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Culture

The pleasures of Pakistan are ancient: Buddhist monuments, Hindu temples, Islamic palaces, tombs, pleasure grounds and Anglo-Mogul mansions - some in a state of dereliction which makes their former grandeur more emphatic. Scuplture is dominated by Graeco-Buddhist friezes, and crafts by ceramics, jewellery, silk goods and engraved woodwork and metalwork. Pakistan's flotillas of mirror-buffed and chrome-sequinned vintage Bedford buses and trucks are dazzling works of art. Traditional dances are lusty and vigorous; music is either classical, folk or devotional; and the most patronised literature is a mix of the scholastic and poetic. Cricket is Pakistan's greatest sports obsession and national players are afforded hero status - unless, of course, they proselytise young and wealthy English women, then marry them. Nearly all Pakistanis are Muslim, and Islam is the state religion. Christians are the largest minority, followed by Hindus and Parsees, descendants of Persian Zoroastrians. Note that dress codes are strictly enforced: to avoid offence invest in a shalwar qamiz - a long, loose, non-revealing garment worn by both men and women.

Pakistani food is similar to that of northern India, with a dollop of Middle Eastern influence thrown in for good measure. This means menus peppered with baked and deep-fried breads (roti, chapattis, puri, halwa and nan), meat curries, lentil mush (dhal), spicy spinach, cabbage, peas and rice, and of course that staple of hippies, the sturdy Hunza pie. Street snacks - samosas and tikkas (spiced and barbecued beef, mutton or chicken) - are delicious, while a range of desserts will satisfy any sweet tooth. The most common sweet is barfi (it pays to overlook the name), which is made of dried milk solids and comes in a variety of flavours. Though Pakistan is officially 'dry', it does brew its own beer and spirits which can be bought (as well as imported alcohol) from specially designated bars and top-end hotels.

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Environment Pakistan's neighbours are an eclectic and ornery bunch: Iran to the south-west; Afghanistan to the west and north; China to the north-east; and India stretching down its eastern side. The southern coast abuts the Arabian Sea. The country is composed of towering peaks in the north (including K2, at 8611m/28,245ft the second-highest mountain in the world), dry and scrubby mountains in the west, an inhospitable plateau in the south-west, barren deserts in the south-east and alluvial plains everywhere else. These plains, constituting about a third of the country, are Pakistan's 'heart', where most of its people live and most of its food is grown. Coursing through all this tumult is the Indus River, which falls from Tibet then travels 2500km (1550mi) south before emptying through an immense delta into the Arabian Sea. Natural vegetation in Pakistan's lowlands is patchy - mostly scattered clumps of grass and stunted woodlands. However, as the landscape rises, there are quite large coniferous forests and carpeted slopes of multicoloured flowers in the northern mountains. Fauna includes bears, snow leopards, deer and jackals. Pakistan's 800km (500mi) of coastline teems with sharks, shellfish and sea turtles, while the Indus delta is home to the marsh crocodile. Pakistan has three seasons: cool (October through February); hot (March through June); and wet (July through September). There are, however, big regional variations. In the south, the cool season brings dry days and cool nights, while the northern mountains attract drizzle and plummeting night-time temperatures. The hot season means suffocatingly hot and humid conditions in the south but pleasant temperatures northwards. During the wet season, the tail end of the monsoon dumps steady rain mostly in the narrow belt of the Punjab from Lahore to Islamabad. Further north, the high mountains block all but the most determined clouds.

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Getting There & Away  Most flights from European and Asian centres arrive in Karachi, though a few also go to Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Gwadar (Baluchistan). Much more interesting is taking an overland route. A railway links Lahore with the Indian railway system through Amritsar, and another from Quetta crosses briefly into Iran. After the Grand Trunk Road, the most famous road into Pakistan is the Karakoram Highway, over the 4730m (15,514ft) Khunjerab Pass from Kashgar in China; roads also run from India and Iran. A bus service between Delhi and Lahore is also up and running. Sea passage is a possibility, with cargo ships calling at Karachi from either the Middle East or Bombay.

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Getting Around  Getting around Pakistan is not always comfortable, but it's incredibly cheap. The state-owned Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has scheduled flights to 35 domestic terminals and daily connections between the major centres. One of the bonuses of flying is that some of the air routes, especially to the northern areas and Chitral, are spectacular. Buses go anywhere, anytime - but the treacherous mountain roads make the going very tough. Vans, wagons, pick-ups and jeeps are also a popular form of road transport. Train travel is slower and easier on the nerves but there are no routes into the mountains. City transport is dominated by buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws and two-wheeled, horse-drawn tongas.

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