Pakistan briefing: Cut-price ticket heaven for travellers

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER a bunch of backpackers gathers, the debate on destinations follows a common circumnavigation: India, Thailand, Australia, the US, perhaps Mexico. But the country which arguably comprises the ultimate destination for independent travellers is almost always ignored - and, ironically, it is where the guidebook guru Tony Wheeler grew up.

Pakistan is all things to all travellers. For a start, reaching Pakistan allows you to make one of the two most challenging and invigorating journeys open to late 20th-century travellers: the great overland trek from Britain via Turkey and Iran, which my friends Gurdev Singh and Bharat Parmar recently achieved inside a fortnight. Or, more alluring still, the best-value air ticket to anywhere that you can buy in Britain.

Once a week, Azerbaijan Airlines (0171-493 2281) flies via Istanbul to Baku, where you transfer for the connecting flight to Karachi. This 16- hour journey costs you just pounds 160, one-way. (The reason the one-way fare is quoted is that the return trip requires a six-day stay in the transit lounge at Baku airport.)

You arrive in what the Foreign Office and the State Department agree is one of the most dangerous cities on earth. So you should quickly make good your escape; fortunately, this young country has a finer repertoire of tourist attractions than almost any other.

For supreme sub-continent immersion, make for Lahore, close to the Indian frontier. This superbly human city is a mix of cultures, cuisines and religions, whose civic tolerance is perhaps its greatest virtue.

At another extreme, Peshawar is more exotic still. The last stop before the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan is a real frontier town, where it is said that a Kalashnikov can be picked up as easily as a carpet.

The independent traveller will be most attracted, though, by the Hunza Valley. I have always thought of this as one of the most misleading place names, since it conceals the truth that this great rift in the Himalayas will take you to gaspingly high altitudes and, ultimately, across the Karakoram into China.

But how to get home? Wherever you wish to travel next, there is one very good reason to take that one-way flight to Karachi: air fares in Pakistan are lower than anywhere else in the world. The author of How to Fly Cheaper, Hugo van Reijen, suggests you should visit the country once a year to buy all your air tickets for the next 12 months.