Magazine article Geographical

Keeping Up with the Khans: The Karakoram Highway Is Undoubtedly One of the World's Most Terrifying Commutes, Especially If You're Doing It in a Truck So Intensely Decorated That You're Lucky to Be Able See out of the Windscreen. Liz Scarff Braves This Rocky Road to Meet the Drivers and Admire Their Travelling Art Galleries

Magazine article Geographical

Keeping Up with the Khans: The Karakoram Highway Is Undoubtedly One of the World's Most Terrifying Commutes, Especially If You're Doing It in a Truck So Intensely Decorated That You're Lucky to Be Able See out of the Windscreen. Liz Scarff Braves This Rocky Road to Meet the Drivers and Admire Their Travelling Art Galleries

Article excerpt

Northwestern Pakistan is a remote, rebellious region of towering peaks and vertiginous cliffs. It's a hot, dry, barren land that almost seems to dare plants to grow in its monochrome soils. But moving among this mountainous moonscape is a herd of incongruous beasts, colourful, twinkling creatures that wouldn't look out of place in Rio's Carnivale.

The trucks that ply Pakistan's road network are works of art. Cabs are built up with intricately cut wooden panels and then emblazoned with embossed metal fish, birds and flowers. Reflective plastic--the kind used on regular car indicators--is cut into elaborate patterns and stuck all around. The sides of the tracks are hand painted with complex designs, mountain scenes and even the odd film star. Bright metal sculptures and pom-poms are attached to the outside and flashing metal fringes skirt the floor. The inside of the cab is given the same treatment, with door panels, ceiling and seating opulently upholstered.

The decorations cost a fortune, but the owners argue that it's well worth the expense because no self-respecting merchant would trust his goods to a driver with a shabby truck. If he can't afford to be garish, people will think he's a bad driver, they say.

With every square centimetre of the truck covered in bright reflectors, sculptures and pom-poms, not only are drivers 'keeping up with the Khans', they are protecting their investment--a well-decorated truck will hold its value, and a potential buyer is more than likely to rate good decoration over good bodywork or mechanical function.

The work is carried out in paintyards, subcontinental one-stop-shops that offer everything you would ever need to 'pimp your truck'. Peshawar, a town with more guns than chapattis on the Afghanistan border, is home not only to a sizeable contingent of Taliban sympathisers, but to a particularly revered paintyard.

Status symbol

Pushing 50[degrees]C, the heat hits you like a punch. The dusty streets are lined with small shops and men are milling around in traditional dress, a loose-fitting, light-coloured pyjama suit. They cover their heads with huge cloths, sip tea and sensibly try to do very little in the heat.

Asafaddin, 38, a truck driver for 14 years, has brought his truck to the yard to be stripped and completely redecorated. He has a vision--a brightly coloured, sparkling vision. "I have told the decorators that there should be no other truck like mine. I want it to be the best on the road," he says, brandishing a cloth to stem the flow of sweat running from his forehead.

"My father was a track driver and I am carrying on the tradition that he started," Asafaddin continues. "I remember the first time I saw a decorated truck, it was covered in roses and I was really impressed. It became my life ambition to own the best truck on the road.

"A good truck is a status symbol," he explains. His voice drops as he adds, "There is a lot of competition between the drivers and if you have a good truck it shows you are rich and you get a good reputation." And reputation is everything in this game.

Nation of magpies

The decorated trucks have been evolving over the past 50 years, continuing a tradition that has its roots in the decoration of carts pulled by oxen; however, the scene really took off during the 1980s. Today, it's a serious art form and supports a whole industry.

Different areas are known for different styles: Rawlpindi for layered and coloured plastics, Lahore for portraits of movie stars and famous personalities and Peshawar for exquisite sign writing. …

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