Cycling the Karakoram Highway was an intense and amazing experience, one that for many months I was unsure if I would be able to complete. The visa for Pakistan is unfortunately impossible to get outside one’s home country and so requires a level of luck and tenacity to get – posting my passport back to the UK and away from the safety and security of my immediate surroundings was not an experience I will be keen on replicating in the near future – but get it I did … and it was so worth it!!!
The mode of travel as ever gave me access to my surroundings and the people who daily travel those tricky, ok let’s be honest … sometimes dangerous, roads. The twists and turns of the KKH, the lack of safety barrier between you and a long vertical drop down to the jagged rocks beside the river whose gorge you are following and the highly skilled but very fast and often tired and under pressure drivers who also populate the road all make this highway (in)famous and not in a good way but my experience cycling the Northern part of it was nothing short of an epiphany and I have felt much more unsafe on certain European roads.
One of my favourite aspects of the road are the multitude of Pakistani lorries which deliver goods up and down the KKH and to valleys off the highway. Their bright lights, spectacular, psychedelic art and jingling metalwork made me smile every time and rejoice in the pride that their drivers and owners take in their construction and maintenance.
After a difficult experience or tough day it only took a smile and a wave from the drivers of these lorries to restore my faith in humankind … and my ability to open myself up to the multitude of positive encounters that were still available to me. Of course I am conscious that beautiful artwork does not necessitate that its driver be the sort of person I would wish to encounter on a dark night or on the outside of another treacherous sweeping bend but my law of averages states that most people are good and if they are waving and yelling support out of their lorry window then I will take that and see it for the good will I’m sure it is!!!
Seeing the lorries up close and chatting to some of the drivers I became aware of the different types of art work. These lorries heave and sway under the weight of the colourful, glittering, shiny shapes that catch the sunshine and the eye of the beholder. They are impossible to ignore and the skill and time that goes into their construction is incredible.
Sometimes painting is done straight onto metal structures but the majority of the artwork on the iconic lorries are built up with plywood, layer upon intricate layer added to create the raised shapes that are then covered with paint or as seems popular now, plastic stickers. Bells and discs of metal designed to swing, clatter and jingle are attached to the lower portion of the lorries and acted as a method of ‘echo location’ for this particular cycle tourer, alert to the possibility of a speeding lorry rounding the next tight turn!! Images are fabricated out of metal sheets, beaten into shape and cut and moulded from metal to form the curves and swirls that populate every inch of these lorries.
It seems impossible that such a vast amount of money is spent on the decoration of these beasts of burden but when it is considered the lengths of time that the drivers and lorries spend on the road it becomes less of a surprise, and the drivers are justifiably proud of their “brides”.
Mobile advertising at its best and most beautiful!! However a fully decked out, top quality lorry will cost in the region of 40,000 Pakistani rupees to create, a substantial amount for anyone to find and justify.
In the 40’s spiritual gurus and esoteric script for protection and support were the starting point of the art form. The 60’s showed greater political influence and portraits of politicians started to be seen on the backs of the lorries. During the late 60’s and early 70’s the influence of the Pop Art movement was seen across Pakistani billboards and film advertisements, which in turn influenced the style of the lorries.
The influence by the movement of the ‘hippy trail’ through Pakistan and the focus on ‘psychedelia’ was also fed back into the style and following that shift it continued to develop it’s multi cultural nature and to encompass the likes of Bruce Lee, the first non-Pakistani to feature heavily in the genre.
Currently there appears to be a focus on the military might of Pakistan, a pride in their ownership of nuclear weaponry, fighter jets and helicopters, which, to me, seems a dichotomy when coupled with pretty shapes, colours and is surrounded with imagery of animals, flowers and the natural world.
My interest in these lorries is both as an expression of current thought and as a style of ‘folk art’ within which I see parallels in the narrow boat art of the 1900’s. Within folk art, it could be argued, there are traditionally expressions of where people see themselves in the world ‘now’ and what they are striving for.
In Pakistan, as everywhere in the world, there appear to be elements of striving for ‘more’ but also a harking back to elements of tradition that are being lost as the world of capitalism engulfs everything and people are consumed and transfigured by mass media.
On these roads there are aspects of the old, perhaps more simple (but not easy) life still rolling and I love them.
For a more detailed article on these amazing lorries please go to The elusive history and politics of Pakistan’s truck art by Nadeem F. Paracha.