If you haven’t been there, the word “Pakistan” may not evoke images of jagged, snow-capped mountains and warm, turquoise beaches. And that’s a shame. Because this South Asian nation seldom visited by Americans is one of the most staggeringly beautiful places on the planet. With cities full of colorful mosques and colonial-era streets, a sparsely developed coastline and some of the tallest peaks in the world, Pakistan is worth every bit of effort it takes to get there.
Once there, you’ll find the scenery is complemented by equally charming people, more welcoming to Americans than anywhere I’ve been in the world. And in getting to know them, you get to know the true beauty of the country, beyond the natural and artificial wonders you’ll find in the locations that follow.
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Also known as Shandur Top, this high, grassy plateau is a lush oasis in the middle of rugged, serrated peaks. It’s also home to the world’s highest polo grounds. Every July, teams from the Gilgit and Chitral districts, whose border runs straight through the plateau, hold a match there.
Much like its namesake, the lake called Shangrila only comes to those who earn it. The trip here is a seven-hour trek off the Karakoram Highway to the little town of Skardu, and this clear mountain lake is a half-hour away. On its shores sits the Shangrila resort, a remote, pagoda-filled oasis that’s equal parts luxury and tranquility.
Clifton Beach, Karachi
Yes indeed, Pakistan has beaches. Not only that, they’re generally considered the best in the region and while one wouldn’t describe Clifton Beach as “secluded” is does allow you, or pretty much anyone, to ride royally adorned camels right along the coastline. Take THAT, Florida!
The River Shyok cuts through this mountainous region just southwest of the Chinese border, and the small villages that line the river are full of friendly, hospitable residents eager to welcome travelers. The capital city of Khaplu is home to a 400-year-old palace that’s now part of the Serena Fort Hotel.
This city on the Sutlej River is a sea of eye-popping architecture, from the Noor Mehal palace -- fashioned like an Italian villa -- to the desert-camouflaged Abbasi mosque. The rest of the city is awash in manicured gardens and desertscapes, making it the best city in Pakistan to stroll around and get lost.
National Monument, Islamabad
Though Pakistan is full of fascinating older structures, the most stunning of the modern style is the national monument in the Shakarparian Hills of Islamabad. Opened in 2007, the monument is visible from most of the city below, with four flower-like “petals” meant to symbolize the four provinces of Pakistan. From above, it looks like the star and crescent of the national flag. Inside you’ll find a wax museum and an auditorium.
This highway runs smack through the area where the Eurasian and Indian plates collide, creating some dramatic mountain scenery along one of the world’s highest paved roads. The highway connects Pakistan and China (where it’s known as the Friendship Highway), beginning along the scenic Gilgit River then continuing north to the Chinese city of Kashgar.
Northern Pakistan is a glacial paradise full of imposing mountains alternating with thick, moving ice fields. The most impressive is Passu, which stretches 16 miles and is home to the world’s highest glacier monitoring station.
Just because they call this place “The Switzerland of Pakistan,” doesn't mean you should expect things to all of a sudden start running on time. Do expect alpine scenery dotted with quaint little villages situated on mountain lakes and lush valleys full of colorful flowers.
For sheer concentration of intricately constructed mosques, Lahore rivals any city in the world. Between the mosaic-covered Wazir Khan and the sprawling Badshahi, you could spend an entire trip here just admiring the religious architecture. But the can’t-miss here is the flag lowering ceremony at the Indian border crossing, a powerful display of power and respect that shows how close, yet so far away, these two countries are.
One of the country’s sheer natural wonders is this mountain lake, formed after a catastrophic 2010 landslide blocked the Hunza River with a natural dam. The flooding displaced some 6,000 people -- but left this 14-mile-long azure pool.
Shah Faisal mosque
Though it might remind you of a new basketball arena, this sleek modern Islamabad landmark is indeed a mosque, and among the most-photographed in the world. Built in 1986, the national mosque of Pakistan is inspired by Bedouin tents, and can fit 10,000 worshipers in the prayer hall, as well as another 64,000 in the porticos and courtyard.
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