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[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for: Southern Asia - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - aka some of the most worthwhile destinations on the planet!

For Northern Asia (China/Mongolia/Japan/Korea) go here. For South East Asia (Thailand/Philippines/Singapore/etc) go here.

Taj Mahal

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home, head for http://travelindependent.info

? Also see: Indian Train System Explained



What follows are only basic snap shot summaries, kind of at a glance information you won't get from a guidebook. However, lets be fair, with huge and complex countries like China and more to the point India, only half the story is told. What you will find here should give you a good background, but if you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us, it will make life much easier. [book]

For somewhere as huge and varied as India, the introduction and 'not to be missed' chapters in the Rough Guide are strongly recommended. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!).

* If you want to read fiction, you are in luck as some of the world's best writers originate from India and Asia in general. All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out). To see why click here.



*   Southern Asia

 * Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region

» Bangladesh

  • Intro: Although Bangladesh has very few sights and is not for the faint-hearted traveller, it is a beautifully green country with traditional river life and small, quaint villages. Travel by boat is the way to experience the heart of Bangladesh and any visit is certainly about the journey and not the destination. The highlight of Bangladesh is undeniably the people. Coming from the hassle in India, particularly Northern India, the genuine friendliness from the Bangladeshi is a breath of fresh air. Of course, it comes with a sense of guilt, when you are sometimes treated like a movie star and start to comprehend the reality of life for most of the population, but is a great way to learn about the country as at times it seems that every person that speaks a even a little English will want to strike up a conversation and offer you dinner, a place to stay, etc. (and not in the same way that can taint some similar experiences elsewhere on the Sub-continent where such an offer turns into a shopping trip or the like). What you should always keep in mind is although developing in pockets, Bangladesh is very, very poor so like in parts India, travel takes some effort and mostly - time; luxuries will be few and far between, but you won't spend much.

Bengali Boat

Added: Many thanks to George Schoneveld for originally supplying this summary and the great photos. After a recent trip we have updated and very slightly revised.

The Sunderbans an area of mango-grove swamps which the country shares with India, and is a world heritage sight plus home to [man-eating] tigers (that you'll never see) is fairly inaccessible for budget travellers to visit independently - you'll need official guards to chaperone you, as there are incidents of banditry in the area. You need to arrange a tour and had travel around scheduled departures with a large-ish group (who may or may not be a great fun for the three days you spend with them). Bengal Tours and similar can arrange tours.

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» India

* Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - However bear in mind: a lot of hassle, heat and long distances.

  • Taj MahalHot/cold, wet and dry: May and June can be unbearable. The south is always hot, the mountains can be inaccessible in winter. The cooler seasons will bring more crowds, but the heat in India can really push you to the edge of the enjoyable factor of travel, so it is worth (many think) planning your trip to include either cooler regions or cooler weather.

On the whole before and during the monsoon, humidity is far more of a problem than straight heat. When places like Delhi hit over 40 degrees in April/May, don't fight it - pay the extra for an air conditioned room if available. Conversely, remember that large parts of India are mountains or desert regions, so it can get pretty cool at night. The winter months (November - March) will see the subcontinent enjoying relatively cool temperatures and clear skies.

Generally speaking, the best time to visit India is from October to mid-April. Summer season is from March to June, Monsoon from July to September, October is again a warm month and winter lasts from November to February. Hill stations are best enjoyed from mid-September to mid-December and then from March to mid-July. Ladakh is best visited from June to September, when most other parts of the country are in the grip of the monsoon. Mid-winter anywhere north of Udaipur (Southern Rajasthan) will be chilly morning/evenings and north of Delhi gets really quite cold.

Strictly speaking, the places to avoid are: 1. North and South Indian plains from April to July. 2. Coastal areas from May to September. 3. Hill-stations from mid-December to February and mid-July to mid-September. 4. Ladakh from October to May.

Getting Around

  • Media:

    • Books: There are more books published each year in India than anywhere else in the world. Pushkar is the place for unlimited great value books. 'Are you experienced' is a popular, short, quite funny if not a little juvenile read. There are simply loads of good Indian books. The best India 'feel' comes from the monster 'A Suitable Boy'. 'A Fine Balance' is highly recommended, but a little depressing. Salman Rushdie writes a great Indian novel, with the fantastic fantasy of 'Midnight's Children' also very popular. 'The god of small things' is a nice book, especially if heading for the south, but like most Booker Prize winners, a little overrated. The current favourite seems to be Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which starts off excellent, but is a little disappointing towards the end. There are dozens of excellent books which make great Indian background reading - for a more detailed list of recommendations and guides click here.

Guide Book

[book]Guide book: the book - LP India, but Footprint and Rough Guide are also very good. Second hand copies float around. Very few travellers see all of India in one go, so the best bet is to buy a regional guide, say for the most popular destination of Rajasthan. Himalayas, Goa and South India guides are also available. You will get a smaller, more detailed guide and when outside the region make your own way and ask to take a look at other travellers guides when needed. Elsewhere on the net, recommend are the IndiaTree and India Mike as great and more comprehensive online India resources.



  • Hassle and annoyance factor: This depends very much on which part of the country you visit. The difference of a trip to Kerala compared to Uttar Pradesh, hassle wise will be notable, the latter being just about as much as anyone can take, the prior being a bearable level. On the whole there is a lot of hassle in India and it's generally as in your face as it gets (although as mentioned regions do vary - north worse than south, rural versus cities, etc.).

    Learn to be cool: don't get bulled, be firm and humorous when talking and after a few weeks you will get less of it. As brilliant as India is, no one will kid you it doesn't take a lot of getting used to and adjusting. Well worth reading is the dealing with hassle and beggars section of this site and this comment in the guestbook.

    • Women alone: Expect a lot of unwanted attention and some quite dangerous. To respect Indian sensitivities when in public Western women should wear skirts below the knees or longer or relatively loose slacks, avoiding sleeveless tops, tight trousers/pants, and shorts. Young women and teenage girls, especially those dressed in tight or short Western dress, may attract undesirable attention. These suggestions are especially important when visiting rural areas or tradition-bound urban areas.

      In addition see the excellent first-hand comments to the left.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Bhang normally served as a legal yogurt drink (lassi) is made from the leaves and shoots of hemp. The common effect is getting fairly stoned, but sometimes you will feel no effect, other times you will be dangerously off your head and quite unwell. It seems impossible to gauge the strength of these drinks.

    Pot is illegal (despite seeing Hindu holy men smoking it), but easily available in mountain regions, Pushkar, Goa and many others. Alcohol availability depends very much on how the state you are in views it, Goa being famously the most relaxed.

E-mailed comment, women alone in India

Like a lot of the other "dangers" on the road (theft, illness, scams), it's important to keep the whole thing in perspective. I spent two months in India and had only one bad situation that wasn't either entirely in my head or because of something stupid I did. In that event that situation was easy to get out of by inventing a "husband waiting for me at the hotel". As a woman alone, it is important to realise that, yes, men will stare at you (sometimes leaving no doubt about what their thoughts are!). Note staring is not taboo in Indian culture. Equally men will sometimes strike up a conversation that might get borderline inappropriate in terms of what you're used to quickly, such as being propositioned. However staring and propositioning are not crimes and to some extent underlines the cultural differences (which is part travel). In all honesty you're probably more a curiosity to Indian men (and Indians in general) than a potential sex object. Of course, it's extremely important as a woman traveling alone through India to be culturally aware.

Dressing and behaving appropriately is key. Picking up one of those ubiquitous "Culture Shock: India!" books might not be a bad idea if you're coming in totally blind. More simple/obvious advice: don't walk around alone late at night, especially in smaller towns without a big backpacker scene; don't drink in bars alone; don't be over-friendly with local men (coed platonic "tomboy" style friendship basically doesn't exist in Indian culture) or they will get the wrong idea. Don't be too flirty. India is not a Girls Gone Wild sort of place where you will be appreciated for being sexy, brazen, or debauched. - great advice, with thanks to Sara Clarke.

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» Nepal

* Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • NepalPolitical situation: Tourism has rapidly increased since the times of the vile and shocking 2001 royal massacre and the Maoist insurgency which seem a distant memory. The situation is now stable but it is worth checking the political situation before you go as anti government protests often take the form of road blocks which could have a significant impact on your travel plans.

  • Dangers: Guides sometimes rush tourists through the walks as they do not want the boredom of an acclimatisation day. Even extremely fit people get problems if the standard advice is ignored, especially at altitude. Buy anti diarrhoea, and altitude tablets before trekking both available in the local chemists.

    Added: Many thanks to Piers Newberry for his effect in updating this section and providing the bulk of the trekking advice and Rick Haworth for let us know about new trekking options.

Trekking in Nepal:

walkingOn popular treks finding the right path is easy: there are a few junctions here and there, but another hiker or a local will help you out if you get confused. A map and a compass are very useful for reassurance and route planning. You do not need a tour or a guide. Most visitors choose the Annapurna circuit for good reason, but the area above Kathmandu is underrated and the Everest area is overrated. There are many other lesser known options to seek out and avoid crowds.

Many would say avoid Annapurna in high season as it is too popular and at times hoteliers [guesthouse/teahouse owner] have to put people on the roof, in tents and on floors. At other times the numbers are much lower. One hotelier recommended the tail end of November as being the best time to go. Spring is also fine, things can get hazy from mid May and into the rainy season though not in some higher regions.

Consider taking a flight into your chosen trekking area if you need to save time, though they can be subject to frequent cancellations and definitely cannot be relied upon for international connections.

Equipment can be rented [just about everything you could need] and you do not need a tent for most treks. Keep your bag as small and light as possible. In high season on the Annapurna route you will need a sleeping bag as there will not be enough blankets available, at other times and at all times on other treks take a sleeping bag or for the braver, a sown up sheet and thermal underwear and simply ask for blankets in the teahouses. Ideally take a water purifying bottle (like the Aquapure traveller), this disinfects and purifies water conveniently. If you are stuck with water purifying tablets take something to cover the taste such as Tang orange powder drink. Items like Tang are available on the path, but are quite expensive compared to towns with road connections. Porters and guides are readily available, though the vast majority of people happily do without either. Beware of guides, who rather than waiting for a day for acclimatisation, will push on too fast. The only people we met with altitude problems had been in their hands. Maps are readily available in Pokhara and Kathmandu The Annapurna is now completely marked out with green dots to show the way, the Gosankind and Helambu are also well marked

You can get away with a day pack sized ruck sack, though this does mean you might have to wear t shirts and socks a few days in a row as washing and drying is not possible near the snow line. Thermals, a light fleece, a couple of t shirts, a couple of long sleeved t shirts, tiny to pack mac and trousers which turn into shorts are about all you need. Thick socks are recommended as they help keep you feet firmly in your shoes and usually prevent blisters. Any footwear with a tough sole which will help even out the lumps and bumps in the path is recommended. You really start to notice every ounce of weight in your pack at the end of a long day and it's worth being exceptionally careful about packing; quarter of a bar of soap, shampoo bar, tiny toothpaste tubes and so forth all help. Due to the very frequent failures in electricity supply a micro lantern (with a dozen LEDs) is useful and a multi compartment pill container cuts down a huge amount of bulk.

Some may want to start with a pack and pick up a porter on the way for about $15 a day (take the cash with you and plenty of socks). Taking a porter from a major town with you means costs are much higher with cuts being taken from agencies and the porter assuming the title of guide (which just means they speak good English and charge more $25 a day). Permits which require photos, and entry fees are required for all walks. If you buy your Annapurna trek permit in Pokhara rather than in Kathmandu you will find the office is well stocked with free information leaflets and maps.

C 'Very nice site, like the simplicity. I went to Nepal, trekked to Everest base camp and want to second what you say about not hiring a tour. Trekking intimidated me, I pictured huge snowy mountains and thought guides were necessary and was scared. My friend got me to go, we didn't use any guides. We picked up a porter when we got to high altitudes. Tell people to not worry, everyone can do it at their own pace and get what they need along the way. Also I went in monsoon season, it did rain but it wasn't crowded which was nice, going in the monsoon season is definitely a possibility. Views were cloudy but the clouds would open some of the time we got plenty of views. We did not see another white person for the first 7 days literally. Everyone was very nice, there were supposedly communist rebels running around. The US state department advises against travelling to Nepal, but it was not dangerous at all, the communists just take a fee from trekkers and let them go on their way.' - Danny

How to choose a Nepalese trek / guide:

Picking your route: most visitors choose Annapurna or Everest for good reason, but the area above Kathmandu is underrated and the Everest area is often overrated and certainly crowded(visiting Nepal it is very hard to get Everest out of your head). Almost all of the treks start at lower altitudes in the subtropical zone and rise up fairly high to the beginning of the snow line, and occasionally above it. This means that you can see a wide variety of ecosystems. There are plenty of waterfalls and in some places ancient villages. All of the main walks come with a plentiful supply of hotels with restaurants. Roads have now been cut and left rough around most of the Annapurna, but don't be too concerned; there is no traffic at all on the Eastern side at the moment and about 6 vehicles an hour on the Western side which is now rarely walked. The Helambu has also been connected to the road network and it is possible to get a bus from Thimbu back via Braktapur to Kathmandu, saving lots of uncomfortable bus time if you intended to visit Braktapur as a separate side trip. If the Annapurna is busy the best little used trek is the Langtang from where you can get onto the Gosankind and finish with the Helambu. A walk with very little repetition.

The trekking section in the Lonely Planet is measly and it is worth getting a trekking guide book or at least a map to find about the dozens of interesting side trips on offer. There are plenty of experiences and wonderful sights on all of the treks which you will never forget. Trekking is easy and you do not need a tour to 'walk' - do it independently contracting your own guide if you want to.

Once again: keep your bag small and light; don't forget water purifying tablets and something to cover the taste i.e. Tang orange powder drink. Items like Tang are available on the path, but are quite expensive compared to towns with road connections. A porter is very handy to have, but you really don't need a guide if on a well known trek.

[book]Good advice is to start out carrying your own pack (make it a light one) and when you want a break, pick up a porter on the way for about $15 a day (take the cash with you and plenty of socks). Taking a porter from a major town with you means costs are much higher with cuts being taken from agencies and the porter assuming the title of guide (which just means they speak good English and charge more $25 a day).

Guides: Technically speaking new rules are in force that you must trek with a guide and those whom are in this business will go to great lengths to remind you of such. The move comes after several groups of trekkers on out of the way route encountered problems with rebels or were lost. However, the policy is far from enforced and you can still trek without if you want to save the money or feel it is unnecessary. There are pros and cons to guides, showing you the right way is a big pro and you can avoid the annoying instances when you take a wrong turn and have to double back. Equally someone from the region can really open doors culturally. An issue arises when you contract a guide who is lazy, constantly talking about getting a big tip and not so friendly. Either way you can always find a guide in local villages you pass through and in balance those in the more remote communities will benefit from the wage you pay more than perhaps others and will certainly have the local knowledge. If you are alone (sole walker), a guide would be recommended on all but the most packed treks.

C Rick recommends a new trekking route which has opened, that currently doesn't appear in many guides. 'This trek is called the Mardi Himal trek which is in the Annapurna region. Its around a week long, is of moderate difficulty, and the route takes in lush forests and offers outstanding views of the Annapurna range throughout. You trek up to around 4300meters, which takes 3 days, before spending another 3 days walking back down again, staying in lovely villages and lodges on route. The route is largely unknown so you'll I spent long days and every night enjoying the amazing mountain views without sharing with any other travellers. It is worth hiring a guide as the route would be difficult to follow, however you do come across other who are without. The locals are very keen for people to start using this route as the wonderful people that run the lodges and homestays could really do with the business from trekkers. Many of the popular routes, such as the Poon hill trek and Annapurna base camp are overcrowded, and unfortunately, somewhat spoilt by tourism. The lodges are basic (showering from a bucket, and sleeping in nothing more than a brick hut) but are a real experience and the people will be so happy you are there and fantastically hospitable. There is a fantastic authentic village called Lwang on the way back down to Pokhara which is authentically Nepalese, and picture postcard beautiful. Highly recommended.'

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: On the whole welcoming and friendly, a little jaded sometimes in the Annapurna lodges.

    • Other travellers: Huge variety, a lot of older tour groups and first-time travellers

  • Accommodation: Huge choice. Tea houses on trekking routes are cheap, basic and comfortable. Advanced booking is not required aside from a couple of popular hotels in Kathmandu.

    • Hot water: Normally okay. Solar heated water sometimes available when trekking

    • Average cost: $20-25, less than $15 when trekking possible if in less developed region.

  • Communications: Fantastic internet in Kathmandu. Slower and more expensive in the rest of the country

  • Health: Minor food poisoning common and at least diarrhoea. It is worth noting the differences between giardia, dysentery and normal diarrhoea as they require different medications.

  • What to take: Walking footwear to trek, thermal leggings and a top: everything else from rain macs to sleeping bags you can hire or buy cheaply.

  • What to buy: There are literally thousands of cheap crafts that you will want to buy and much else besides

  • Getting around: Buses, internal flights, foot or raft - all very easy to arrange and good value between major towns/villages. Getting into the mountains will require trekking or an internal flight that will be subject to weather conditions and heavy demand in the high season.

  • Guide book: Rough Guide Nepal, buy second hand there or cheaply from the shops in Kathmandu

  • Media:

    • Books: Fantastic selection of new and second hand books. Read 'Into Thin Air' for that Everest climbing experience. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog and Edmund Hilary's accounts of climbing Everest are also excellent.

    • TV: English language cable TV, a few bars in Kathmandu have big screens.

  • Food: The budget eating capital of the world, cheap with huge variety. Beware if you have a problem with MSG, since it ends up in many dishes. Avoid beef since it is poor quality and Hindu Nepalese do not eat it. Buffalo is tough but very tasty.

    • Vegetarians: Never a problem, amazing choice

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Minimal. A few offers of hash and taxis in the main tourist area in Kathmandu, almost none elsewhere.

    • Woman alone: No problem

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Great bars and beer. Marijuana easily available and often seen growing wild whilst trekking

  • Rating: 8/10

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» Pakistan

* Miss at your peril: Northern Pakistan & The Karakoram Highway - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • Intro: How to describe Pakistan? If you want a one-worder then you need no more than three letters: WOW. India without the hassle, Nepal without the crowds. Then again it's a little more complicated than that and probably more than any other country on the planet your opinion will depend on what part(s) you see. Whereas the three letters of 'wow' is undoubtedly the impression most will have visiting Northern areas, others might be forgiven for thinking of a few four letter words after making trips through the south of the country where travel is quite different.

    Pakistan's main attractions are the mind boggling market town of Peshawar and the amazing, stunning and accessible jagged mountain scenery in the far north. Few travellers venture to Pakistan – it even seems to have become a bad word on traveller circuits. A poor media image, tension with India, terrorism, earthquakes, poverty… it's quite clear why so many neglect it, particularly with the likes of India and Nepal on its doorstep. Shame.

  • Highlights: The KKH*, particularly at a slow pace (e.g. bike), this area is relatively relaxed and safe. Around Karimabad*and Passu are stunning. Peshawar and a trip up the Khyber Pass (although it's far from a relaxing experience). The Swat valley (when safe), Hindu Kush and the culturally unique Kalash Valley*. Any trek and the people. Wagah border closing ceremony with India near Lahore. Islamabad for being such an easy introduction to the sub-continent (but for little else apart from some western style comfort). Good transportation and reasonably priced private transport available when needed.

  • Lowlights: The south, Lahore (despite interesting historic sights) pollution and theft issues. The south-west is inhospitable desert. Security concerns and an ever changing situation that needs to be monitored and studied when planning. Stability of KKH - landslides and snow do close this route for many months of the year. Massively time saving flights in and out of Northern mountainous towns are heavily booked and highly subjectable to weather conditions. The jury is out on Moenjodaro - ruins with a fascinating history, for many an underwhelming site.

The main feature and highlight of Pakistan is the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which neither crosses the Karakoram Pass nor is anything close to a smooth highway. This incredibly useful road is the only dependable overland route between China and the Subcontinent. Originating in Islamabad and terminating in Kashgar, China, the KKH is something that every traveller should aspire to see.

The area often referred to as Pakistani Kashmir (inc. the Gilgit province in the far north) is a great place to hang-out, walk, cycle or simply look dumbstruck out of a bus/jeep window. It's brilliantly accessible from the KKH with 7000+ metre peaks and glaciers practically by the road side. Away from the KKH, to name a few highlights - Islamabad is about the gentlest introduction to the continent you could get. Peshawar is a photogenic, hectic meddle of cultures and people. Spots like the Kalash valley in the Hindu Kush are stunning and culturally fascinating. The north is a patchwork of languages and culture (40% are tolerant Muslim) that change from one town to the next with few locals thinking of themselves as Pakistani. Women travellers will notice considerably less hassle in the north. Steep mountains and deep valleys make travel awe inspiring.

The rest of Pakistan is not quite such a dream. Lahore and the area directly below Islamabad can be loosely compared to India and are not of great interest. Further south the tone of the country changes. Ancient wonders can be hard to appreciate and the heat is oppressive as the country and the people begin to change. Islamic tones are stronger and cities like Karachi are inherently violent and not a place for backpackers. If you do find yourself planning to venture through this part of the country (i.e. coming or going to Iran), safety is an issue, but it's quite doable and a day/night in Quetta will be interesting.

Come see views you won't believe, meet some of the world's friendliest people. Experience some of the best Asia has to offer. Pakistan comes highly recommended.

Getting around:

Road: Between major towns there are efficient and comfortable bus services (such as Daewoo). Away from these towns local buses are what you might expect - crowded and uncomfortable, but cheap and always an adventure. Travel along the KKH is easy. Trains have a bad reputation, but are okay if a little more difficult to get tickets for. Jeeps are used in northern areas for journeys on rough roads and getting to out of the way places. Shared jeeps leave a few times a week on popular routes.

If you want to travel these routes in more comfort and when it suits you then you need to hire a private jeep which is easy if a little expensive on some routes. Theoretically booking ahead a jeep and driver for say five days to go from Islamabad to Peshawar then to Chitral you could pay around US$30 a day. For a half day jaunt around the KKH the price might be half this, but for a long haul and difficult trips, say to continue from Chitral to Gilgit, you will probably pay over US$100. You can do such routes on public transport, but private transport saves considerable time for those in a rush and enables greater freedom. Expect most transport in the north to be hair raising (and underwear soiling) with huge drops to the side of the road and stupendous views.

Air: Internal fights can be a bit of a pain in Pakistan: they afford stunning views and save huge amounts of time. For these reasons, combined with weather conditions (northern area flights fly below some mountain peaks - they leave early and either won't leave at all or will turn back mid flight unless it's totally clear), expect heavy demand, cancellations and at least a day's wait to fly.

Tourists pay more, but get preferential treatment. Try to book ahead. If you are told the flight is full and must travel, buy a stand-by ticket and go to the airport - you might (probably won't) get on the first flight, but have a good chance the next day or if there is an extra flight. The main routes are: Islamabad to Gilgit (most in demand) - a good second option is Islamabad to Skardu and then enjoy the beautiful (scary) road trip to Giligt. Peshawar to Chitral. Between Chitral and Gilgit the only option is road. Flights in the south of the country are cheap and easy.

Despite what most guide books say there is a flight from Islamabad to Kashgar and back again. It leaves three times a week, is operated by China South-West Airlines and costs something like US$160 one-way and will save considerable time if you want to travel the KKH, but not continue travelling in China. Some travel agencies in Islamabad will make noises about not selling you a one-way ticket - just head to the airline office opposite the Saudi Tower. Not sure where the office is in Kashgar, where it's imagined buying a ticket might be a little bit more complex. Make sure you have cash to pay for the ticket.

Isn't Pakistan dangerous....?

MapThough it should not deter you making a trip, Pakistan has several areas of instability and possible danger. With common sense and some simple planning/knowledge any traveller should be able to avoid these and minimise any risk. Here's a quick summary:

Line of control aka Kashmir - despite a lot of media attention, the worst that normally happens is some trekking areas around Skardu become out of bounds. There is no need to avoid northern areas. There have been some hostage taking incidence, but they were mainly on the Indian side. There are some areas where you should take a guide if you trek.

Balochistan - this region encompasses most of the south-west of the country. The problem here is loose government control away from main cities, and bandits. Any trip to or from Iran will traverse this region. The Quetta-Taftan road is considered safe. The danger in the area is mostly apocryphal as few venture far enough out to discover it. (See excellent BBC News article)

Karachi and the Sindh - a small square region surrounding Karachi, bordering India. Not a place for travellers, to be avoided, intense communal violence. Karachi airport is safe enough, but it's best to jump straight on a cheap internal flight to Islamabad or Lahore.

The North West Frontier Province - commonly known as the NWFP, the area bordering Afghanistan from around Peshawar north to China. Famously thought to be harbouring a certain terrorist. The area is thought of as lawless, but more fairly it has its own rather arbitrary tribal law. Not as dangerous as Sindh, but with much more hype. Still can seem like the Wild West with men carrying guns a common sight. Most dangerous areas are off limits to tourists. Feudal law applies to main roads. Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, Chitral (jumping off point for the Kalash valley) and main tourist destinations were safe enough, but with some Taliban activity of late, always get current information before visiting.. The people you meet are friendly and will downplay dangers government advisories speak strongly about. Hard to find a balance. For the most part, the Pakistani government overprotects tourists requiring guides/guards in places (e.g. the Khyber Pass) and putting many others off limits.

Lahore - unlike Karachi not a violent place, but hotel rip-offs are common, even in nicer mid-range places. Be very careful of valuables in hotel rooms - don't leave your money in one or let the staff know when you plan to leave (theft will be at the last minute).

  • Tourist factor: Really depends on the time of year and political situation. Mid summer before 911 on the KKH would be pretty busy. In recent years in the north during the summer 6/10. In the winter and rest of the country 4 or 3/10. In late 2005 just before the major earthquake, things really seemed to be picking up again.

  • Accommodation: Plenty of rooms in most towns. Along the KKH almost any village on a road will have a cheap guest house. Always cheap and very cheap options available. On the tourist trail in the North you can expect some excellent value mid-range options. Travel slightly out of season to get great discounts. Likewise, in places like Swat, prices rise big style in the summer. Plenty of places to pitch tents, but why would you with such cheap options abundant? Many rustic spots have lodges owned by the forestry commission. Expect some great views and orchard-set places to stay on the KKH. Guesthouses normally have plenty of blankets but in midwinter a sleeping bag is useful. In big towns it's the normal soulless fare. There is no well-run teahouse situation as in Nepal for trekkers. If trekking at length you need a tent (this can normally be arranged locally - easy to sort out in main trekking areas on the KKH), besides there are plenty of good day treks if you are fairly fit.

    • Hot water: You get what you pay for and in dirt cheap and cheap rooms don't expect hot water. In nice (still cheap) accommodation on the tourist trail, hot water no problem.

    • Average cost: US$10-15. Rooms for half this easy to find. Great quality/value in many places if you double this price.

  • Media:

    • Books: You will find a pretty good selection of western fiction and guide books in Karimabad and an excellent selection in Islamabad including international magazines and maps. In Islamabad the best book shops are in the area known as F9. You will find basic English language fiction in many other towns. It's worth noting that there is a good second-hand book stall at the Indian border. It's small, but will have a few reasonable reads and guidebooks for India, China, Nepal, Iran and beyond. There are many great books on mountaineering in Pakistan (mainly on K2) and any reading on 'The Great Game' is worthwhile and interesting. Recommended is: The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk

    • TV: More expensive mid-range hotels (say $20 upwards) will have satellite television with at least a few international channels such as BBC World, AXN and Star Sports (showing live matches/games).

    • Movies: To view a few digital camera shot movies taken in Pakistan, click here. You'll need QuickTime (free download), and these files will take several minutes to load even with an ADSL connection.

The KKH in a nutshell

The KKH or Karakoram Highway runs from Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China. Travelling non-stop (not recommended), the route would take about three/four days. Transport is easy and it is the only reliable overland route into China from the sub-continent. You need to arrange your onward visas before you leave Islamabad, or if heading into Pakistan, before you get to Kashgar.

[see map] From Islamabad/Rawalpindi to Chilas it's about 12 hours on a bus and a good road. At this point mountains appear and the scenery becomes jaw-dropping as Nanga Parbat (8126m) comes into sight. There are some good trekking areas, but few stop travelling all the way to Gilgit (4 hours on) in one go.

Gilgit is the biggest town in the region and apart from being a transport hub has few sights. Most fly (a few daily flights, weather permitting) in and out of Gilgit. From Gilgit you are about a day away from the border, but could spend weeks taking in the road there. The scenery is stunning with many day treks and the travellers hub of Karimabad, which has plenty to keep you there for days, is a few hours up the road. From there, Passu and Sost are again only a few hours north, but it's worth stopping, particularly in Passu with its candlestick-like jagged peaks - the mountains start to get much starker. The road is single track tarred, but with the danger of frequent landslides. It's serviced by cheap passing shared transport or you can hire a jeep or even walk/cycle. ! See image.

From Sust, the next stop is the border where an international bus will drop you in Kashgar in two days (stopping overnight) unless you have rented your own transport. If you are not going to China, the views from Sust to the border can only be seen with private transport and are less spectacular than what you would have already seen. From Sust you ascend fast reaching the border pass at about 5000 metres. There's nothing up there, but high grasslands and nomads - it's stark and beautiful. See image. See movie - you'll need QuickTime (free download), and these files will take several minutes to load even with an ADSL connection.

The road is unsealed once in China, but not too bad. The bus stops after about four/five hours in Tashkurgan - where you can get a nice room at a fair rate and a beer! - and continues the next day. The journey then continues on high grassland with huge mountains in the distance past the stunning Lake Karakul (see image) where you could stay a night if you don't expect much comfort and don't mind the cold. From there the road enters a valley as it descends gradually and you enter China proper. (see image) The road from here is good. Next stop, Kashgar - roughly nine hours travel in total. The bus is not great but not too bad. [see map]

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» Sri Lanka

  • Intro: An Ireland-sized island just off the southern tip of India. The population of 25 million is mostly rural, except for Colombo, the capital. Stunning tropical beaches and coral on the west and south coasts are the main draw, but there are also ancient cities (ruined cliff palaces and temple complexes in the centre of the country) and the hill town of Kandy is on most people's itinerary. Plenty of interesting wildlife, including wild monkeys and elephants. The north is inhabited by Tamils (mostly Hindu), and the south by Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists). The north was off-limits for twenty years owing to a brutal civil war, but has opened up since 2002, as a ceasefire has been declared. This ceasefire has looked shaky at times since, but northern towns such as Jaffna are safe to visit, although of little tourist draw (apart from getting away from the hordes of European package tourist that descend on Sri Lanka throughout the year).

Sri Lankan beach Edit Many thanks to Peter John for supplying this summary. The information here is mainly from this author, but has been edited and updated to by the main site author after a recent journey. The views and facts expressed here are well-research and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.

Sri Lanka could be described as diet India. It's much easier to get around - well the distances are substantially less - and in many ways the country is a watered-down India. Definitely South Asian, but without much of the madness, sheer number of people and oppressing poverty found elsewhere on the continent. A compact circuit with a mixture of great beaches and inland temples makes life easy and is perfect for a first time Asia trip, even if only for a ten day break. This hasn't gone unnoticed: a huge package tourist industry (mainly European) has driven prices up (there is considerable foreigner pricing on entrance fees) and crowded popular sights such as Sigiriya citadel and beaches such as the surf spot of Hikkaduwa (which is starting to model itself on a Spanish or Greek Island resort). If this is likely to bother you, you are advised to pick the much warmer, more humid off-season and not peak times such as Christmas.

  • Getting around: Disappointingly slow transportation, given the size of the country (partly because of the hilly terrain). Limited and slow train service often booked days in advance, particularly Inter-city Expresses between Colombo and Kandy over public holidays. To travel at all widely on public transport, you're more or less forced into some reliance on public buses, but slow, windy and often crowded roads make for stressful rides. Private, AC luxury (term used loosely) buses are much more comfortable and not much more expensive than public rattletraps, but services are more limited.

Taxi drivers can be hired for 20-40 USD/day depending on the distance to be travelled – agree the price in advance. Tuk-tuks can also be hired for fairly long distances. You can fly from Colombo's domestic airport to Jaffna – Sri Lanka's only internal flight.

With care, hired motorbikes are a fantastic way to explore away from the crowds and along the stunning southern/eastern coastlines.

Getting to India:

Your best bet is to forget the numerous travel agents, many of whom will be unwilling to sell you a one-way ticket, and use the excellent Sri Lankan Airlines website where you can purchase tickets hassle free and at the best possible price. Tickets need to be picked up at a Sri Lankan Airlines office and you need to book a few days in advance. If you don't have a credit/debit card then head to the office with cash. To the cheapest/nearest destination, Trivandrum (Southern Kelara), it is around 120-USD. Cochin is about 10 bucks more. On these routes there are at least two flights a day. Jet Airways also connect India and Sri Lanka, but with higher prices (Chennai route).

The Maldives and beyond: Flights to the Maldives, Bangkok, Singapore and KL are a reasonable price and again, are easy to arrange though the Sri Lankan Airlines website.

  • Food: Spicy, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Excellent seafood.

  • Vegetarians: No problem.

  • Communications: Loads of internet access, though prices can vary from 1 rupee to 10 from one shop to the next. Phone system unreliable and inefficient, and numbers have just changed beyond recognition.

  • Health: Don't use the tap water. It generally comes as ice in drinks. Mild diarrhoea common amongst travellers.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Much less than India, and much easier to deal with. Even the most persistent touts will leave you alone if asked politely. Avoid the old gem scam though. Occasionally taxi drivers, particularly at the International airport, will ask for more money than you have agreed, particularly late at night when many flights arrive. Infuriating, official over-charging of foreign tourists means that foreigners pay 72 times the Sri Lankan rate to get into the ancient city of Sigiriya for instance.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Marijuana illegal, cigarettes plentiful. Some passable beers, but fermented fruit-juice ("toddy” or "arrack”) the real local tipple. Hikkaduwa has a drugs scene, nightlife pretty tame. However, if you want to party, best jump on a plane to Goa.

Women alone:

Much less hassle than in India, though it is prudent to avoid parts of Colombo after dark, and groping on buses can be a problem. As in many Buddhist countries, cultural sensitivity means that legs should be covered, but Sri Lankans are usually too polite to mention this, and in beach resorts or Colombo, they are used to foreigners' strange customs.

E 'Having just returned from Sri Lanka, I'd just like to add that as a solo young woman I did have quite a bit of trouble from men, more so than I've had elsewhere, including West Africa (that said, I haven't been to India). Riding on a bike round Anaradhapura, I had a man circling me, slapping my arm, and speeding up and slowing down and generally following me. However, I think I was unlucky, as other solo women had hassle but not to the extent I did. Young tuk-tuk drivers seem to be particularly persistent. Even on my own, I managed to get by on $20 a day without grubbing it, using public transport.' - Alex





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The best source of planning information is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland', which is superb; there are many other resources.
[i] For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.

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Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

'It's a small world. So you gotta use your elbows a lot.'




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