The polo ground in Skardu Image Credit: Corbis

It's a tragedy of epic proportions — a country shrouded in beauty yet largely concealed from the wider world. Tourism in Pakistan has understandably dwindled over the last decade or so. While the country's sociopolitical situation has changed, the landscapes have remained majestic. Travel advice from various governments across the globe share the same tone of austere vigilance on travelling to the country. Such precautionary counsel is not unfounded — there are certain parts of Pakistan that must be entirely avoided. But a visit would be like making an odd investment — there exist risks, but the rewards more than compensate.

Some of the most stunning and diverse topographies in the world can be found here; Himalayan valleys and desert expanses stun in equal measure. History is rich here, and you will without doubt learn something new when visiting Pakistan.

As a foreigner, the key to travelling around Pakistan lies in who you liaise with. A good tour operator can open doors to worlds rarely frequented by outsiders.

Shiraz Nasir is the Director of Operations at Adventure Travel Pakistan (ATP) — a company that facilitates an entirely turnkey travelling experience to most of the sights on offer in Pakistan. "Since September 11, international tourism has really deteriorated in Pakistan," he says. "We still saw quite a few foreign travellers five or six years ago but they've been disappearing as the situation here escalated. Our main market is the domestic market and it has become part of our philosophy. There are so many wonders in Pakistan that are unknown to locals as well. Domestic tourism has always been neglected by our local operators so we're trying to promote that now. Most people aren't aware of what's on offer — they have a general idea that Pakistan is infact a very beautiful place but the specifics are a whole different story. There are even amazing resorts that people don't realize exist — in Skardu, Hunza, Chitral."

The lack of infrastructure in such places had ensured their relative isolation. In the last few decades, however, road systems linking various parts of the country have rendered large parts accessible.

Nasir believes that as of late infrastructure has somewhat deteriorated. "Nowadays it takes about a day to drive anywhere — Gilgit for example used to take 18 hours, now it takes 24. It's not a huge difference but can have an impact when there is a journey planned with multiple stops within a time frame."

ATP caters to mountaineering expeditions, archaeological tours, city tours and a host of other adventurous activities. They've accommodated first graders as well as senior citizens. Nasir continues, "we offer parasailing, paragliding, quad biking, wakeboarding, kitesurfing, scuba diving — pretty much anything you can think of — again, activities that one wouldn't associate with Pakistan."

Here are a few of the destinations to which ATP operates tours:

Taxila
North-west of Islamabad lies this world heritage site — a 3,000-year-old city. The Greeks made inroads into this area during a period in which it enjoyed a reputation as a regional centre of enlightenment for the arts. The Kushan people perpetuated this culture until the Hun invasions of the 6th century. Persian, Greek, Hindu and Buddhist influences are visible all over. Buddhist stupas are found around the city and the Taxila Museum is home to millennia-old artefacts of various cultures.

Khanpur Lake
Shah Elahi, General Manager of Imanami Software, an IT firm in Pakistan, says: "Khanpur Lake is only about 30 minutes from Islamabad so it's popular but it also feels like a world away from any of the cities. Firstly, it's beautiful. Secondly, there's a lot to do in terms of water sports etc.
"There is also a spot by the lake perfect for cliff diving. First time I did it was there and it is by far the biggest adrenalin rush I've experienced. You can paraglide nearby as well as it's hilly," says Elahi.

K2 Base Camp
This is one of the more popular destinations for foreigners due to K2's reputation as not only the second-tallest mountain on earth, but the most notoriously difficult to conquer. ATP does base camp expeditions from May to late September which are quite challenging.
"It's not that common for Pakistanis to climb the actual peaks," says Nasir. "It's an odd phenomenon but foreigners are the ones who usually want to climb the peaks — we handle the climbing expeditions as well which take two to three months. This isn't recommended for the casual traveller."

Cholistan Desert
Wintertime is the season for desert safaris in the Cholistan Desert which stretches across three provinces in Pakistan and into India. The safaris are undertaken on camel-back.
This area is also culturally rich on account of various Indus valley settlements of the past. Desert forts near the Indian border are unique to the region and distinct to Arabian forts. The Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally is also a hugeannual sporting event in Pakistan. The trip to Cholistan involves a pit stop and a visit to the blind dolphins of the Indus River — a rare species.

Skardu
Skardu had a booming tourism industry before misconceptions about its Talibanisation took hold. The Gilgit-Baltistan area where it is located is geographically protected from the instability in nearby Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The place is engulfed in mountains — four of the 14 peaks that reach over 8,000 metres are in the locality, making for postcard-perfect lakes and valleys. The wildlife consists of snow leopards, Ibex and Tibetan brown bears. Mehr Amin, a PR manager who bides her time between Dubai and London visited Skardu. She speaks of her experience. "It was essentially me and another female friend of mine who decided to go. Everyone asked me whether I was crazy, and it just goes to show how sad it is that such a gorgeous place with such friendly people was cast in this ignorant light." n

RESOURCES
Adventure Travel Pakistan
www.adventuretravelpakistan.com

Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation
http://www.tourism.gov.pk/

Government of Pakistan Ministry of Tourism
http://www.pakistantourism.gov.pk/

Pakistan International Airlines
http://www.piac.com.pk/