Grand Trunk Road

Mobile Masterpieces On Pakistan's Grand Trunk Road

Though donkey carts, rickshaws, motorbikes and even the occasional camel are all distinctive features of the Grand Trunk Road, none of these symbolize the road as much as its ornate, brightly colored trucks.

  • Artist Mohammad Saeed, 32, works on the details of a truck. Nearly all trucks driving on the Grand Trunk Road are fully painted inside and out, with tin and wood details and a huge decorated hood above the driver's cab.
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    Artist Mohammad Saeed, 32, works on the details of a truck. Nearly all trucks driving on the Grand Trunk Road are fully painted inside and out, with tin and wood details and a huge decorated hood above the driver's cab.
    All photos by John Poole/NPR/NPR
  • Saeed started apprenticing as a painter at age 12. Painting apprencticeships usually last from 5 to 7 years.
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    Saeed started apprenticing as a painter at age 12. Painting apprencticeships usually last from 5 to 7 years.
    John Poole/NPR
  • Repainting a truck's interior and exterior can take from 10 to 20 days and might happen every 5 to 7 years. The job costs about $300 to $500.
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    Repainting a truck's interior and exterior can take from 10 to 20 days and might happen every 5 to 7 years. The job costs about $300 to $500.
    John Poole/NPR
  • People make very specific requests for their truck art. Most want to express pride for their hometown region, but many also have more personal requests. Saeed recently completed a portrait of a truck driver's son — from a photograph the driver provided.
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    People make very specific requests for their truck art. Most want to express pride for their hometown region, but many also have more personal requests. Saeed recently completed a portrait of a truck driver's son — from a photograph the driver provided.
    John Poole/NPR
  • A mile away from the Grand Trunk Road on one of its offshoots, a truck cab is up on blocks.
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    A mile away from the Grand Trunk Road on one of its offshoots, a truck cab is up on blocks.
    John Poole/NPR
  • The painters use just about every color, but favor fluorescent Day-Glo hues.
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    The painters use just about every color, but favor fluorescent Day-Glo hues.
    John Poole/NPR
  • At the makeshift home of a large gathering of mechanics, welders, craftsmen, painters and metalworkers — all working on a fleet of distinctive Pakistani transport trucks — workers shape metal with hammers amid old truck cabs. In the background, mechanics work on a truck engine.
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    At the makeshift home of a large gathering of mechanics, welders, craftsmen, painters and metalworkers — all working on a fleet of distinctive Pakistani transport trucks — workers shape metal with hammers amid old truck cabs. In the background, mechanics work on a truck engine.
    John Poole/NPR
  • Truck art contractor Muhammad Zaman, 43, far left, washes the windshield of a newly painted truck as his workers clean its interior. Contractors coordinate all the decorating work — they line up the various craftsmen and the specific artist to paint the detail work on the trucks.
    Hide caption
    Truck art contractor Muhammad Zaman, 43, far left, washes the windshield of a newly painted truck as his workers clean its interior. Contractors coordinate all the decorating work — they line up the various craftsmen and the specific artist to paint the detail work on the trucks.
    John Poole/NPR

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On the side of a highway just off the Grand Trunk Road outside Islamabad, an informal truck depot takes up several acres and includes areas for engine work, body work and painting. The conditions are almost medieval. The air is thick with diesel smoke; boys, men and sometimes whole families maneuver among smoking engines up on blocks, the sparks of welders and the hammering of metalworkers. Hands and faces are covered with oil and soot.

And in the midst of all this, artists silently work away on the final stages of a truck's repair — its paint job. Swirling floral motifs, feathers, animals, women's faces and, in one case, the face of a trucker's infant son, painted from a cell phone picture.

Trucks in Pakistan are not the same trucks you'd see on a road or highway elsewhere. In fact, even in Pakistan they are rarely seen on the modern 'motorways.' Their real home is the Grand Trunk Road and other roads like it — roads with wild, raucous stretches of asphalt where pretty much anything goes.

Pakistan's trucks are the grand ships, or perhaps mobile palaces, of the Grand Trunk Road. They carry not just cargo — onions, gravel, hay, potatoes and cattle — but also the hopes, dreams and pride of their travelers.

The embellishments can add hundreds of pounds to a truck and cost hundreds of dollars, but no trucker questions the value of a decorated truck. When asked why he goes to all the trouble and expense, a trucker will tell you simply, "It's our culture."

Each region of Pakistan has distinctive motifs and a style — some might value wood carving while others prefer shiny metals — but all agree on the importance of the truck as cultural expression.

To paint an entire truck can take from 10 to 20 days and cost between 300 and 500 U.S. dollars. Truck decorating "contractors" supervise the makeovers, as they are often more like what an American might consider a house remodeling than a simple paint job. A trucker might employ a contractor to hire and oversee the work of painters, carpenters, metalworkers and, at the top of the heap, artists, who add the detailed brushwork and signature paintings to the sides of the truck.

No matter the style or the detail of the work, the final brush strokes are always the same. The artist signs his name on the rear of each truck — along with his cell phone number. So if you fancy the scene, you know whom to call.

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