistan
Some of the world's most ancient civilizations were birthed in the region that is now considered to be Pakistan.
Over 5,000 years ago, the Indus River, which flows centrally through Pakistan, gave sustenance to tens of thousands of people by allowing them to farm in an otherwise arid climate.
These peoples invented some of the earliest systems of writing and mathematics and built prosperous trading cities of stone and brick – some of the first in the world.
They held religions older than any found today, leaving behind only cryptic glimpses of their faith.
After several thousand years, a quickly changing climate caused generations of crops to fail, ensuring a famine which doomed these civilizations to ruin.
However, to this day, their ruins remain and can be seen in travels along the path of the Indus River (so Will tells us).
Later, Pakistan was the heartland of the Mughal Empire, and many of their elaborate forts remain.
Pakistan is also home to some of the world's most significant Buddhist monuments and relics, primarily found in the northern provinces.
The northern regions were an essential segment of the historic silk-road, a long-standing trading network that linked the Eastern and Western worlds in ancient times, and through which vast wealth was passed for over a thousand years.
Pakistan's rich and ancient heritage is apparent to this day, for any adventurer curious enough to seek it.
When it comes to discussing Pakistan's history, Will has some advice.
“Despite the Pakistanis love of discussing their own local history, I would suggest keeping anything controversial to a minimum, just because it’s a little bit disrespectful to go somewhere with any cultural baggage and not give them the time of day to give their own opinions.”
See also: Best Travel Insurance for Backpackers
4. The Safety for Foreign Travelers
In the minds of many in the west, Pakistan is a country associated firmly with conflict and strife.
In decades past, the country has seen perhaps more than its fair share of violence.
Occupation of some northern regions by the Taliban ended only a mere decade ago, and more recently, contentions over the province of Kashmir have provoked a flaring of violence along the southern border.
Wait. Breathe. Despite all the taboo, it is crucial to recognize that any conflict within Pakistan is now highly concentrated in only a few particular regions, and the majority of the country is now recommended as safe to travel.
Among backpacking circles, the people of Pakistan have a reputation for being almost overwhelmingly hospitable, and Will tells us it has never in living memory been as easier to acquire a travel visa.
As holds true for any destination, though certainly some more than others, it is always important to do your research.
The broke backpacker has created a fantastic guide exploring some of the trickier planning considerations, at https://www.thebrokebackpacker.com/pakistan-travel-ultimate-backpacker-guide
5. Attitudes Towards Women Traveling Alone
Pakistan, like many foreign countries, adheres to a different set of cultural norms and values than those with which we may be familiar.
Foremost among these, attitudes towards women – particularly in more conservative areas.
Aware of the questions surrounding this topic, Hatton reached out to several women he's met during his travels who have first-hand experience.
They explained, unanimously, that traveling as women can perhaps be daunting, but with certain precautions is entirely plausible.
A recurring theme was the modesty of clothing: “Dressing appropriately is hugely important when traveling Pakistan,” said Emma.
“The more conservative you dress, the more comfortable you'll make yourself and others! It also shows respect, and so no misunderstanding occurs.”
Another frequent mention was the importance of a male companion when traveling in some areas.
Will explains that some regions will offer a police escort, not because of danger, but as a gesture of hospitality.
As in all things, it seems Pakistan is an incredibly varied country.
Another of Hatton's contacts, Alex, said that “Northern Pakistan is the most welcoming to female travelers in Pakistan —the people there are very level-headed and much more used to women walking around and doing things on their own.”
If you plan properly, make reliable local contacts, and remain mindful, traveling as a woman seems manageable.
Will can also speak from first-hand experience. He says his “number one travel companion is my girlfriend, Nina, who I met in Iran.
Although she is from Iran, she is just as Western as I am, coming with me on my travels around Europe. When we go to Pakistan, there is no trouble.
In fact, when we went to Bashahi Mosque in Lahore last year, she was treated as a respected guest — more than that, we were BOTH invited to stay for dinner parties.”
Pakistan is a spectacular country and more open to all than might be expected!
Rebekah Brandstratter is a 26-year-old from Liverpool, England, who had a gap year when she was 19 but never left. When she’s not busy adventuring around unusual places, she’s on her laptop, writing about her experiences for a living. Her claim to fame is that while she was working in the Australian outback, she got to act as a midwife for her now favorite lamb called “Shaunetta.”