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.
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.