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A First Timer's Guide to Pakistan


Above: Faisal Mosque, Islamabad


Pakistan is an incredible place to travel, and while it is not massively difficult, some help and advice was so greatly appreciated by us, that I wanted to share for anyone considering it going forward.


This is not an exhaustive guide, it is only our brief experience. See the Resources section for the most thorough and up to date information from people far more informed than me.


Table of Contents




 

Pakistan Summary


From a tourism point of view, the country feels like it is split in two; the mountainous North, and the cities of the South.


The Himalayas meet the Hindu Kush, the Pamir and the Karakorum mountain ranges in a stunning array of jagged peaks that make up some of the highest summits on Earth.


The rest of the country provides the balance of culture and chaos that make South Asian cities such fun places to explore.


Pakistan Advice

  • Be flexible and be patient.

  • Do speak to as many people as you can, as the hospitality is legendary and lives up to its name.

  • Be flexible enough to let the day run away with you. Accept those offers of tea and lunch, and see what happens.

  • Pretending to be married is helpful, as you will be asked a million times.

  • There is no tourism hassle at all, like there is in India (except for airport taxi drivers).

  • But there is selfie hassle in the cities (not in the mountains).

  • It is the land of men, and women will be stared at.

  • Take Pakistani advice on distances and timings with a large pinch of salt.

  • Everyone wants to help you, but not everyone can. Use your own judgement to work out who is actually helpful, and who is leading you down a rabbit hole.

  • The insistence on offering help, tea and food all the time can get overwhelming, so be patient and be prepared to say no in a polite manner if you actually have somewhere to be.

  • Avoid discussing politics and religion. Imran Khan is incredibly popular so you will likely be asked about him.


Visa


E-visas mean this isn’t as tough as it used to be, but the bureaucracy still takes some effort. Only apply for the visa from the official government website.


Visa In Your Inbox


Previously known as Visa on Arrival. The quickest option, in theory (3 working days). You must apply and have your visa approved in advance. This can take weeks, as several follow up questions and documents are required after applying. This is limited to 30 day stays only. You must print out your visa once it has been emailed to you.


Tourist Visa

  • Also an online application, but suitable for stays longer than 30 days (we got 2 months).

  • You must list every country visited in recent years, which takes ages.

  • In theory, you may be asked for an interview, so you are required to input an interview location. Do choose a location in your home country, even if you are applying from somewhere else. From what I read, you are far more likely to cause issues by providing an interview location outside your home country. I have never read of anyone actually being asked to attend an interview, so its location is kind of irrelevant. Just put your home country.

  • Letter of Invitation (LOI) - the key issue. Despite the website saying it is not necessary, most people are asked for this in the days after their application has been submitted. This can only be provided by a registered tour agency from the country, not a hotel. Most travellers are travelling independently, so can’t provide this. To get around this, I uploaded:

    • My entire itinerary for 8 weeks, comprising dates and location

    • All hotel reservations from booking.com (free cancellation). In my initial application, I provided one hotel booking, which was insufficient.

    • Plane tickets into the country (I didn’t have one leaving the country)

    • Our visas were approved 5 working days after we submitted this extra information. The whole process took 2 weeks, which was cutting it fine. I suspect your visa length depends on your itinerary, so if you want longer, make sure you make that clear.


Taxi from Islamabad Airport


The most stressful part of every holiday is the first taxi when you know nothing about the country. And to stereotype taxi drivers, every single airport taxi in every single country of this trip has scammed us, each in their own irritating way.


We got lucky and met a guy on the plane who insisted we join him in his taxi (which he booked through Careem taxi app for 800 PKR). However, as you likely don’t have a working sim, you’ll need to try the Metro Radio taxi service (which has a stall in front of the car park upon your exit), or try and negotiate a fee close to 800 PKR with the hoards of aggressive freelance taxi touts that will pester you.


Sim Card


You’ll need two sims; one for the mountains and one for the rest. None of the mountain sim networks work elsewhere in the country, and vice versa.


Cities sim - Jazz, Zong, Telenor are all big networks. We went with Jazz (2,000 PKR for 20 gb for 30 days) and got a sim at their Islamabad Blue Area branch. You can’t buy a sim off the street, as it needs to be registered to your passport and visa. Well you could, but it won’t work. Our sims were activated within a couple of hours. Once we reached the 30 day limit, our sims continued to work. I’m not sure how or why.


Mountain sim - SCOM is your only option. You’ll need to go to the customer service centre in Gilgit or Skardu (with your passport and visa).


ATMs


Cash is king in Pakistan, unless you’re at fancy places in the cities.


We spent the majority of day one trying to find an ATM. The first 12 or so didn’t work. We had read blogs which suggested certain banks that are good for foreign cards, but the only two banks that worked for us were Standard Chartered and Bank Alfalah.


Bring loads of cash for the mountains, as while ATMs do exist in Gilgit and Skardu (both have branches of Bank Alfalah), we have heard they are unreliable.


Weather


Cities - We went in Nov/Dec which was a lovely 24 degrees during the day, and a brisk 10 degrees at night in Islamabad and Lahore. From what I hear, avoid May to September unless you enjoy dripping in sweat.


Mountains - Annoyingly, the best time to visit the mountains happens to be the worst time to visit the cities. Visits are recommended between May and October, but July and August are very busy with domestic tourists. It will still get cold at night, and especially if trekking, bring all the layers.


Autumn colours - They are an unpredictable beast, dependent on latitude, altitude, type of foliage and recent weather. For your best chance, I’d advise being in the mountains by mid October. In some places peak colours are in early November, but the famous tall Hunza trees are the first to lose their colour. We reached Skardu on 5th November, and there were plenty of red and orange trees, but the tall thin trees had no colour. Machlu were the best colours we saw in this region, and we visited on 11th November. By the time we reached Passu in late November, there were no colours at all.


Useful Resources


Backpacking Pakistan Facebook Group - The best resource around, from people on the ground, providing prompt responses to any traveller queries. Please read the rules before posting a question. Samantha Taylor and Alex Reynolds provide particularly concise and helpful info.


Most recommendations from the group are from fellow foreign travellers, however you should be aware that hostel business owners are also in that group, which can dilute the integrity of the recommendation. These include at least Islamabad Backpackers Hostel, Rehman Backpackers, and Lahore Backpackers Hostel, none of which I have actually stayed at. They might well be excellent hostels, and many people do vouch for them and the help and advice they can offer, but it is important to be aware who is making the recommendation and why. As always, take the recommendations as a starting point only, and then do your own homework to work out where is best for your needs.


Pakistan Traveller - The best travel guide around. With no Lonely Planet or Rough Guide in sight, Tim Blight and Alex Reynolds made their own guide, and it is excellent. There is an e-book or physical version available, but I’d recommend the e-book as the hard copy is big and heavy and shipping costs are high.


Dawn Newspaper - Things change quickly in Pakistan, so keep up to date with the news, especially if there is any kind of political instability.


UK Foreign Office Advice - Up to date advice on where you can travel without invalidating your insurance. Sadly for us UK citizens, gems like Peshawar, Swat, and the Karakorum Highway at Chilas were off limits at the time of writing (Nov 2022).


The consequence of this is that to travel from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu, you have to fly or take the stunning but uncomfortable bus journey over the Babusar Pass (which is closed from roughly Nov - May, dependent on snow fall).


I would advise against taking your safety advice from online blogs and travellers who tell you somewhere is safe. Many travellers still visit Peshawar and Swat Valley, but Swat in particular has seen a huge upsurge in terror attacks by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in 2021.


Careem Taxi App - The best way to get around Islamabad. Reliable, quick and cheap. It doesn’t work in the mountains, but works in all other major cities. You can even get rickshaws on there in Lahore.


Blogs


Lost With Purpose - Alex Reynolds is the main reason we visited Pakistan


Eva Zu Beck - YouTuber


Intentional Detours - Detailed blog by Samantha Taylor, mentioned above



Photography


Pakistan is the most photogenic country I've visited, and thankfully it has a generous and kind population who, in my experience, were very happy to have their portraits taken. That's for the men anyway. It is the polar opposite to somewhere like Morocco, where people often got aggressive when I took out my camera, or asked me for money. Nearly every man I asked to photograph said yes, and several more came to find me to ask me to take their portrait. Where possible, do send them the image. Everyone is on WhatsApp. I didn't even attempt to photograph a woman, and I wouldn't advise asking unless you are a woman yourself, have a trusted relationship with the person already, or they approach you in the first place. Even my girlfriend got rejected by 99% of women she asked for a photo.


My photography ethics vary, as there were undoubtedly women in my photographs, which due to the sheer density of people in Pakistan, is impossible to avoid. Portraits are quite a personal thing however, so I would advise asking for permission, before or after taking the photo. I'm not a fan of always asking first, as it ruins nearly every photo as their natural emotion drains away and their defensive shield comes up. Be prepared though, that if women do catch you pointing your lens in their direction, they are likely to cover their face and turn away. Which is annoying, but entirely fair enough.


Check out my Pakistan portfolio here.



Costs


We travelled as a couple, and spent neatly six weeks in the country. Given the cold in the mountains, we splashed out on some relatively expensive accommodation to try and be as warm and comfortable as possible. We also ate at several high end restaurants, which are still really good value.


In summary, we spent £68 per day (£34 pp), and you could spend a lot less if you wanted to skip some of the above luxuries. This included visa costs and internal flights, but not flights in and out of the country.


I would add that Pakistan is awkward, especially in the cold mountains, with frequent power cuts, unreliable hot water and WiFi, so I would recommend not skimping on costs here. You can make things so much easier for yourself by spending only a little extra money.


 

Islamabad


Above: Faisal Mosque, Islamabad


It gets a bad reputation as being boring, but we enjoyed our time here once we figured out which parts were feasible to walk around. It is a modern capital in a grid layout, with no discernible city centre. It's adjacent city Rawalpindi is completely different, and a fun chaotic mess on tiny alleys to get lost in.


The city is made up of several smaller market centres for each grid coordinate (e.g. G9 market, F10 market). Plus the Blue Area is a thin central strip full of commercial shops and malls. These market centres provide the cultural interest, each their own small town centre.


Taxi is the best way to get around, but the Metrobus works well if the limited route suits where you’re going.


What to do

  • Faisal Mosque

  • Pakistan Monument

  • Trek to The Monal - Beware of monkeys

  • Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi

  • Truck Painting in Rawalpindi - Hard to find, Google maps link here

  • Stroll the wealthy suburbs around F6

  • Watch a Lollywood film in Centaurus Mall (check for English subtitles)

  • Watch cricket at the Pindi stadium. The wildly popular PSL happens in February, or check for international fixtures now teams are returning to Pakistan.

Where to Stay


Lexus Lodge - 3,000 PKR pn - Walking distance of the fun G9 market, and big clean rooms. Not luxurious, but fine and good value.


Reina Boutique Hotel G6 - 8,000 PKR pn - Wildly overpriced. Can’t recommend, given we got the same service at Lexus above.


Where to Eat


Every single person in Pakistan said biryani was their favourite dish. It’s not mine. Plus, locals frequently only recommend huge internation chains to foreigners, seemingly proud that they exist here, and also perhaps worried we can’t eat anything else. One guy started to take me through each item he liked on the McDonalds menu, and I had to stop him.


I love Pakistani food, and this is what I enjoyed.

  • The Monal Rawalpindi - We never made it to the scenic hilltop branch, but the chicken achari handi and chicken malai boti were both excellent at this Rawalpindi branch. Expensive by Pakistani standards, but at 1,000 PKR (£4) for incredible main dishes, all food is very affordable by European standards. They also have a lovely rooftop terrace if it is warm enough.

  • Khoka Khola - upmarket Pakistani food, chain

  • Haleem Ghar - Cheaper chain of Pakistani food, the haleem is unsurprisingly excellent

  • Choose any busy street side stall for paratha, chai, eggs, channa, dal, or whatever they serve.

  • Butlers Chocolate Cafe - The best coffee we had in city by miles. Plus they have a sunny terrace and you get free chunks of lovely brownie with your coffee. Proper Australian style flat whites.

  • Loafology - Also very good coffee, and some quite expensive international treats if you need a fix of french toast or burgers.

  • The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf - Avoid. We met a few Pakistanis who recommended this international chain. The coffee was the most expensive we had, and like most places in the country, they had no idea what a flat white was despite listing it on the menu. Ours came in a pint glass size at a scorching million degrees.

  • Burning Brownie - Great french toast, but they messed up the coffees and refused to change them. A flat white was again absolutely massive, like a large latte. The cortado however was very good and very tasty if you like your coffee tasting like coffee rather than like milk.

  • Savour Foods - Can’t recommend, despite the fact that it is wildly popular and recommended by so many trusted sources. They do one dish, chicken rice, and it is fine. I prefer gravy curries personally, so maybe that’s my issue.


Transport


Islamabad to Skardu


  • We booked a flight a few weeks in advance on PIA's website, for Islamabad to Gilgit (£40pp)

  • Due to an awful weather forecast, we went to PIA's office in Islamabad to change our flights to one day earlier (cost an extra £40)

  • But our flight was cancelled anyway after we checked-in at the airport, so we ran straight to the PIA counter to move our tickets to the Skardu flight later that morning, which did go ahead.

  • Unique landing at Skardu doing several figure of 8s to descend.

  • Note, the bus from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu uses the KKH through Chilas, which is currently on the UK Foreign Office list as 'do not travel' list. The alternative route via Babusar pass was shut during winter, hence we flew.


Islamabad to Lahore


  • Trains go several times a day from Rawalpindi train station. But you can’t book online, so visit the station. Tickets sell out so do this well in advance. You can check train times on pakrail.gov.pk.

  • We tried to book train tickets the day before, but the only seats were on inconvenient train times.

  • So we took a Faisal Movers bus instead. These leave every 30 minutes from Faizabad, and cost 1,650 PKR. You can't book online, so call up to reserve, and you must arrive 45 minutes before the bus to pay for and confirm your ticket. Note, the bus took 7h, not the 5h it advertised. And it does stop once for food and toilets. The buses are surprisingly nice.



 

Skardu


Above: Shangri-La Lake, Skardu


Another place that gets a bad reputation, but we extended our stay here to explore the chaotic bustle of the town. It is not that pretty in terms of Pakistani mountain standards, but it makes a useful base to explore the region.


What to Do


Sports - We were lucky enough to see the end of the regional football tournament (first week of November) at the stunning Shaheen Sports Ground in the city centre (next to the polo ground). With mountain backdrops and packed stands built into the ground, it as an atmopsheric place to watch whatever is on. We saw football, cycling, and cricket.

  • Katpana desert

  • Kharpocho fort

  • Shangri La and Upper Kachuro lake


Where to Stay


Sehrish Hotel - 5,000 PKR pn - Recommended on the Facebook group, and for good reason. Lovely modern rooms, lovely garden, and good UPS electricity for charging things during the inevitable load shedding power outages.


Where to Eat


Shahi Dewan - Incredible Pakistani food, and most importantly it is really warm and cosy. It is swanky by Skardu’s standards, but still very affordable. The chicken achari handi was great again, as were both the desserts of bread and butter pudding and chocolate molten lava cake.


Transport - Skardu to Khaplu


  • Bus - We got a 4h bus to Khaplu (600 PKR), leaving at 10am from the Jailgate Bus Stand way out East of town.


 

Khaplu


Above: Haldi cones, Khaplu


A surprisingly large village looking onto the stunning Haldi cones.


What to Do


  • Trek to Machlu - We got a guide from Serena hotel for 2,500 PKR for the day. Recommended, as he took us across the fun floating raft pulley system across the river. Plus stunning autumn colours in Machlu, which kept them later than most places.

  • Haldi cones - like Passu but unknown for some reason

  • Chaqchan mosque

  • Khaplu Palance


Where to Stay


K7 Resort - Can’t recommend this place. They have one fancy room with great views of the cones, but it is unloved and expensive (6,000 PKR per night which was heavily discounted). The staff were so helpful providing heaters and good food, but the owner was disengaged and uninterested. He actually made most scenarios worse by providing bad or irrelevant information, and refusing to meet us when Whatsapp conversations were proving futile. The backup electricity didn’t work for charging devices, the WiFi didn’t exist, and the rooms were freezing. The pool was an empty concrete box, which creates bad vibes. It’s also too far to walk to town for dinner (1h walk), so we ate at the adjecent fancy Serena Hotel which was very nice.


Where to Eat


Serena Palace Hotel - Relatively cosy, but still cold in the draughty conservatory. Food was good.


Transport


Khaplu to Gilgit


  • Bus - We got a ‘direct’ bus from Khaplu to Gilgit, which involved a 10 minute stop and change of van in Skardu. It left at 8am, arrived at 5pm (much slower than advertised), and prices are fixed (I think it was 1,100 PKR pp). Amazing views all journey. The road from Skardu to Gilgit has recently been reconstructed and is nearly all flat tarmac.

Gilgit to Karimabad


  • Bus - We got one from Gilgit to Karimabad from the Jutial bus stand in the East. We did have to wait 1-2h for it to fill up though, as we arrived around noon. It did however take us right to our hotel.

  • Most buses finish at Aliabad, which is the Hunza travel hub. Minibuses and vans run all day between Aliabad and Karimabad if necessary, taking 15 minutes.


 

Hunza Valley - Karimabad


Above: Karimabad, Hunza


Karimabad is a stunning village in an amphitheatre of mountains with beautiful autumn colours. It is relatively touristy by Pakistani standards, but all for good reason.


The biggest difference here is the Ismaili community which is a very liberal version of Islam, providing a refreshing change where women are visible, running businesses, and even starting up their own Hunza Premier League Womens league.


What to Do


Eagles Nest - A 3h hike up to the top for amazing sunset views

Walk to Aliabad - Quiet winding streets of autumn colours

Explore the Karakorum Highway to the North


Where to Stay


Mulberry hotel - 6,000 PKR pn - Not the cheapest, but they have an excellent inverter heating system and lovely modern rooms with great views down the valley. It felt worth the money.


Where to Eat


  • Hunza Food Pavilion by Laal Shehbazi - Women run restaurant serving local Hunza food (very different to the expected Pakistani curries), with a great outdoor terrace for sunshine

  • Highland Cuisine by Chand Bibi - Another small women run business serving Hunza fare

  • Serena Hotel in Altit - Fancy setting and cosy heating. The dal makhani was incredible.

  • Cafe de Hunza - The walnut cake is so much better than the copycat versions elsewhere in town

  • Mountain Cup Cafe - They do have a fancy coffee machine for espressos but with electricity so rare it doesn’t work very often. The terrace is stunning though.


Transport - Karimabad to Passu


  • We rented a driver for the day to take us up to Passu, so we could stop at Attabad lake, Hussaini Bridge, and take photos along this most stunning section of the Karakorum Highway. We got the driver from Serena Altit, which cost 4,000 PKR for the one way journey from Karimabad to Passu. It took 3-4h including stops.


 

Passu


Above: Passu cones


The iconic Passu cones are unbelievable. They are intimidating and sharp, and provide a stunning backdrop to whatever you do here.


What to Do


  • Hussaini bridge

  • Passu bridge

  • Passu glacier - take the ‘jeepable track’ from near Shisper Hotel (it’s not on Google), for about 20 minutes. The maps.me trekking path from near Glacier breeze is hard to follow and underneath dangerously loose scree, and the views are better from the jeep track.

  • Baltoro glacier - Take a guide. We had to turn back when we came across a steep drop. Even day treks here provide real hazards.


Where to Stay


Montvale Resort - High end luxury for 10,000 PKR pn. It is about 40 minutes from Yak Grill and the town, but it is set in its own quiet piece of sunshine right underneath the cones. The owner Wali is so kind and generous, giving lifts home from town each night.


Note, most hotels had shut by the time we arrived in late November, meaning the budget options were limited and often extremely cold.


Where to Eat


  • Yak Grill - The yak burgers really are great. Also do pasta and yak steak.

  • Glacier Breeze - The lovely owner is just as much of a pull as his legendary apricot cake, which is so moist we had it every day. They also do a wide range of Pakistani food which comes in portions that would feed two people per dish.


Transport - Passu to Gilgit


  • Bus - We got a bus from Passu to Aliabad at around 10am, arriving at 1pm, which left from the main road near Cathedral View Guesthouse. I can’t remember the price, but it was cheap, approx 400 PKR pp.

  • We then changed bus in Aliabad to travel to Gilgit. We had to wait about 30 mins for the bus to fill up.


 

Gilgit


Above: Aga Khan polo ground in Gilgit


The largest mountain city in Pakistan. It has big hotels, crazy markets, and busy high streets. There’s not a whole lot of sites, but given that you’ll either be about to or have just finished weeks in the mountains, it provides a few creature comforts like fancy coffee, hot water and hot desserts.


What to Do


  • Polo - If you’re lucky a game is on (we saw one in late Nov), they are a real spectacle at the Agha Khan polo ground

  • NLI Market - All the chaos you’d wish for in a Pakistani market. A good place to stock up on trekking gear or a salwar kameez.


Where to Stay


Madina 2 - We loved it here. Great value at 3,000 PKR pn, lovely garden for morning coffees, lovely owners who helped with all our queries, and even electric blankets which are a true game changer in the mountains.


Five Giants Homestay - This came highly recommended, but it was partly closed when we visited, so had none of the services we needed and was more expensive (4,500 PKR) than our beloved Madina above. We left after one night. Nice garden, but isolated location.


Where to Eat


Serena Hotel - Miles out of town, but stunning ground, cosy lounge and warm dining room. Good food too. Both international and Pakistani.


Rehmat chicken tikka centre - Incredible BBQ chicken in a basic street food vibe restaurant



Transport - Gilgit to Islamabad


  • Bus - Buses between Gilgit and Islamabad normally go on the KKH (which is not advised by the UK Foreign Office due to trouble at Chilas). The stunning alternative bus goes over Babusar pass, which is shut from Nov - May (roughly).

  • Plane - Stunning but unreliable flight to Islamabad. 60% of flights get cancelled due to the small propeller planes unable to fly in bad weather. To Gilgit, seats on the right have great views of Nanga Parbat mountain. To Islamabad, sit on the left. It only costs 500 PKR to choose a seat on PIA website. Give yourself several extra days to connect to an International flight, as flights can be cancelled for several days on end, resulting in a scrum for the next available plane. Flying to or from Skardu is a better and more reliable alternative for flying if you must go on a specific day, with a stunning 4h drive on new road between Skardu and Gilgit.


 

Lahore


Above: Lahore market


The cultural capital, which provides a stunning balance of architectural and historical interest, along with a good sprinkling of chaos in the walled town markets.


What to Do


  • Badshahi mosque

  • Haveli restaurant

  • Live music at Peeru's (traditional qawali) or at The Colony (for contemporary modern art and live music)

  • Anarkali bazaar

  • Jehangir’s tomb - Super quiet and chilled space

  • Sufi dancing at Maddho Lal Hussain Shrine - Every Thursday from 9pm. This is not a tourist attraction, but is incredibly interesting. Hundreds of men, most getting high, and dancing themselves into a trance to the beat of dhol drums.

  • Wagah border - Really fun nationalistic fair at the Indian border. Starts at 4pm in winter, get there early for a good seat. Use the tourist sightseeing bus from near Gaddafi Stadium, which leaves at 2pm.


Where to Stay


Rose Palace Hotel (Gulberg) - A lovely hotel, good value (5,000 PKR pn), nice rooms and large terrace. But its location is not ideal for tourists, as it is in the modern international focussed Gulberg, which is great for getting expensive pasta, but a long 30 minute rickshaw to places like the Badshahi mosque.


Where to Eat


Haveli restaurant - The most recommended restaurant in Pakistan, and rightly so. The food is good (chicken achari handi again), but the sunset views over the Badshahi mosque are magical. Come 1h before sunset for the best colours and to hear the lovely call to prayer.


Butt Karahi Tikka - A fantastic find serving the best chicken karahi I’ve ever had. Grilled meats are good too, and the portions are massive. The Google maps location is about 500 m out. Ask around, it is on the main road, and everyone knows it.


Artisan Coffee Gulberg - The best coffee I had in Pakistan. Perfect cortados and flat whites, and they even do fancy drip coffees that are too sophisticated for me to appreciate. And the coffees are a steal at 350 PKR.


Lots of good local eats in the walled town, from hot jalebi, gulab jamon, grilled meats and curries.


Transport


  • Trains - We attempted to take the train from Rawalpindi to Lahore, but all the good train times had sold out when I tried to buy tickets at the station to the day before. Book in advance if you want to do this, but I’ve heard they’re often delays.

  • Bus - The bus from Islamabad to Lahore left from Faisal Movers in Faizabad, and they run every 30 minutes, and take 7h (longer than the 5h advertised)


 

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