Leg Four of the E-Class Experience traced the route of the old Silk Road. Modern paved highways now crisscross China's `Wild West' where once caravans of camels plodded the rocky wastes and shifting sands.
Leg Four of the E-Class Experience traced the route of the old Silk Road. Modern paved hig
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.
Icons of Western culture, Mercedes-Benz and Coca-Cola. Some of the fleet of 36 E320s, staged for departure from Almaty.
Icons of Western culture, Mercedes-Benz and Coca-Cola. Some of the fleet of 36 E320s, stag
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.
Problems with our car's paperwork allowed Chinese border guards to investigate such decadence as keyless start, digital sound processing and Mercedes leather
Problems with our car's paperwork allowed Chinese border guards to investigate such decade
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
The Republic of Kazakhstan declared independence from the USSR in 1991 and today only a few reminders of Communist rule are evident. These banners hang in a restaurant that serves Russian food and the best vodka I've ever tasted.
The Republic of Kazakhstan declared independence from the USSR in 1991 and today only a fe
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.
The ceremonial exchange of car keys included a feast of Kazakh cuisine and a troupe of exquisitely formed dancing girls.
The ceremonial exchange of car keys included a feast of Kazakh cuisine and a troupe of exq
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.
At the border, every car got a Chinese license plate and every driver was issued a Chinese driver's license. (Note ignorant American holding plate upside down.)
At the border, every car got a Chinese license plate and every driver was issued a Chinese
Day 2: Almaty to Yining, China, 283 miles
The city's free-for-all is quickly left behind. Congestion is replaced by all manner of transport, from donkey-powered 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. Overtaking is like entering a no-man's land thick with mines and sudden crossfires.
We're on the old trading route that connected the Far East with wealthy Europe, which craved the silks and spices transported thousands of miles on the backs of camels. Like those caravans of old, our group stays together, but not for protection from bandits. A helicopter has been hired to provide aerial coverage for a film documenting the journey, so we're followed for miles by the swooping, swaying chopper. A long, dusty drive on a deeply 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. However, we linger too long on the canyon's edge. We must cross into China today and the sun is already falling toward the horizon.
Answer to the question: how many people does it take to get permission to cross the Chinese border if there are slight irregularities in the documents?
Answer to the question: how many people does it take to get permission to cross the Chines
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 post on the Silk Road. Today, it's clogged with trucks waiting for permission to cross in one direction or the other. Sure enough, the three American-spec E320s have slight discrepancies in their respective manifests. A couple hours of bureaucratic wrangling later and we're all friends, enjoying a quiet chuckle over the little misunderstanding. We're quickly dismissed and make our way to a celebration of our arrival in the town of Yining.
Day 3: Yining to Urumqi, 426 miles
Long stretches of divided highway, comparable to the best interstates or autobahnen, are punctuated by lonely toll booths.
Long stretches of divided highway, comparable to the best interstates or autobahnen, are p
The western reaches of China, remote in distance and economic progress to the financially powerful provinces along China's coast, are home to rich deposits of the materiel the giant country needs to sustain its current 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 which the Uighurs call East Turkestan.
Fields stretch off into the dying dawn. Yining is the `Fruit Garden City' but foggy pollution throws an unhealthy, yellowish sheen over the flat landscape. As the rising sun burns off the haze, the Tian Shan Mountains fade into view. We climb up to the Borohoro Shan and stop to admire the mountain scenery around pristine Lake Ebinul. 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.
Reception at the new M-B dealership in Urumqi. Benzes are still a rare sight outside of big cities; Buicks and VWs are much more common.
Reception at the new M-B dealership in Urumqi. Benzes are still a rare sight outside of bi
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. We spot none of the above fauna and the flora is all hunkered down against a bitingly cold wind.
Reception at the Mercedes-Benz dealer in Urumqi. Pretty girls, entertainment from a famous Chinese classical pianist and colorful drinks make a fine end to a long day.
Day 4: Urumqi to Hami, 373 miles
Urumqi (oo-room-chee) is a moderately sized boomtown of two million that lies further from an ocean than any other spot on Earth (shout `surf's up' there and all you'll get will be blank stares). Its skyline, a mix of decrepit concrete apartment complexes and soaring glass office buildings, speaks of 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 that reveals unhappy lungs.
In the Tarim Basin, the second-largest sand basin in the world, the horrible air pollution lifts slightly to reveal the largest wind farm in China. Currently, China is the second-largest energy consumer in the world, and most of its needs are provided by burning cheap, dirty coal. Alternative energies are crucial, or China's air will continue to befoul the atmosphere disproportionately and poison its citizens.
Just one of hundreds of small roadside motels for long-range truckers along the Silk Road.
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 previous, slower era, when time was marked only by the slow 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 snowmelt collected into some 3000 miles of subterranean channels, preventing the precious water from evaporating too quickly in the 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. China seems far away from this Islamic enclave with its open markets full of multi-hued fruits and vegetables and its many spired and domed mosques. I could stay here for days, but we have a long, desolate drive ahead.
Day 5: Hami to Jiayuguan, 398 miles
Tiny three-wheelers are everywhere, but most aren't as flashy as this one.
Hami. You know, as in the famous Hami melons. No? Actually, the melons come from Shanshan, further east, but Hami took the credit long ago and the credit 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.
Most 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 growing processing industries. It's easy to get too comfortable behind the wheel, as there's never much warning before one of China's countless traffic hazards gets in the 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 all those camels...
Day 6: Jiayuguan to Lanzhou, 466 miles
Dicing for position in an impromptu motocross around a corner of the Great Wall. (The Merc, whose driver blamed it on `local knowledge,' got smoked by the family on the bike.)
Dicing for position in an impromptu motocross around a corner of the Great Wall. (The Merc
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 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 heavily eroded remnants of the Great Wall remain standing outside the fortress.
About halfway to Lanzhou, we come across a large section of wall 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. He silently suffers our clicking cameras and mutely refuses any offer of compensation for his posing. His quiet gravitas touched us with an almost spiritual caress. A magical place, resounding with history.
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 1,000,000 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.