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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
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

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

£24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style