Now, after driving Mercedes' newest diesel-powered sedan on a spectacular route from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Lanzhou, China, over five days last November, I'm not only conversant in all those matters, I've also become hooked on a part of the world largely unknown to Westerners but which nevertheless figures to have a huge effect on the events of the 21st century.

My newfound fascination with central Asia is due to an idea hatched by Mercedes-Benz's Johannes Reifenrath. What better way, he proposed, to demonstrate the qualities of the firm's new E320 turbodiesel sedan--powered by the cleanest production diesel engine yet produced--than to recreate, in reverse direction, the famous marathon motor race of 1907 that began in Peking, China and ended, 62 days later, in Paris, France.

Reifenrath's brainstorm would become the `E-Class Experience: Paris-Beijing 2006' but it would not be, as in 1907, a timed race over a great distance. Over 25 days and involving 36 E320 diesel sedans, the modern marathon would instead be a test of the new engine's reliability over long distances in the most rigorous conditions. And it would be a demonstration of how economy, performance and comfort can be melded successfully into a passenger car 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 via an Internet competition on eBay. Two continents, nine countries, six time zones and almost 9000 miles were traversed from the start in Paris on October 21 to the caravan's finish in Beijing on November 17. And over 10,700 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel were consumed, trucked in specially for the advanced diesel engines by supporting sponsor Aral. That fuel consumption, not incidentally, was about 20 percent less than originally estimated. Michelin supplied the fleet's winter tires, which took a beating over the rough roads but suffered few problems, provided excellent adhesion from wintry highways to 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 for the road every morning by the participants from a buffet that dispensed, over the entire journey, some 8200 sandwiches, 5300 bananas, 4000 chocolate bars and 9600 bottles of water to the participants and 40-person support crew.

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 technicians, mechanics and medical personnel. It never had to be pushed.

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 roads of China, it's amazing the Mercedes 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 luxury 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 and another. I'd seen crushing poverty alongside economic promise. I'd felt the slow rhythm of ancient customs still alive in small villages that also sprouted satellite dishes, and I'd 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 within a steel cage, peering out at a world I'd never get to know well. 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 more primitive yet somehow more intimate methods of exchange, overt gestures, full use of the body's language. It was a liberating experience.

Day 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan

Forget everything you've seen in Borat, that satirically brilliant movie about our ignorance of foreign cultures. 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 could someday empower the former Soviet satellite with the political clout to match its immense size. Though burdened by a tumultuous past and a questionable human rights record, 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 invaders and outsiders.

My flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt to Almaty put me into the former national capital well before sunrise on November 7. 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 near the Chinese border, but the city grew large under the iron rule of its Russian overlords. 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.

It was still dark as the Mercedes-Benz van pulled up to the thoroughly modern hotel that served as launch point for my part of the adventure, but I was too wired to be tired and paced the room waiting for a mid-morning tour of the city. The daylight view revealed a horizon of snow-tipped spurs, 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 preserves the old tradition of hunting with eagles, then lunch at a Russian restaurant festooned with Communist-era artwork. The borsch was excellent and the vodka divine. That night, at a gala dinner replete with a local dance troupe of most excellently formed girls, the participants from Leg Three passed over their cars' keys to those about to embark on Leg Four.

By Greg N. Brown
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