Hitching is never entirely without risk in any country, and we don’t recommend it, especially for solo women. Travellers who hitch should be aware that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk; it’s safer if you travel with at least one other person and inform someone of where you are planning to go. You should be aware that although some drivers may take you on board purely for the company; others may do so in the belief that they’ll receive some payment.
Getting around Pakistan by bus isn’t always terribly comfortable but it’s undeniably cheap. The main corridor for both is Karachi to Peshawar, via Multan, Lahore and Rawalpindi, with a branch from Sukkur to Quetta through the Bolan Pass.
There are numerous bus companies and some towns have more than one bus depot, which can create a bit of confusion. Depots are inevitably chaotic and the best way to attract help may just be to shout out your destination to one of the spruikers. You’ll be quickly ushered to an appropriate bus. The better outfits, operating between the larger centres, will usually run to a timetable.
The most comfortable intercity trips are in air-con buses with outfits including Daewoo, New Khan Road Runners, Skyways and Citylinkers. Up north, Natco and several private companies run buses between Rawalpindi, Gilgit, Skardu and the China border. Mashabrum, Silk Tours and K2 have more-comfortable coaches, at least as far as Aliabad (Hunza) and Skardu. Note that Daewoo bus stations are separate from the chaos of the local bus stands and are usually easy to access. Although a little more expensive, Daewoo buses are newer, safer, cleaner, and where possible, they use the quicker toll roads. Another bonus is that the ‘hostess’ on board provides a snack and drink.
Then there are Pakistan’s rolling works of art: chrome-sequinned vintage Bedford buses and trucks, vividly painted with psychedelic designs, poetry, Quranic passages and/or technicolour landscapes, equipped with tinted windows, dangling chains and musical horns, and decorated with mirrors, badges and fluting. Though a photographer’s delight, they’re perversely uncomfortable to ride in.
Minibuses are another option, and Hi-Ace and Coaster minibuses run on many regional and long-distance routes. They’re faster and often a bit pricier than buses, although in a Hi-Ace your comfort is severely compromised by the cramped seating arrangement (they squeeze four people into a row of seats where there’s space for three) and the view of the scenery is limited – an important factor in Chitral and the Northern Areas. Minibuses wait in major bus stands or in specified areas in certain towns. Drivers will usually hang around until the bus is full before they depart.
Common short-haul vehicles are small Suzuki vans with two rows of seats and a garish canopy slapped over the top, or larger Toyota pick-ups – some with canopies that double as a second level of seating! They’ll stop anywhere to pick you up or set you down, and you pay only for the distance you go. Views are nonexistent unless you’re on the roof or hanging off the back! Don’t be put off paying a little extra for the privilege of a cab seat – it’s probably worth it.
Where mountain roads permit nothing else, passenger/cargo 4WDs (Jeeps and Land Cruisers) serve remote villages. The smaller, made-in-Pakistan Jeeps have a monopoly on the narrow mountain roads with active sliding areas and precipitous drop-offs. These vehicles rarely run to set schedules and you can hire them as a ‘special’ or by the seat.
Bus travel is very economical if not always comfortable. For example, the six-hour minibus trip from Gilgit to Skardu costs Rs 200; the very nice air-con Daewoo express between Rawalpindi and Peshawar is only Rs 210.
Whenever travelling by bus, it’s worth flashing your student card – while you may get little more than a snarl, you could possibly score a discount on long-distance routes.
Few foreign drivers bring their vehicles into Pakistan and self-drive car rental is not common practice. More common, and surprisingly economical, is hiring a car with a driver.
Traffic drives on the left in Pakistan and motorcyclists are technically required to wear a helmet. It’s best to avoid night driving, particularly in places like Balochistan, where you may be asked to join a guarded convoy.
Avis has cars for hire in Pakistan’s major cities, most often through Travel Walji’s. Local companies may be a tad cheaper, but always check the small print carefully before committing yourself.
You’ll need to show an IDP and leave a wad of cash or a credit-card imprint as deposit.
Pakistan has some 13, 000km of tracks, and if you don’t like the thought of being wedged into a careening minibus, you’ll enjoy the trains. On the downside, long-distance trains are often crowded. If you’re catching one at an intermediate point you can’t always be sure of a seat, even if you booked one. Long-haul trains can run hours late to their later destinations. For seat availability, e-ticketing, and further rail information, check out www.pakrail.com.
Trains are Express, Mail or Passenger – we list the best options in the regional chapters of this book. The various classes that are available on different trains are also mentioned in the regional chapters.
Pakistan Railways publishes a handy Time & Fare Table, for sale at most train stations and at some city bookshops, for Rs 25. Updated twice a year, it’s good for route planning and for current details about schedules and fares. Pakistan’s railway inquiries telephone number is 117.
Food can usually be bought on the train itself or from food stalls and roaming vendors at station stops. Bringing your own bottled water is a good idea.
Railway officials advise against accepting food or drink from strangers as there have been a few incidences of drugging (and subsequent robberies) on trains. You’re also advised to padlock your bags to racks (especially if you intend sleeping) and to keep your money and important documents (eg passport) in a well-concealed moneybelt.
Long-distance runs have sleepers in 1st and air-con class (which should ideally be booked ahead, to a maximum of 14 and 30 days, respectively). Some trains have economy seats and berths. Women may book female-only compartments. At smaller stations with no reservation quota, you may not be able to book seats or berths.
Economy is the cheapest seat (reserved or unreserved) on most express trains. It’s a step up from the ‘cattle class’ of second class, which is mostly confined to slow passenger trains. Air-conditioned lower (seat, berth and parlour) are comfortable seats in the air-con carriage that are good value (with the foreigner/student discounts) for medium-distance journeys. Air-conditioned sleeper is the most comfortable class for long journeys. This class is expensive and relatively private, accommodating two or four passengers to a compartment –some with toilets. The 1st-class sleeper (seat and berth) is comfortable but it’s not a step up from more modern air-con carriages. In 1st-class sleeper or air-conditioned sleeper you are expected to make way for sitting passengers between 6am and 9pm. If you wish to reserve the compartment for you own exclusive use during these hours there is an additional fee payable based on the length of the journey.
Reserved sleepers may have berth and carriage numbers on the ticket, but sometimes you must go to the conductor/ticket inspector for your allocation. This is also the person to befriend if you want to upgrade your ticket.
Trains can be surprisingly cold at night; only air-con compartments are usually heated. Bedding is not always provided on sleeper trains – verify the situation when booking your ticket.
Railway retiring rooms exist at most major city train stations and are available for air-con or 1st-class sleeper ticket holders (usually departing within 24 hours). Singles cost around Rs 100 and doubles Rs 150 (fan) or Rs 400 (air-con).
An international student ID card gets you a very generous 50% discount on train tickets, while nonstudent foreign tourists are entitled to a 25% concession. To get these you usually have to go to the Commercial Department, often in a separate building from the ticket office (inquire at the train station). Children under three years of age are free and those between three and 10 years of age are charged half fare.
The per-kilometre rate for train travel varies widely; see the train tables in regional chapters for fares and an indication of which classes are available.
The plethora of private transport available usually means you’ll have no trouble finding a ride just by rocking up to the bus station. However, to ensure a seat on an early departure, or a window seat for the best views, or to secure a seat on one of the more salubrious air-con services that run to timetables, it pays to make a reservation. Usually there is no booking fee.
Seats in all classes can be reserved up to 30 days in advance. Try to book as far ahead as you can to increase your chances of getting your preferred train and class. If you cancel your reservation you can get 100% of your fare back if the ticket is surrendered more than two days before departure, minus 10% more than 24 hours before departure, and minus 25% less than 24 hours before departure. There’s a 50% refund if the ticket is surrendered within three hours after departure.
Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has connections between the major centres in Pakistan including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur, Peshawar and Quetta. Air Blue and Shaheen Air International also serve a few major centres. Domestic airlines usually have one or more ‘night coach’ flights linking major cities. They can depart at inconvenient hours but are around 25% cheaper than day flights – for flight schedules and costs, contact individual airlines.
Air Blue (ED/ABQ; 111-247258; www.airblue.com)
PIA (PK/PIA; 021-45794769; www.piac.com.pk)
Shaheen Air International (NL/SAI; 111-808080; www.shaheenair.aero)
Wait until you get to Pakistan to buy domestic tickets, as they can be up to 30% cheaper than tickets purchased outside the country. Every town with an airport has at least one PIA booking office. Travel agencies that are general sales agents for PIA get their tickets at a discount, and may pass some of that on to you.
For PIA domestic flights, there is no cancellation fee if you cancel at least 24 hours prior to departure. However, there’s a charge of 25% of ticket cost if you cancel between eight and 24 hours before departure and 50% if within eight hours.
When taking a domestic flight (and international flight for that matter), don’t forget to get any check-in luggage security strapped before proceeding to the check-in counter (otherwise you’ll be sent back to get it done). At the check-in counter make sure you get tags for any hand luggage, as these need to be stamped by security later.
Keep in mind that domestic carriers may well add new routes, cancel existing routes and/or change flight schedules and fares.
Fixed-route, fixed-fare options in bigger cities include buses, minibuses and passenger Suzukis. All are cheap and more often than not bursting with passengers. They’ll usually stop anywhere along the route for you. Passenger Suzukis charge a token Rs 5 or Rs 8 for intracity routes. They may have a ‘conductor’, but where they don’t, tap on the cab window or stomp on the floor to signal that you wish to stop.
City taxis may have meters but are invariably ‘broken’ so make sure you fix a price before you hop in. Some cities, such as Lahore and Karachi, also have ‘City Radio Cabs’ or ‘Metro Cabs’ (they’re usually based at the airport). They’re a little more expensive than regular taxis but you’re assured of comfort and reliability.
Autorickshaws – snarling, three-wheeled, two-stroke machines – are cheaper (but less comfortable) than taxis but be prepared to cop a lungful of pollution from fume-belching traffic. As with taxis, you should always fix a fare before setting off. Motorcycle-rickshaws are faster and brighter but are also uncomfortable. Two-wheeled, horse-drawn tongas are slower and getting rarer, but are a more scenic way to get around.
A bicycle can be a good way to explore smaller towns. For rental possibilities ask at your hotel or try bicycle-repair shops.
The KKH from Islamabad to Kashgar via the Khunjerab Pass is the Holy Grail for cycle tourers – a demanding and spectacular trip for fit and well-prepared cyclists.
Furious traffic and decidedly nutty drivers on the Grand Trunk Rd (Peshawar–Lahore) and the National Hwy (Karachi–Lahore) make them dangerous for cycling, but the gentle back roads of the Potwar Plateau (Islamabad–Peshawar) and the steeper roads through Murree and the Margalla Hills (north of Islamabad) are more promising. For the adventurous, the (extensively unsealed) road between Chitral and Gilgit offers stunning views and friendly villages, though you’ll need to be self-sufficient on most nights. At the time of research, much of the interior of Sindh and Balochistan was not deemed safe by local authorities for tourists on any form of transport.