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Pakistan Travel
River of life

Traveling on Grand Trunk Road all my life, the Road captured my imagination as a cultural curiosity when I read Rudyard Kipling's Kim. At the beginning of the last century Kipling called it "a wonderful spectacle.... without crowding.... green-arched, shade-flecked ... a river of life." But Pakistan's National Highway Number 5 (N-5), alias the Grand Trunk Road, or simply the GT Road, presents a different impression now. Commuting up and down the GT Road are caravans of trucks, buses, cars, animals and animal transport also auto-rickshaws, all having equal right of the way. On the GT Road every bus, truck, and a car must pass the vehicle ahead. "The GT Road," a veteran traveler and my friend John Otto says, "really belongs to the trucker." And he is right in a way.
So much has changed since Kipling's description of the
GT Road, which he saw "brimming with all manner of travelers -- rich merchants with elephants and camels laden with merchandise, guarded by retainers. The aristocracy on colorful horses and elephants with gilded howdahs for the ladies, their silk drapes fluttering in the wind, the raggle toggle of the gypsies roaming from one village to the next in search of food and work." The old identities have steadily defused by the common objectives for prosperity and development. The new social and economic objectives have been the major engines of change since partition. The only thing that still remains on this strategic, economic and cultural artery of Pakistan is that it is "the river of life."
Kabul (Afghanistan)-Calcutta (India) GT Road runs through many of Pakistan's most historic places starting from Khyber Pass: Peshawar, Lotus Valley of Ghandhara civilization, Attock Fort (built by King Akbar in 1581), Hassan Abdal, Taxila (Gandhara and Raja Ambi fame), Potohar Plateau (where some of the life on this planet started), Fort of Rohtas (built by Sher Shah Suri), Gujrat (last battle ground of British), Gujranwala (birth place of Ranjit Singh), Lahore (power seat and cultural capital of Pakistan), and Wagha. It passes over great rivers. The most interesting portion of the road is near
Margala Pass that was used by Babar in his invasion. Near by is the oldest surviving portion of the Road. This section remained preserved because it did not come in subsequent alignments of the Road. Some of the holes along this portion are being used as living quarters. During these alignments and widening the old banyan, shisham and acacia trees have also vanished and eucalyptus trees are coming up all along. A few banyan trees can still be seen around Mandra but no body seems having time to sits under their shads.
The Road looms in minds of local commuters as well as foreign travelers on a scale comparable to the K 2 or the Northern Areas or the
Shalimar Garden, not least because it has been around for several thousand years. Its angles have been yanked and diverted by history. It has witnessed the march of Aryans and victorious advance of Persian and Greek armies. It also saw the Scythians, White Huns, Seljuks, Tartars, Mongols, Sassanians, Turks, Mughals and Durranis making successive inroads into the territories beyond Peshawar Valley and Indus. It is this road through which the subcontinent was invaded time and again by conquerors like Timur, Babar, Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. Geography rather than history has fated the GT Road to play a role in the history in every age. Since the Aryan invasion of the subcontinent, the natural route that starts at the Khyber Pass and sweeps east, has served as a corridor for the movement of travelers, goods, armies, cultures and ideas. For hundreds of years, great camel caravans traveled through this road. These ancient merchants and traders brought luxurious silks and fine porcelain objects from China to the Middle East.
It was Sher Shah Suri who built the
GT Road, originally called Gernaili Sarak till the British changes its name. The Afghan King built the serais (inns) and watering points, Kos Minars (mile minarets equivalents of present day humble milestones), mail horse-changing posts, planted trees and provided it with the basic amenities. Though the construction of the GT Road is assigned to Sher Shah Suri but some historians and researcher say that it was already there and Sher Shah Suri only improved it in consonance with his own long-term strategic plans. A random question comes in my mind whenever I take spanking new Lahore-Islamabad Motorway: whose name will be associated with the Motorway in times to come?
Whatever mode of transport one is using, traveling on the
GT Road does not exhaust, neither it alienate the spirits. It is one place where Pakistan proves so easy to appreciate. It is living all along every time of the day or night. For one, the road is a great bazaar from Peshawar to Lahore: food and other things are available right on the roadside. The public transport stops at different points, away from habitats, and the passengers can fresh up either in modern hotels or open eating joints serving every thing to satisfy the taste of cross section of the commuters. Even those using their own transport stop by to have a deal on dining in the way. There is a plenty of choice on the Road for shoppers too. The vendors all along the road selling ceramics and furniture of Gujrat, kitchenware from Wazirabad and Gujranwala, marble and stoneware from Taxila, plants and flowers every where, basketry from Soan valley or fresh fruit of the areas from where the road happens to be passing and even carpets hanging high. This suites the commuters well. They park their cars, haggle and make purchases on much cheaper prices than they would in the city markets. Even some factories have opened their showroom on the roadside.
Most of the Road is two ways and bypasses have been made to avoid passing through cities but it still passes from some cities. The passion is also required when the road has to pass over the railways crossing around train timing but mostly the road runs parallel to the Railway Line. We in our society have a social trend to live near roadsides. Which is why one can see ribbon colonies coming up all along the road and the bypasses? Same is the reason for large number of smoke emitting factories on both sides of the road. Remember the pungent whiff near Kala Shah Kaku. And, near a village Momdi Pur Madina between Kharian and Lala Musa, a vender who sells tea in a cubby-hole stall has kept a large number of ducks in a pond on the Highway Authority Land. He has also constructed a small inconspicuous mud hut near the pond. The ducks lay egg in that hut and he sells them to bakery owners.
Wall chalking - political, religious and or commercial slogans -- is another very telling thing that one notices all along the road. Every object that is standing is painted, and painted very crudely, very harshly. Dr. Muhammad Anwar, a social scientist and researcher says, "Majority of the advertisement on the road between
Gujranwala to Lahore is about Najumis, Aamils and those who claim to treat the hidden diseases."
The road taken once is never enough. Next time it will look different. That is the speed with which some of the things including physical environs are changing.

 

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