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Getting to Pakistan

Getting to Karachi, Pakistan

View previous “getting to” entries here:

Getting to India
Getting to Moldova
Full Trip Reports Archive

***

As the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong lands in Karachi, Pakistan, the purser makes the usual landing announcements. You can turn your mobile phones on but please don’t get up until we’re at the gate, be careful when opening the overhead bins, and so on.

Then she gives us some information I’ve never heard before: “The following is an announcement from the government of Pakistan. The trafficking of drugs into Pakistan is a highly serious offense. Penalties include capital punishment. Thank you for your attention.”

In other words, welcome to Pakistan.

Visa on Arrival

I took a fairly big risk in coming to Karachi without a visa. Because of all the travel I’ve been doing recently, I had no way of applying to the Washington, D.C. embassy for a tourist visa.

Reading up on the internet, I learned that while no tourist visas were issued on arrival, “qualified businessmen and investors” could receive a business visa on arrival if they had the right paperwork.

Mostly what is needed is a local sponsor who certifies your business relationship and agrees to be responsible for you during your time in the country. In the few days I had before I left (and while overseas elsewhere), I tried to find a sponsor to write a letter for me who would fulfill this obligation. I had a few good leads, but nothing came through. During a layover in Hong Kong, I hoped to visit the Pakistani consulate to see if they could help in a last-minute effort, but that didn’t work out either.

In the end I had to decide whether to change my itinerary, which would have been difficult, or to go for it without the right paperwork. Since I had passed up Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) earlier in the year because of visa problems, I didn’t want to pass up Pakistan as well. They are both fairly difficult countries to get to, and my rule is to never miss a country whenever possible.

Before leaving home, I printed off a bunch of papers in hopes that sheer quantity of information would supersede the sponsor letter they were looking for. I took a copy of my Washington State business license, some business cards, a printout of the Pakistani-American Chamber of Commerce web site, and anything else I could think of that looked semi-official.

On the plane from Hong Kong, I put on a dress shirt and made sure I looked reasonably presentable before heading into the arrivals area. I had arranged to stay at the Sheraton Hotel because I figured that a legitimate “businessman or investor” would probably not try to find a $15 guest house on arrival on a place like Pakistan.

As the plane was landing, I calculated my odds of actually getting in to the country. Based on previous experiences and my limited knowledge of the situation in Pakistan, I figured I had a 50% chance of it working out with only a little trouble, a 25% chance of working it out with a lot of trouble, and a 25% chance of total failure, in which case I would be put back on the flight that just arrived, or possibly put in the airport holding area for a couple of days until I could get a flight back out.

After landing, I discovered I had overestimated my initial chances of success.

The visa officials were friendly enough, but their smiles turned to frowns when they discovered I had no sponsor in Karachi. I give them everything I had – my Round-the-World ticket, my Platinum AAadvantage card, the Sheraton reservation, the web site printouts, and anything else I could think of – but it was all swiftly deflected by the polite-but-firm senior immigration official.

For forty minutes they didn’t back down. I would not be allowed into the country, and it would be my problem to figure out how to get out. After a break in the conversation (the immigration guys decided to process some other people before coming back to me), I continued to produce more pieces of paper – a copy of Newsweek that I offered to one official (he declined), proof of my journey to every country in the world, and the visa in my passport for India, Pakistan’s archrival.

“I have already been to India, and I feel sad that I have not been able to visit Pakistan yet,” I say. This is also a bit risky, but I’m running out of options. Thankfully, by this point I’ve made friends with the junior immigration team, who are subtly pleading my case with the senior immigration official.

They all laugh when I mention the visit to India, and the senior official finally says the magic words: “Sir, you are very lucky tonight.”

“Really?” I ask. “How lucky am I?”

“You are too lucky. This is my very first time to give a visa without a sponsor.”

Through luck, mercy, or persistence – or perhaps a combination of the three – I’ve made it. The rest of the process takes a full hour, and I’m a little nervous that something will go wrong. They take $150 from me for the visa, photocopy some of the random paperwork I had brought along, take my fingerprints, and so on. But finally the process is over, and I shake the hand of the senior official on the way out.

“Thank you again. I’m very happy to be in your country.”

Another official accompanies me to the customs area, where he sends me off into the night. Along the way he says that he has worked at the airport for 28 years and has never heard of anyone arriving without a sponsor letter and being given a visa.

Since I’ve had my share of misadventures and generally dumb mistakes recently, I’m really glad this one turned out all right. I can now say that I’m the first independent traveler to have successfully arrived in Karachi without a visa or a sponsor.

Rock on.

(OK, probably someone has done it sometime before, but I’m going on the word of the 28-year immigration guy.)

***

I walk out into the night air and the throngs of people in the arrival area. I’m expecting to feel the shock of massive humidity, but it’s actually a cool night with a light rain. It feels cooler here than in Hong Kong, at least after midnight.

I take a taxi into the city, and all along the way the driver apologizes for the traffic. It doesn’t look that bad to me. The 30-minute ride costs $4.

The Sheraton is a walled compound with high security. To get into the drop-off area, armed guards open the trunk and hood to check for car bombs, while another guard in a nearby shack conducts an electronic scan of the vehicle.

The hotel itself is the same way – all guests go through a metal detector, and baggage passes through an x-ray machine.

In a lot of places like this around the world, hotels like the Sheraton are filled primarily with foreigners. Here, I am pleasantly surprised to see the lobby is filled mostly with Pakistanis and other South Asians.

Even though it’s the Sheraton and thus a fairly standardized operation, there are a few noteworthy observations:

  • I have a Koran and prayer rug by my nightstand instead of a Bible.
  • The workout room has separate hours for men and women (6-10am for men, 10-6pm for women).
  • A sign on the minibar warns: “Alcoholic beverages are for non-Muslim foreign guests only. If you wish to consume alcohol, contact the front desk to register.”

***

I made it. I’m staying for a while this time – four or five full days in Karachi depending on the flight out, with no overland trips planned.

It’s 12:45 a.m. here, and 2:45 a.m. back in Hong Kong where I left.

Someone on Twitter recently asked if I was on the Amazing Race or something.

I said that it’s kind of my own personal Amazing Race. It lasts five years. But for now I’m tired, and going to bed. On Wednesday I’ll have a different essay, and on Friday I’ll continue this trip report with Karachi Market Adventures, the Pakistani Starbucks, Pakistan versus Brunei, and whatever else happens between now and then.

See you all in a couple of days?

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18 Comments

  • Hi Chris,

    You really ought to write a book about all your travel adventures. I had to smile when I read this post since my friends just came back from Pakistan. The stories they told were nothing short of amazing which makes the way you arrived in the country even more wondrous.

    You were indeed very lucky and I can nearly bet that you will not see any foreigners (or very few) while you are in Pakistan. I look forward to read your account of the markets since my friends weren’t even allowed to go there (despite a translator, a body guard and a driver). But then, they did arrive on a business visa and met high ranking officials plus a drug lord (yep,) while flying some 14 flights within the country for 3 weeks.

    Enjoy your experience since yours is one of a handful. This makes it even more special.

    Best wishes
    Monika

  • Sara says:

    Congratulations on getting into Pakistan! Haha. I do feel like I should point out that the flight attendant’s warning and the mini-bar sign have been mentioned before, though I don’t know if in relation to Pakistan.

    Or maybe I’m just making it up. Who knows? Have an amazing time!

  • Eric says:

    Hi Chris – this is definitely one of the best travel stories I’ve heard in a long time – thanks for sharing what NOT to do when trying to get into Pakistan 🙂 Will be back in a few days to catch your progress – best of luck!

  • Chris says:

    @Monika,

    Yep, writing a book is part of the plan. That’s a great story — I didn’t meet any drug lords there, as far as I know.

    @Sara,

    I mentioned both of things in the newsletter a few days ago. As far as I know, I haven’t mentioned them before… but anything’s possible with all the travel these days.

    @Eric,

    Thanks, man. Yeah, I recommend you get a visa in advance if you’re going there.

  • Saravanan says:

    Hey Chris,

    Congratulations. I hope you had a great time at Pakistan, being an Indian somehow I don’t think much about Pakistan. I think the people out there should be really good and helpful in nature. My friends keep telling me that Pakistanis are good only the politicians of Pakistan are bad.

    I wish to listen more about them in your other posts. Me waiting. 🙂

    Saravanan.

  • Greg says:

    I seem to remember either Malaysia, Singapore or both, had something about drug smuggling is a capital offense written in LARGE letters on their immigration forms.

  • @ Chris: I think while this guy was called a drug lord he is actually working for the Americans. Something to do with weapons. Apparently he earns some $100,000 month and lives like a king.

    @ Greg: You are correct. Read my comment just now. 🙂

  • Chris, you are lucky. I was denied boarding a couple of years ago when I wanted to merely transit through Pakistan due to different interpretations of the visa requirements (my interpretation was I didn’t need a visa, but the airline and their sources suggested I did).

    I did end up getting a visa later and visited Lahore, so at least the earlier attempted entry was not held against me.

    Since then I’ve taken more care to have documentation to prove my case for not needing a visa, and this has helped smooth entry into several countries (and prevent further denied boarding for visa reasons).

    As for Bangladesh, well that is really not too hard to visit (easier than Pakistan).

    Greg – if you fly into Singapore or Malaysia on Singapore Airlines you get the same kind of spiel on landing. Many years ago when I was a novice traveller it unnerved me but now I don’t even notice these announcements.

  • Joseph says:

    That’s amazing that you were able to talk your way in! I look forward to hearing more about Pakistan from your perspective.

  • Karim Uddin says:

    Well, Pakistan were in a position to celebarte Tourism Year 2007, since then Goverment of Pakistan Annouced libral visa policy in the consulates arround the world and upon arrival at airport and borders.

    This is me karim from Hunza Valley, North Pakistan, running a Travel Firm named of Active Tours Pakistan and the web page http://www.visitatp.com Company do help all about travel related arrangment, visa assistance, hotel booking, mountaineering, trekking trips in the three majestic mountains ranges of north pakistan, safaris, cultural tours, bike tours, student tours, overland trips to & from China, Iran & India.

    Many people got benefit through us as they were not aware, of visa upon arrival, i personally help many travelers who were coming to pakistan through world highest border Khunjerab Pass (Pak – China).

    Please feel free to contact me if anyone required assistance, i shall be glad to reply you accordinlgy.

    With kind regards,

    Karim

  • Jaosn says:

    Just goes to show whether trying to get a special deal between two companies or trying to get a visa between two competing countries always mention the attributes of the competitor. It will get you far.

  • Jerry Dekker says:

    Dear Chris, I was probably in Karachi close to the time you were and had a great time there. I stayed at the Pearl Continental just across the street from the Sheraton. I had arrived in Karachi after a trip from China all the way down the Karakoram Highway to Islamabad, Peshawar, Taxila, Islamabad, Multan and some other interesting places along the way. I am writing you this email to encourage you to see more of Pakistan—an incredible country! I am going back soon! Take care, Jerry

  • Shanzeh says:

    Loved reading about your experience. As a Pakistani, it’s lovely to see people like you taking an interest to explore my country. Hope you visit again!

  • Asad says:

    I was great reading this. As Jerry mentioned, you should visit again and see more of Pakistan. It is an amazing country… I am not saying that just because I am Pakistani. I have traveled a few places but always enjoy it more when I am home.

  • Ashwin says:

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