Arts, Culture & Media

Prancing horses, peacock feathers and a spaceship. These Pakistani trucks aren’t like any you’ve ever seen


Credit: Sonia Narang

Colorful decorations completely cover Pakistani trucks, like this one parked in the capital of Islamabad.

It’s my first trip to Pakistan, and every time I see a giant truck rumble by, I can’t help but photograph it.

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Pakistan truck art
Credit: Sonia Narang

Truck drivers say they'll only drive trucks that are fully decorated, like this one.

Each truck is a work of art. Most are flamboyant, covered top to bottom in vivid images of landscapes, birds of all kinds (there’s no shortage of peacocks), and poetry.

These trucks are definitely hard to miss, especially because most have a long array of bells hanging off their rear bumpers.

I’m on a mission to find a truck driver who will spare a few minutes to talk.

While driving around Rawalpindi, just outside Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, I spot a large truck parked in front of a small, muddy shopping center. I approach one of the drivers standing outside on his short tea break.

Shakeel Khan, from Abbottabad, tells me he has been driving trucks for 20 years. He agrees to an interview, and to his surprise, I hop into the passenger seat of the truck with all my gear.

The worn seats are ripped and covered in dust. But Khan has jazzed up the dashboard with giant bouquets of fabric flowers. Sparkling beads and a hand-embroidered lantern cover hang from the rearview mirror. This really put fuzzy dice to shame.

We’ve made this truck like our own home,” Khan says. “We’ve decorated it because we only get to go home one day after every two months.”

It can take five to six people up to a month to fully decorate a truck. Khan and his two fellow drivers say they spent $5,000 outfitting their truck. That’s a huge investment; they only make about $30 a month.

Without a beautiful truck, we won’t even drive it,” Khan says. “After putting all the decorations on, then we’ll drive it. The way people wear nice clothes, that’s how we decorate our trucks. It’s so people notice our truck.

Pakistan truck art
Credit: Sonia Narang

An Urdu poetry verse on the front of a truck.

I ask him in Urdu what he gets out of all these decorations, and he immediately replies, “We get love! Other than love from the people, there’s nothing else.”

Khan also wrote the poetry that’s on the front and back of the vehicle. He reads a rhyming verse to me in Urdu that translates as, “Don’t make friends with rich people because you can’t trust them.”

“There’s lots of poetry verses all over the truck,” he says. “We drive around everywhere, and people notice it.”

When I ask him if the people who see his truck say anything to him, he answers without a pause, “Of course! They say you’ve done good work. It gives us respect.”

Soon, his co-driver beckons to him. He says they have to get back on the road, since they have a long drive ahead. They pull out of the truck stop and the bells on the back of the truck jingle loudly as they take off.

A couple days later, I visit a street lined with workshops, where artists create ornate truck decorations. Inside these shops, kids cut out stickers for wheels, bumpers, and side view mirrors. Near the front, shopkeepers and drivers are making deals.

Pakistan truck art
Credit: Sonia Narang

Truck art designer Mohammed Nadeem creates a horse decoration in his workshop. He's been doing this work for over 30 years, since he was a young kid.

I meet shop owner Mohammed Nadeem, a third-generation truck art designer, who says there are lots of people involved in decorating one truck.

We get a steel sheet, and we cut it to make designs, like peacocks, tigers and fish,” Nadeem says. “After that, we cover it with colorful stickers. Everything is made by hand.”

When I ask him why drivers want beautiful trucks, he tells me, they're proud and happy showing off their trucks. "They say to their friends, look, I just got this new truck decorated, I made it look very nice,” he says.

“All the drivers want their truck to look better than the other’s. That’s what they strive for,” he continues.

Then, Nadeem goes back to work, carefully applying small, bright green stickers to a multi-colored design in the shape of a horse.

Sonia Narang reported from Pakistan with support from the East-West Center.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Pakistani trucks are decorated in everything from peacock feathers to prancing horses to elaborate floral designs.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Mechanics sit in front of a decorated truck at an auto body shop in Rawalpindi, outside Pakistan's capital city.

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    Shakeel Khan (left) has been driving trucks for 20 years. He stands next to his co-driver, and says a beautifully decorated truck gives him pride.

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    A driver unloads goods from his truck, parked in front of a small shopping center in Rawalpindi.

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    Beautiful bells hang from the back bumper of a Pakistani truck.

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    Trucks, cars, and bicycles navigate a busy highway in Rawalpindi.

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    Front bumper covers on sale at a truck art workshop in Rawalpindi.

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    Pakistani truck drivers stop at an artist's workshop in Rawalpindi to buy decorations for their vehicles.

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    Mohammed Basharat parked at a truck stop along a busy highway to fix a punctured tire. He has been driving trucks for about 15 years.

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    Mohammed Basharat sits in the driver's seat of his truck. He says they drive around 400 kilometers per day.

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    Designs adorn the front of driver Mohammed Basharat's truck. "We think of this truck as our home so we make it beautiful," he said.

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    This truck with a spaceship design drives away from a major truck stop in Rawalpindi.

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    Truck art designers create decorations all day long inside a row of workshops in Rawalpindi.

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    Truck art workshop owner Mohammed Azim said his favorite design is this pair of prancing horses.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A decorator paints the interior of a truck at a large truck yard full of auto body and mechanic shops.