Mother Of All Roadtrips (MOAR) – VI: Grand Trunk Road

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.

A stretch of ancient highway adjacent to the ‘Grand Trunk Road’ near Taxila, Pakistan, one of the earliest still-inhabited cities in the world.  It is believed that Taxila was also the seat of the oldest university in Asia, perhaps in the entire world, likely established by Buddhist monks and scholars.  When Alexander and the Greeks arrived, they professed that the none of the academies of Greece could compare with it.  Such were the glories spawned by the Grand Trunk Road.       photo credit: wikimedia commons

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.  

The scope, scale and antiquity of the Grand Trunk Road sets it in a class by itself.  Scholars, pilgrims, princes, traders, explorers, invaders, seekers of fortune, and entrepreneurs, not to mention the everyday herders, farmers, social travelers and latterly, the western hippies, have enriched the lore that clings to this singular human passageway with few equals.        photo credit:  theologicalindian and vikramjits  

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.


14 thoughts on “Mother Of All Roadtrips (MOAR) – VI: Grand Trunk Road

  1. Thanks Jonathon! This is another rich feast of visual & sensory images. Makes me want to be there, too. — On second thought, actually, the immediacy of your writing helps me to be present there way back in 1965 enjoying the journey along with you & your family. Leona P.S. I tried to post this on your blog but couldn’t remember my password as usual!

    Sent from Windows Mail

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    1. Always enjoy reading things you have written. You describe it in such a way you feel you are there!! Thanks for sharing your gift of telling something in writing for us all to enjoy.

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  2. How savory! How delightful! We’ve never traversed the Grand Trunk, but your stories bring to mind similarly memorable treks in Mindanao and Cambodia. Love the journey! – Earl

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  3. Thanks Jonathan. Having grown up on “GT Road”, had a tooth extracted by pliers on it, had more than one haircut on it, bicycled with classmates on it, ridden my Dad’s scooter on it with Terry on his father’s Jawa, used it to retrieve imported cars from Calcutta to Kathmandu, been caught in 28 hour flood traffic jams, ridden: motorcycles, an Ambassador, Dad’s Willy’s Jeep station wagons, a VW rabbit, a Rav4, overstuffed buses; as well as hauling a gypsy cart as trailer as a Christmas present for my parents, GT road has been a central artery in my life. Thank you for evoking its iconic status. I loved re-reading Kim, whose life unfolds along the GT Road.

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    1. Namaste, Gabriel! I feel reassured that my experience on the GT was not entirely a hallucination, though I suspect that too was available at modest cost in some of those hookahs along the way. We must also express gratitude to have escaped the misfortunes that sometime attend this road, though I suspect no one leaves the GT without having encountered the extraordinarily skilled ‘fingersmiths’. Onward, mon cher!

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  4. Jonathan, this is great and especially relevant as Jan and I are in Rajasthan right now touring after a conference I had in New Delhi.

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    1. Such a lucky twosome, you and Jan! The ethos of the GT exists there, too – but cast in a desert key with the warrior strongholds, the palaces and the camel bazaars. Most impressive: the brilliant dress – the scarlet, magenta and purple of women’s garments – seen against the backdrop of the Thar wilderness. One day, observing an elephant procession outside Jaipur, I asked the mahout where the elephants came from. He told me they had walked from Assam, my home province, 1500 miles away.

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    1. Tim – sometimes it feels like you must have been along with us, and a clutch of others who were prone to push the envelope. Which suggests another dimension of travels – that we travel in company even when we travel alone.

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