Vehicles await passengers in front of Al-Asif Square, a jumble of matchbox apartment buildings in Sohrab Goth on the northern exit from Karachi. Buses are available here to travel to most parts of Pakistan — except to Jamshoro, a university town on the western bank of the Indus River, 150 kilometres to the northeast of Karachi.
Jamshoro-bound passengers have to take a bus going to Hyderabad. They disembark either a few kilometres short of the vehicle’s final destination, take a motorcycle rickshaw and go to Jamshoro, or they go straight to Hyderabad and then from there take a rickshaw to Jamshoro. Either way, it is an uneasy – albeit short – commute. The rickshaws are rigged motorcycles. Their original rear part is removed and replaced by a canopied steel structure to accommodate as many as six passengers at a time. Their presence reflects the paucity of public transport as much as it highlights ingenuity.
Such inventiveness is a way of life for transporters and their clients on the approximately 1,200-kilometre stretch of the road that connects Jamshoro with Peshawar. Popularly known as the Indus Highway and marked as N-55 on government maps, it was originally built in the 1970s as an alternative to the highway that links Peshawar with Karachi through Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, Sukkur and Hyderabad.
One rationale for its construction was commercial: cargo trucks take this road throughout the year without having to negotiate heavy passenger traffic in thickly populated urban centres — as is the case with the Peshawar-Lahore-Karachi highway.
The second reason was strategic. Running mostly along the west bank of the Indus, it is hundreds of kilometres inside the country from both eastern and western borders. The river protects it from the east and the mountains of Kirthar, Sulaiman and Hindu Kush ranges protect it from the northwest. There were also some political considerations. The Indus Highway passes right through the geographical heart of the country. It connects some of the most marginalised parts of Pakistan — western Sindh, southwestern Punjab, southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. It also links the previously isolated parts of post-1971 Pakistan.
Roads are meant to bring disparate people and places together. The Indus Highway, it seems, has hardly done that.
This is an excerpt from the Herald's March 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a photographer and travel writer based in Pakistan. He tweets at @DanialShah_.