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.
Day 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan
Forget everything you've seen in Borat. The real Kazakhstan is no joke. Larger than all of western Europe, it has vast reserves of fossil fuels and huge deposits of uranium, chromium, lead and other elements, wealth which someday could empower the former Soviet satellite with the political clout to match its immense size. Kazakhstan is moving quickly toward a free market economy (not to be confused with a democracy, which it is not) and away from a past dominated by outsiders.
Though Almaty (City of the Apples) has given up much of its political importance, it's still full of power players-from both the east and the west-eager to cash in on the country's growth. Almaty lies close to the Chinese border, but the city grew large under the iron rule of its Russian overlords, and the drab architecture and monolithic sculptures of the Soviet era loom in contrast to the city's brightly lit casinos and Christmas decorations, whose shimmering colors pool on the wet streets.
The daylight view from my hotel room reveals a snow-tipped horizon-spurs of the mighty Tian Shan Mountains that would flank our drive for many miles, well over the border into China. First, though, we sampled Kazakhstan culture at a facility that keeps alive the old tradition of hunting with eagles and then had lunch at a Russian restaurant festooned with Communist-era artwork.
Day 2: Almaty to Yining, China, 283 miles
The city's free-for-all is left behind. Congestion is replaced by all manner of transport, from donkey carts to cheap Commie cars belching smoke. Lots of older Audis, not much other Western machinery. It's hard to gauge lane discipline; there are no lanes, painted or implied. Passing traffic is like entering a no-man's land strewn with mines and sudden crossfires. We're on the old trading route that used to connect the Far East with wealthy Europe, which craved silks and spices transported thousands of miles on the backs of camels. A long, dusty drive on a wrinkled dirt track takes us to the red sandstone cliffs of Sharyn Canyon. I marvel at the car's quiet comfort as we crawl slowly along the rutted road.
A short stop just shy of the border, meet and greet local dignitaries, and enjoy a local dance troupe that twirls brightly in front of the civic hall. We join in the tradition of dipping pieces of fresh-baked bread into tiny dishes of salt and listen to a local singer belt out a magnificently incoherent tune. Then we're off. Into China.
We've been warned of possible difficulties crossing the border. It was probably much the same early in the sixth century, when this border town of Korgas was an important outpost on the Silk Road. Today, it's clogged with trucks waiting to cross. Sure enough, the three American-spec E320s have slight discrepancies in their respective manifests. A couple hours of bureaucratic wrangling and we're all friends, enjoying a quiet chuckle over the little misunderstanding.
Day 3: Yining to Urumqi, 426 miles
The western reaches of China, geographically and economically far from the rich and powerful provinces along China's coast, are home to vast mineral deposits vital in sustaining the country's rush into the future. But China's 'Wild West' is also home to separatist movements claiming the support of such indigenous peoples as the Uighur, who are largely Muslim, speak a Turkic language and are ethnically different from the recently arrived Han Chinese majority. We are driving through what most maps call Xinjiang Province, but the Uighurs call it East Turkestan.
Yining is the Fruit Garden City, but pollution throws an unhealthy, yellowish sheen over the flat landscape. As the sun burns off the haze, the Tian Shan Mountains come into view. We climb into the Borohoro Shan and stop to admire the alpine scenery around pristine Lake Ebinur. A local entrepreneur wields an old Polaroid camera and earns a two-euro coin from me for his artistic capture of my profile. He bites the coin in comic test of its value.
We drive through a region called Dzungaria, home to the Dzungar people, vast steppes, and rich reserves of flora and fauna, including the sable, snow leopard and, yes, the much-feared Dzungarian dwarf hamster. Watch your ankles.
Day 4: Urumqi to Hami, 373 miles
Urumqi (say oo-room-chee) is a moderately sized boomtown of two million souls that lies further from an ocean than any other spot on earth (shout "surf's up" and all you'll get is blank stares). Its skyline, a mix of decrepit concrete apartment complexes and soaring glass office buildings, illustrates the immense gulf between the affluent and the very poor in China. Like every other city we've visited, a pall of pollution makes everything appear in soft focus; there's a catch to my breath.
In the Tarim Basin, the second largest sand basin in the world, the horrible smog lifts slightly to reveal China's largest wind farm. China is currently the world's second largest energy consumer, with most of its needs provided by burning cheap, dirty coal. Alternative energies are crucial, or the nation's air will continue to befoul the atmosphere.
We descend into the Turfan Depression, the lowest point in China. Entering the old quarter of the town of Turfan is like passing into a slower era, when time was marked only by the sluggish turn of the seasons. The Uighur people have lived here for centuries, carving out an oasis amid the hottest climate in China. Grapevines flourish on the snowmelt that's collected into some 3000 miles of subterranean channels, preventing the precious water from evaporating too quickly in the over 130-degree F summer heat. It's an ideal 70 degrees F during our visit, and we watch local women separate luscious raisins for sale in the market. I buy an exquisite Pashmina wool shawl, CDs of Uighur music and several old propaganda posters, including a young Mao frolicking with happy children and a fatherly take on another 20th century monster, Josef Stalin.
Day 5: Hami to Jiayuguan, 398 miles
Hami. You know, like in the famous Hami melons. No? Actually, the melons come from Shanshan, further east, but Hami took the credit long ago and it stuck. Hami's another wide spot on the ancient Silk Road that has grown in size over its 2000 years of existence. Named by the German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, the Silk Road transported spices, glass, porcelain and silk for centuries, fading only with the coming of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1916. Rail now carries most of the trade through these empty reaches.
Much of the day is spent skirting the Alashan Shamo, the largest and most inaccessible sand area of the Gobi desert. We've entered Gansu Province, where agriculture and livestock still contribute more to the economy than the burgeoning processing industries. It's easy to get too comfortable behind the wheel, as there's never much warning before one of China's thousands of traffic hazards gets in your way. It's not unusual to come across a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction on a divided highway, and once a group of kids on bikes played chicken with us in the fast lane. Then there are the camels.
Day 6: Jiayuguan to Lanzhou, 466 miles
We visit the fortress at Jiayuguan, built in 1372 at the western end of the Great Wall. For a long time, it was the only safe refuge for traders on the Silk Road. Up to 30,000 soldiers were once garrisoned at the huge complex, which was partially destroyed during the rampages of the Red Guard. Only eroded remnants of the Great Wall remain standing outside the fortress. We come across one section that shows the ravages of both time and looting for building material. A lone shepherd wanders over to find out what this group of cars portends, and silently suffers our clicking cameras and mutely refuses any offer of compensation for his posing. His quiet gravitas touches us with an almost spiritual caress.
We reach Lanzhou at dusk in a crush of rush-hour traffic. The former garrison town, now the capital of Gansu Province, houses more than a million people and sprawls on both sides of the Huang He, or Yellow River. I can't believe the drive is ending and wish I could stay on for the final leg into Beijing. I give car 11 a final, affectionate pat and silently thank it for safely ushering me from the modern world into history and back again. I clasp the hand of my co-driver a final time, gather my bags and walk away from one of the finest automotive adventures of my life.
When most Americans think of diesel cars, they think of either large trucks or slow rattling sedans belching black smoke. Europeans have a much different view of diesel; they see huge fuel efficiency gains, mountains of low-end torque and engines that last for hundreds of thousands of miles.
Americans may soon share the same view thanks in part to a combined effort from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Volkswagen. In the past, particulate and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions kept diesels from being considered a realistic alternative to gasoline-powered cars. Mercedes-Benz Bluetec engines use two different filters in combination with urea injection to eliminate the problems normally associated with diesel fuel. The first filter traps NOx and converts it to water and nitrogen, while a second filter traps particulate matter responsible for the characteristic diesel soot.
The ability for all this to work in America hinges on the United States adopting low-sulfur diesel and the government approving emissions systems equipped with a component that would involve urea consumables, like Bluetec. If these things fall into place, we may all be driving 40-mpg diesel cars-without having to install an electric motor.