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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence