In Foreign Parts: The art and craft of driving a Bedford on Pakistan's roads

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The Independent Online

Khalid Khan sighs. "Everyone must yield to a Bedford truck." He is behind the wheel of a humble Toyota taxi and waiting for a chance to pass on the Grand Trunk Road. "It is the king of the highway."

Looming all around us are these behemoths of Pakistan transport, belching diesel fumes and sparkling in the harsh sunlight. Manufactured under licence in Pakistan, these are nothing like the plain Bedford lorries I remember from childhood picture books.

Besides hauling teetering piles of cargo, everything from gas cylinders to live chickens in cages, these huge trucks are overloaded with subcontinental whimsy. Sentimental drawings in eye-popping colours crowd any surface not already decorated with a tin rosette or a disco-reflector.

A cross between a rolling juke box and Wild West covered wagon, these lorries are omnipresent in Pakistan. Coaches and even lowly rickshaws often sport gaudy paint jobs, but the Bedford crews who ride above the highway traffic look down their noses at them.

On a Bedford truck's sidepanels, fluorescent falcons, hunting leopards or wrestling tigers share space with muscular actors and doe-eyed starlets. There is a merry mix of the sacred and profane: a PIA jet wings over Mecca, and the rocket-like minarets of Faisal mosque point to one of the 101 names of Allah, high above the strutting peacocks and barnyard reveries on the bonnet.

Dreamscapes of lakes and mountains float above melancholy verses in Urdu script. The trim is stamped to look like stylised parakeets on a perch, and the transport company's logo is cannily incorporated into psychedelic swirls. Bunches of black cloth and tassels are meant to flap away evil spirits on the road. The jangle of bumper chains on the Tarmac, meant to ward off mechanical failure, warns of the lorry's approach and long-lashed, painted eyes stare down the evil eye.

These customised paint jobs are not cheap. At Muhammad Shafi's workshop in Rawalpindi, 22 artisans are on call to paint designer motifs freehand, to hammer speciality tin borders, to upholster the cab in gold-trimmed leatherette or to carve hardwood cab-doors as elaborate as a jewel box.

Applying an extravagant "disco paint job" after building wooden struts around a bare chassis that arrives with just the engine, steering wheel and driver's seat can cost 200,000 rupees, more than a year's wages for a lorry driver. Even a touch-up job, needed every couple of years to brighten painted panels dulled by dust-choked roads, costs 30,000 rupees.

The workshops will repair and overhaul old trucks, or recycle old ones into spare parts. A plain white Bedford I glimpsed outside Karachi was not a rare albino lorry. It was speeding to the workshop for a metamorphosis, and it drew double-takes because it looked so naked in its monochrome undercoat. Soon the broad rear panel would be repainted with a starry ground to feature Buraq, a demure winged she-centaur Muslims believe carried the Prophet to Heaven. It is a classic motif, more popular even than Tarzan, Rambo or the Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon.

"Visual anthropologists" at Paris University who have painstakingly catalogued the symbols in Pakistani lorry art say the emblems painted on the transport are meant to ward off bad fortune and attract prosperity, giving an extra blessing for a merchant's goods.

Many of the traditional symbols are holdovers from the caravans on the Silk Road. No embroidered camel blanket could be more intricate than the designs on everyday Bedford lorries that dominate Pakistan's highways. There cannot be enough talismans or lucky amulets, the reasoning goes, when traversing mountain passes where accidents are frequent and gangs of dacoits lurk. Bribe-seeking police may be around the next curve, and their eyes can be distracted by beautiful pictures when they are scrutinising the truck for any minor infraction.

Museums in Hamburg and Washington DC have each shipped out an entire Bedford truck, hauled off the Grand Trunk Road to display as the epitome of contemporary folk art. Even the gearshift on Munir Hussain's Bedford is enhanced with fancy tape that co-ordinates with the fake rosebuds and flickering fairy lights inside. He would not dream of driving a dilapidated old wreck.

"I fix my gari so she is beautiful and is admired," Mr Hussain says. "I spend all my waking hours inside her." The loving way he strokes his lorry to a shine and keeps buying the latest coloured baubles to tack on the dashboard would make many women jealous.