Following my trip to Ethiopia in March, I had originally thought that my second "big trip" of the year would once again be Africa (i.e., Republic of Congo, for an exciting documentary project I'm involved in), but alas, the filming has been postponed for the time being.
Determined to indulge my inevitable (and insatiable) urge to plunge myself into far-off foreign territory, I quickly and easily came up with an alternative in light of this plan change.
And so I found myself booking flights to Pakistan only six weeks before my departure, quickly applying for the e-visa and crossing my fingers that it would be processed in time.
Although several sources inspired me to visit the country, the idea was first planted in my head a few years ago by Maida, an old friend of mine. One of the few multicultural students at our suburban, east-coast high school in Canada (her mother is Mexican and her father Pakistani), she had moved around Pakistan, Texas, and Canada with her family throughout her youth. One husband and two babies later, she's now settled in Lahore.
Despite keeping in touch through social media, we hadn't actually seen each other in the flesh since we were maybe eighteen (i.e., well over a decade ago), so it was high time for a grand reunion on a different continent.
In the past year or two, Pakistan has also received a wave of attention from a handful of influential travel bloggers/vloggers, including Lost With Purpose, Rosie Gabrielle, Eva zu Beck, and The Broke Backpacker, leading to a recent influx of tourists. Each of these established influencers has put their own spin on their adventures in the country, but the common theme among their personal accounts is their positive portrayal of Pakistani culture. This favourable perception of the country—not to mention the stunning mountainous landscape in its remote northern areas—enticed me even further.
Although these (more or less) full-time bloggers have had the luxury of long-term travel in Pakistan, I had to settle for a crash course due to time constraints (17 days, to be exact), as per usual. But also as per usual, I was gung-ho to relish the experience in the time I had.
Applying for a Pakistan e-Visa
The online application for the tourist visa is relatively straightforward but requires a bit more legwork than visas for other countries I've visited. Aside from the usual IDs/travel documents (passport, photos, residence permit, etc.), a few extra papers have to be obtained before submitting the application.
The extra effort mainly lies in acquiring a formal letter of invitation (LOI) from a Pakistani sponsor/host (either an individual citizen or registered tour company in Pakistan). Although I would be staying with Maida for part of the trip, for the sake of convenience, I arranged my LOI through a tour company called The Mad Hatters for 50 USD, and they promptly emailed me the LOI and handful of supporting documents.
A forewarning: the online system is a bit glitchy, and I had to refresh the page and re-enter data several times, but luckily, each page is saved when you continue onto a new section of the form, allowing you to pick up where you left off––there is also a helpful application guide to walk you through the process, if needed. Just before you submit, you're prompted to pay the fee by credit card (which was 60 USD for my single-entry visa as a Canadian citizen, and is non-refundable if your application is rejected).
The website states a standard processing time of 7–10 business days, but quicker turnaround times have been reported by some travelers. As expected, I ended up receiving the approval notification after 10 days, just over two weeks before my departure.
Note: As of earlier this year, a visa on arrival (VOA) option is available to tourists (which still requires a preliminary application process). Personally, however, I prefer to arrange my visas beforehand to avoid potentially long lineups at the airport and reduce the risk of the worst-case scenario—being rejected from entering the country.
As a secular Westerner, I selected "no religion" on the visa application and hoped for the best (apparently I have other redeeming qualities, because they let me in). I was a bit nervous about this selection because religion is an essential part of Pakistani culture, and I wasn't sure if revealing my lack of faith (or let's say absence of organized religion) right off the bat would be well-received. But rest assured, my fellow heathens, this is not a trick question leading to direct visa rejection.
Given the short length of my stay, I felt that I should be a bit more organized than usual in order to maximize my time in the country. I knew I would be visiting Maida in Lahore (in the province of Punjab), but I also knew I didn't want to miss out on the north. Since I'd be arriving in the middle of October, I initially thought it would be too late in the season for trekking in Skardu (my first choice of destination outside Lahore—luckily my trekking assumption was later proven wrong).
Although tours with fixed itineraries have never appealed to me in the past (I don't exactly associate them with adventure—see previous rant), I had read about Pakistani entrepreneur Aneeqa Ali, who runs the tour company The Mad Hatters. Wanting to support Aneeqa's business (and a female-led one at that, which is currently a rarity in Pakistan), I could justify the choice and arranged to go along with a small group to Hunza in the northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan for six days. Visiting the region at the peak of autumn was guaranteed to be beautiful and would still leave ample time for my own brand of adventure. And so I booked the tour, which would place me back in Lahore with 11 days to spare. In the meantime, I was also monitoring posts on the private Facebook groups Backpacking Pakistan and Female Pakistan Travelers (FPT) for other excursion ideas and general travel information.
Through a spontaneous (and dare I say fateful) turn of events, I found myself presented with a fortuitous alternative. Six days before my departure, I came across a post in FPT that seemed too good to be true: Mawish, a Lahori local, announced her intent to trek to Mashabrum (sometimes spelled as "Masherbrum" and otherwise known as K1) base camp (4,500 meters) in the Karakoram mountains. She would be leaving by bus from Lahore the morning after I arrived and was seeking a travel companion. I had zero doubt that this timely opportunity to travel with a local with a mutual interest (backpacking/trekking) would be both interesting and rewarding—in terms of making a new friend with a different cultural background and gaining unique insights into the country.
I wasn't deterred by the fact that it would be a chunk of concentrated commuting—nearly 10 hours of flight time from Frankfurt (via Istanbul) to Lahore almost immediately followed by a continuous 30-hour drive to Skardu. After overnighting in Skardu city, another five-hour ride would bring us to the starting point of the trek (the village of Hushe) towards Mashabrum, which looms at 7,821 meters and is the ninth-highest peak in Pakistan (for reference, K2 is the highest at 8,611 meters and is the second-highest in the world, after Everest).
One small problem: the dates directly coincided with the Hunza tour, which I had already paid for in full.
Being unable to resist a good plot twist (or the lure of the mountains) and having every intention to join Mawish, I came up with an idea.
After discussing my options with Aneeqa, I decided to forgo my tour deposit and instead "sponsor" a member of the FPT Facebook group to go in my place. This way, Aneeqa wouldn't be losing out on money and someone else could enjoy the experience and potentially pass on the good word to help grow Aneeqa's business.
As you can imagine, my offer for a free trip generated a lot of interest (and an equal amount of skepticism). But posting this invitation only two days before my departure left me little time to properly interview candidates (ideally, I wanted to give the opportunity to someone who wouldn't normally be able to afford the trip). I made a quick decision the day before my departure based on chatting with a few girls (who were all great), and in the end, everyone was happy—me, Aneeqa, and the lucky "winner."
The next day, I boarded the plane with bells on.