Forget the German autobahns, which are increasingly speed-limited and overcrowded. Central China is the place to drive fast, the final frontier of unencumbered speed. Who knew? When Mercedes-Benz invited Automobile Magazine to participate in the fifth and final leg of the E-class Experience, a twenty-eight-day, 8500-mile drive from Paris to Beijing in a fleet of diesel-powered E-class sedans, I leapt at the opportunity but wondered if the driving itself might be a chore. Surely, Chinese roads wouldn't be anywhere near Western standards, and we'd spend half our time dodging donkey carts, bicycles, and pokey trucks. I realized that conditions would be far better than they were for the 1907 Peking to Paris race that inspired the E-class Experience, but that doesn't mean I had high hopes for the roads between Lanzhou, where our journey began, and Beijing.
Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, is smack dab in the middle of the People's Republic and a waypoint along the old Silk Road. A bustling, modern, industrial city of some three million people, it stretches east to west for miles along the Huang He, or Yellow River. On a clear day, if you're up in White Pagoda Park looking out at the waterwheels and Lanshan Mountain, you might call it pretty, but during the two days we were there, the skyline was blanketed with a thick fog of pollution. Mountains line the narrow river valley, trapping fetid air in the city basin. But somehow, thousands of colorful roses, the city's official flower, continue to bloom.
The Mercedes caravan--having just driven 1935 miles from Almaty, Kazakhstan--swept into Lanzhou on Sunday, the same day we arrived to join it. Four legs of the E-class Experience down, one more to go. So far, so good. The next evening, after turning down a street vendor's offer of a boiled goat head, I joined our entourage at a grand Chinese banquet, where goat brains might also have been served, but on a plate, not in a skull. The departing drivers turned over the keys of thirty-six diesel E-classes, including three U.S.-spec E320 Bluetecs, to those of us who would take this caravan to Beijing starting the next morning.
In his 1923 book Wandering in Northern China, Michigan-born travel writer Harry A. Franck describes his two-month journey with an American military attach to the western reaches of China. The route that Mercedes-Benz mapped for our drive from Lanzhou to Beijing roughly coincides with the one Franck followed on his way back from the expedition. We traveled in late autumn, just as he did, but our modes of transport differed considerably: