Grand Trunk Road Photo Essay

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

Next to the Mideast, South Asia is the world’s least friendly geopolitical neighborhood. Indeed, the toll in the Kashmir conflict – 50,000 deaths since 1990 – is about triple the number of fatalities in the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1948. To this day, the neighbors don’t get along: no two states among Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka enjoy truly constructive and unsuspicious relations. After the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, carried out by a terrorist group based in Pakistan, there seemed little hope for any reconciliation between those two crucial nations.

And yet in recent months, particularly with the invitation to New Delhi of all neighboring heads of state by recently elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, an ambitious agenda has emerged around visa liberalization, infrastructure development, trade corridors, energy cooperation and disaster relief. Making good on this vision would require nothing less than a proper remapping of this frail post-colonial zone along the ancient Grand Trunk Road that links Kabul to Chittagong over a forbidding 1,500 miles.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Myanmar could thrive together if they reopened commerce and travel along an ancient highway.

One highly strategic portion of this highway is in Afghanistan – the stretch where more suicide bombings recently killed Afghan and NATO troops. A dozen states in the region, in addition to the U.S. State Department, endorse the “Silk Road Through Afghanistan” strategy, a plan to increase infrastructure connectivity, boost job creation and build people-to-people ties across the region's borders. But while China and Iran would clearly benefit from safe east-west corridors for Iranian energy and Afghan lithium and copper, it is a revitalized north-south Grand Trunk Road that would bring genuine stability to South-Central Asia.

As the U.S. withdraws almost all remaining forces from Afghanistan, the region can either return to the 1990s (with Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth” undermining what little central authority exists in Afghanistan) or it can pursue commercial corridors to access Central Asia’s energy resources and markets. Given their dire energy shortages, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India all need to cooperate fully in the development of the Iran-Pakistan-India and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipelines. Instead of fighting over arbitrary colonial borders, it is these roads and energy conduits that should be considered the sacred lines on the map.

Certainly one new political line could be drawn — or rather converted from dashed to solid. This would be the Line of Control in Kashmir. Rather than piecemeal delegations crossing this contested border, it could become a full-fledged international crossing for meaningful trade, while the Indian and Pakistani militaries could still protect against terrorist intrusions. That is already happening at the main Wagah-Attari border, which the two neighbors' commerce ministers recently agreed would remain open 24/7 to trade.

Now would also be an ideal time to extend the Grand Trunk Road even further into Myanmar. The headlines from the region highlight the alarming religious violence between Bengali Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar – but all the region’s leaders seem to see the potential of a gas pipeline from Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal through India’s northeastern states of Mizoram and Tripura and crossing central Bangladesh to Kolkata. India, which has been losing out to China for influence in Myanmar, could finally take advantage of Yangon’s new desire to diversify partners (and exports) away from China alone.

Three major cities along the Grand Trunk Road – Lahore, Delhi and Dhaka – now lie in three separate countries, but they all owe their existence to the fertile Indo-Gangetic Plain. Redeveloping this road and uniting the region's agricultural productivity would finally make South Asia much greater than the sum of its underdeveloped parts.

Hemmed in by the Indian Ocean, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountains, no South Asian state can extend its influence very far beyond the region. They are bound together — and might as well start acting that way.

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Topics: geography, maps

Time travel is not impossible in Pakistan. More than a hundred years seem to separate the Grand Trunk Road from the modern M-2 Motorway that runs parallel to it. But progress brings tradeoffs. Though you gain time and relative safety on the Motorway, you lose the cacophony of life that embodies the Grand Trunk Road. In short, the Road makes you realize how boring road travel has become in the age of the automobile.

You also realize how isolated and fussy travel has become in the West. Here on the road it is perfectly acceptable to stop in the middle of the highway — to, say, snap a picture or grab a roasted ear of corn. Trucks and rickshaws might honk, but honking is more of a form of speech than an expression of anger. More often than not, it simply announces, "Hey. I'm here. And I'm driving 50 mph on the shoulder to get around a camel. Just move to the left a bit and we'll all be fine."

Some university students we talked to were surprised we were driving the Grand Trunk Road. "You should drive the motorway!" they exclaimed. We have modern, good roads, they explained. And it's true, if your definition of a good road is one that gets you from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

But older drivers seem to have a different perspective: "It puts you to sleep," says my translator Shabbir. I would have to agree, even if the alternative might involve a near-death experience with a camel and a rickshaw.

View more of John's photos from the series Along The Grand Trunk Road: Coming Of Age In India And Pakistan.

  • John Poole/NPR

    The view from the Nicholson Monument in Taxila overlooking the road at sunset.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A sign in Taxila, Pakistan, memorializes an ancient cobblestoned section of the Grand Trunk Road. Construction of the road is credited to the 16th century Afghan sovereign Sher Shah Suri.

  • John Poole/NPR

    Every evening Pakistani and Indian guards perform a ceremonial military ritual at the Wagah border crossing. Hundreds of Indians, Pakistanis and foreign tourists come to watch the show. Here, a bus drives off after the ceremony.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A motorist travels down the road in Lahore.

  • John Poole/NPR

    On the Pakistan side of the Wagah border crossing, a truck waits to be loaded with goods from the Indian side. Customs law mandates that all goods must be unloaded from trucks on one side of the border and reloaded onto different trucks on the other side.

  • John Poole/NPR

    The Grand Trunk Road is one of South Asia's oldest and longest major roads. For centuries, it has linked the eastern and western regions of the subcontinent.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A bucolic street scene just off the road, outside of Islamabad.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A boy roasts corn in a bowl of rock salt along a stretch of road west of Islamabad.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A young goat stands stranded in the center of the road outside Rawalpindi, Pakistan. An 18-wheeler skidded to avoid him, before a shop owner chased him off the road.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A donkey grazes in a fallow field in Mohib Banda, a small farming village in Pakistan that is the family home of Faisal Shahzad, a suspect in the attempted Times Square car bombing in New York.

  • John Poole/NPR

    A boy and his donkey wait to cross the road between Islamabad and Peshawar.

  • John Poole/NPR

    After getting off a small bus, a man leads his children across a stretch of road between Islamabad and Peshawar.

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