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
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor