View previous “getting to” entries here:
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.
(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?