The creaking trucks that ply Pakistan's treacherous highways form a vibrant tapestry in the country's often bleak and rugged landscape. Showcasing the Pakistani tradition of painting vehicles elaborately, the trucks are covered with everything from detailed arabesques and Urdu calligraphy to portraits of Pakistani pop icons -- or some combination of all three. Often, drivers hang chains of bells from their vehicles' bumpers, giving them their common English name: "jingle trucks."
Last fall, Matthieu Aikins rode one such truck, a 1993 Nissan cargo hauler with a decorated cabin, along the U.S. and NATO supply route into Afghanistan -- a journey he chronicles in his new Foreign Policy ebook: Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber. (The title refers to Urdu writing painted on the truck's mud flaps.) Starting in the port city of Karachi and then winding through Pakistan and its borderlands all the way to Kabul, Aikins observed countless example of these rolling canvases. While painted trucks are also found across Indonesia, the Philippines, and much of Latin America, the practice is at its most flamboyant in Pakistan. The origins of Pakistani truck art are unclear, but the first trucks driven in the country, when it was still part of British India, were Bedfords, imported after World War I. Over time these simple, stalwart machines were affixed with wooden prows and bumpers that grew increasingly lavish, as Aikins writes. Today, some drivers spend thousands of dollars adorning their vehicles.
Noting the lack of commercial logic to all this fanfare, Aikins suggests the tradition may have other, more spiritual roots. One theory, he says, is that the art might stem from the Sufi practice of decorating holy sites as "a way of accumulating spiritual blessings." Durriya Kazi, a Pakistani artist and professor, told Aikins: "The idea is, if we don't honor the truck, it won't give back to us." For a taste of Aikins' colorful -- and dangerous -- journey, check out these images depicting some of Pakistan's more colorful tankers -- and read his new book, available here.
Above: A Pakistani truck driver peers from his window as he waits to load cargo in Islamabad.