The traffic is relentless. Motorbikes and rickshaws weave through the almost stationary traffic, as dust and fumes mix in the air to create a stifling muggy heat. Deep, unforgiving horns blast for far longer than is socially acceptable, causing us to flinch, and then wonder what the hell the jingle jangle sound is. Cruising through the chaos, ruling the road, and creating the deafening racket, is the most glorious truck I have ever seen. Which also happens to be a sentence I never thought I’d say.
We are on the IJP Road that separates Islamabad from its twin city Rawalpindi, and finally weaving towards the holy grail of the truck world; the Pakistani painting yards. In our way however, is a six lane motorway, in theory. In reality, there are either no lanes or 18 lanes, depending on your viewpoint. The traffic is crawling at best, and there is very little hope of us successfully making it across. What makes the sweaty trauma more manageable though, is the sight of said giant multi coloured truck, every inch of it adorned with intricate neon paintwork, shiny silver tassels, and more neon internal and external lighting.
There are over 250,000 of these trucks on Pakistan’s road, and they are predominantly neon pink, orange and green (that well known and subtle colour pairing). We are not talking about plain green doors and pink boots here. Every centimeter of the truck is covered in an intricate pattern, depicting Pakistani landscapes, animals, movie stars, or even poetry, the style known as ‘phool patti’. Wood carvings are also attached to each door, and hundreds of metal chains hang off the bottom of the main chassis, creating a strangely Christmassy jingle jangle as they trundle past you.
Each driver wants their truck to be the most admired on the road, and no two trucks are alike. Drivers can spend an astonishing $30,000 refurbishing their truck, which is over two years’ salary, which can take a team of dozens two weeks to complete.
The first sighting of these trucks set off a mission to find their drivers and the paint yards, and work out why the hell the trucks look like that.
Like literally zero travel guides recommend, we are spending 12 nights in Islamabad, which is often described as Pakistan’s most boring city. I happen to completely disagree. The relatively new capital city was built from scratch, sandwiched between the ancient city of Rawalpindi and the Margalla hills, which are effectively the Himalayan foothills. The city sits on the famous Grand Trunk Road which stretches from Dhaka in the East (Bangladesh’s capital) to Kabul in the West (Afghanistan's capital), taking in Kolkata and Delhi along the way.
The reason for the negative associations are probably due to the grid based layout and giant motorways which carve the city into sections, making it quite difficult to walk around on foot. No rickshaws of trucks are allowed into the city either, which creates a much more civilised atmosphere. The wide tree lined streets are also more reminiscent of Los Angeles than how you might expect a South Asian capital city to look. That said, once you get stuck into one of the many markets that form the hub of each Battleships style grid coordinate, you begin to get a feel for the real city. These busy markets sell clothes, rugs, the sweet treats of jalebi and gulab jamon, and of course chai.
Our taxi driver is thoroughly confused why we want to get dropped off here on this IJP Road (motorway), doubling as the dividing line between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. We try to simulate painting trucks and honking horns but eventually we stop playing charades, and instead decide to walk along the motorway on foot to find a more helpful soul. More dust, more honking, and more heat does make us wonder what the hell we are doing here, but sure enough someone does wave his finger and point with just enough conviction to make us trust him.
We gladly step off the motorway, down a steep muddy truck, and follow the unmistakable sounds of a mechanic’s and the sound of wheel nuts being tightened with an electric torque wrench. Indeed we had hit the jackpot, as we walk into the yard to find the nirvana of trucks in every state of repair. There are the brightly painted finished articles, along with wrecks of old trucks sitting around. There is even a blank white truck, tantalisingly just at the beginning of its colourful journey.
We tentatively tiptoe through the yard, doing a miserable job of trying to blend in and look inconspicuous, as men (all men) use spray guns to coat the trucks with their white base layer. We finally stumble across Nour Khan, who is the chief painter, doing the more intricate work of painting landscapes, flowers, and animals onto the side of the trucks. For artwork, it is a surprisingly methodical and hypnotic technique. The speed, pressure, and angle of each stroke is replicated to a tee with every movement. First there are unidentifiable red circles, which are then touched up with a thin white brush to reveal roses.
The inspiration for the designs comes largely from the artists and painters themselves, who then in turn convince the driver why their idea is a good idea. The choice of horn however, is very much the driver’s choice. While they can be a melodic tune, the most popular request is the ‘rail-wallah’ horn which sounds like a train. For the indecisive, several sounds can be woven together into one seven second horn. First you think you’ve stumbled across a Lollywood movie set, and then you think you’re going to be hit by a train. They do the job, I can tell you that.
According to Pakistani visual artist Yusuf Ali, the tradition of the painting goes back thousands of years to the Indus Valley civilisation, who decorated their boats and animals. The more contemporary form of truck decoration took off however, after independence in 1947, as local companies looked to make their trucks more distinctive and stand out from the crowd.
Designs have historically followed cultural and social trends, such depicting cricketers like Imran Khan when Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup in 1992, or depicting politicians such as Imran Khan who came to power in 2018. In recent years however, designs are being branched out to promote messages to drive social change, depicting information about child marriages, sexual abuse, domestic labour, and honour killings. One of the most successful campaigns has been to incorporate portraits of missing children on the trucks, which has resulted in the reunion of five children with their families.
As Pakistan changes in years to come, these elaborate designs will continue to change too. What at first glance just looks like a colourful melee of metal, actually represents a huge part of Pakistan’s culture and economy, as these trucks transport goods from China in the north-east, along the Karakorum Highway, and down to Gwadar port and container ships on the south coast - The New Silk Road.
After visiting the paint yard we trudge back towards the busy motorway, waiting forlornly for the traffic to give us a break, when a truck driver kindly taps his brakes and waves us through to enable us to cross the road. We nod and step into the traffic, safe in the knowledge that we only have 17 more lanes of traffic to navigate before reaching the other side and the relative safety of Islamabad's leafy streets.