On the cusp of summer monsoon, but still swirled in dust and heat, our caravan assembled in the town of Raiwind outside Lahore. Behold! a three-passenger, improvised roof-rack atop the little red VW station wagon, a small trailer with hitch, an assortment of personal and camping gear, four school-leavers, two adults, their young daughter and an eighth passenger awaiting us in Kabul. We nervously checked our travel documents, bid farewell to friends, picked up our departure permits at the police station, and cast our eyes heavenward.
So it was, on the 11th of July (1965), a furnace-like wind at our back, we rolled through the bazaar, past the railway yards and mosques on to the Lahore highway, listening intently for telltale squeaks or rattles, a maiden voyage of cobbled means. We were unlike anything else on the road. Had this been France or Russia, or Australia or Sweden or the USA, the traffic authorities would have found any number of reasons to ground our caravan forthwith. But not in the Punjab, not in Silk Road country, not here on the Grand Trunk Road.
For millennia all have freely come and gone on this highway that ties the delta of Bengal to Kabul and the Hindu Kush. For 3000 kilometers (1800 miles) this is the the spine of culture, the artery of ambition, commerce and power. Over 2300 years, it has been a truly ‘grand’ highway, bordered for much of its way by leafy trees with lime washed trunks.
Along this Grand Trunk Road (the ‘GT’ to locals) hurtle intrepid trucks and busses festooned with brilliant paint, tinsel and religious figures, who vie with elephants and camel trains, sequined horses with wedding processions, buffaloes and ox carts. Young people weave figure-8s on motorcycles that transport entire families beside bicycle flotillas of uniformed school children. And ranged on the shoulders of this chaotic stream of life sit vendors of jack fruit, bananas, custard apples, tangerines and mangoes; barbers ply their trade with not so much as a twitch of worry; even the road-side dentist will gladly do an extraction though he has also hired a laborer to work the treadle of a makeshift drill should that be required. Might you need your earwax attended to? That, too, can be addressed. Or perhaps the strap of your sandal has torn? The cobbler under yonder tree can help you. Has your journey left you parched? The cart-man with limes will slake your thirst with ‘nimbu-pani’ seasoned with cane juice and a touch of salt. Or more traditionally, you might stop at the ‘chai khana’, the tea stall, that also boasts mountains of sweets and savories. And there they can tell you of the vagaries of the journey: of failed bridges and landslides, of police stops or bandits in the hills, of departures to the next town.
We entered this stream of life, turning decisively to the northwest, toward the Khyber Pass. About noon, somewhere outside Rawalpindi our trailer hitch threatened trouble. We pulled onto the shoulder to work out a remedy. Within minutes a host of strangers had stopped to ask if they might render assistance. This is the way of Silk Road country on the Grand Trunk Road. By nature and necessity, travelers are a compassionate breed when facing the odds midst swirling dust and heat.