Before the fall of 2006, I would have been hard pressed to find Kazakhstan on a world map. The Tian Shan Mountains and the Turfan Depression, for all I knew, were on the far side of the moon. I couldn't have told you how to offer a friendly greeting to a Chinese tollbooth attendant, nor did I know that golden eagles were used for hunting wolves on the steppes of central Asia. Nor did I know about the technological elegance underlying the luxurious comfort of the Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec sedan and the cleanest production diesel engine yet produced.
The E-Class Experience: Paris-Beijing 2006 came about when Mercedes-Benz decided to re-create, in reverse direction, the famous marathon motor race of 1907 that began in Peking, China and ended, 62 days later, in Paris, France. But taking 36 E320 diesel sedans on such a long trek would not be a timed race. Instead, this modern marathon would be a demonstration of how economy, performance and comfort can be melded successfully into a passenger car that's capable of taking on just about every kind of surface that can be gripped by four tires.
More than 360 drivers from 35 countries took part, many winning their opportunities to drive from an internet competition on eBay. Two continents, nine countries, six time zones and around 9000 miles of road were traversed from the start in Paris on October 21 to the caravan's finish in Beijing on November 17; over 10,700 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel were consumed, trucked in especially for the advanced diesel engines by supporting sponsor Aral. That fuel consumption, not incidentally, was about 20 percent less than originally estimated. Michelin supplied winter tires, which took a beating over the rough roads but suffered few problems, provided excellent adhesion on wintry highways and deeply rutted dirt roads, and delivered good ride comfort on the long, smooth stretches of Chinese highway. Breakfasts and dinners were eaten at the host hotels along the route, but lunch was packed every morning, by the participants, from a buffet that dispensed some 8200 sandwiches, 5300 bananas, 4000 chocolate bars and 9600 bottles of water over the entire journey.
Mercedes thought of everything, from equipping each car with an advanced Garmin navigation system and radio communications, to fitting each one with an 'emergency button' that, when pushed, would summon help from one of the many support vehicles peopled by the 40-person support crew of technicians, mechanics and medics. It never had to be used.
More importantly, Mercedes provided a car that delivered every one of the drivers and passengers efficiently, comfortably and safely to their destinations. Considering 600 people die every hour on the hideously dangerous Chinese roads, it's amazing the fleet escaped without so much as a fender-bender. This is as much testament to the care taken by the drivers as to the ease of controlling a Mercedes sedan through traffic conditions that would strike fear into a Parisian taxi driver.
I joined Leg Four in Almaty. Almost 2000 miles later, I had been transported from one time zone to another, to another. I'd seen crushing poverty alongside economic promise. I'd felt the slow rhythm of ancient customs still alive in small villages that sprouted satellite dishes, and been overwhelmed by the stultifying pace of too many people trying to get to the same place all at once. At times, I felt disconnected, trapped in a steel cage, peering at a world I'd never get to know. Sometimes the cage would stop and open and I'd be greeted by smiles of welcome, but also by faces full of questions I couldn't answer. It was frustrating to communicate without benefit of language, but it also freed me from the constraints of such dull verbal interchanges as: "Hi, how are you?" To engage with the locals, it became necessary to use primitive yet somehow more intimate methods of exchange, overt gestures, full use of the body's language. It was liberating.