As we crossed out of Gansu Province and into Ningxia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, the prescribed route ventured off the toll roads, and our Benz was the center of attention as we drove through grimy villages. In the Chinese countryside, you vie with bicyclists; overloaded and underpowered trucks and wagons; cars (lots of VWs, Hyundais, and Kias, plus myriad home-market brands); tricycle carts; three-wheeled, motorized transporters; and pedestrians for road space. It's every man, woman, or child for himself, and the more wheels and cylinders you have at your disposal, the more power to you. The E320 Bluetec's 388 lb-ft of torque made it easy to leave most other road users behind, but we never knew what to expect from oncoming traffic, which might just barrel toward us in our own lane. Near Yinchuan, the two-lanes hovered above irrigated fields lined with tall, willowy trees, and a large, gold-domed mosque beside the road signaled the area's Muslim population.
Ningxia gave way to Inner Mongolia, another autonomous region, where we'd spend the night in Wuhai, a city founded only thirty years ago for the sole purpose, it appears, of extracting the riches that lie beneath the ground. Farmland segued into huge industrial tracts of sooty factories, nuclear cooling towers, and coal mines. Relying on our printed guidebook rather than the trusty Garmin GPS unit installed in our car, we got lost in a Communist-style factory zone with long, broad streets. This seemed depressing enough, but then we found ourselves in the midst of a coal mining village of Dickensian horror. Everything was coated with coal soot, including the people, and virtually nothing was growing in the lifeless black earth that lined the roadside.
We were always well on our way by sunrise, with two hours or more of walking behind us, for it was too bitter cold then to ride; and sunset often found us still in the saddle . . . a high wind and heavy clouds made riding for long distances impossible, and there was little indeed to keep us in a cheerful mood.
Life was decidedly better for Denise, Alex, and me inside the Mercedes. The seat heaters fired up quickly each morning, and the kilometers passed rapidly beneath the Michelin Pilot Alpin winter tires (the caravan had driven through snow in Russia). Our recent stateside drives of the new Bluetec E-class had already confirmed that it is not only the finest diesel sedan Mercedes has ever made, it's the finest diesel-powered automobile ever sold in America. Forget your preconceived notions about diesels: this one is so quiet (or, at least, so well noise-insulated), so smooth, so bursting with torque, and so benign, we literally forgot that we were driving an oil burner. And you might think we would have remembered, since we were surrounded by belching, smoky, stinky diesel cargo trucks much of the time.