To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 3)

Villagers And E Class

When you're driving a brand-new, state-of-the-art Mercedes diesel, everyone is going slower than you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

China is a great place to drive fast, we're discovering. After we left Wuhai this morning, we had about 200 miles of flat, undulating two-lane through sandy scrubland in the foothills of the Gobi Desert. Much of it looks not unlike parts of the American Southwest. Great weather, in the 40s, sunny and dry. We barreled through there just as fast as we could, braking hard for overloaded trucks that are moving so slowly they seem to be standing still, and keeping a sharp eye out for long-horned sheep on the roadsides. Most of the pavement is in pretty decent shape on these two-lanes, although there were some rough patches, and a couple of times, the road abruptly ended, and we had to negotiate a sandy, rocky, rutted path for about half a mile until the pavement started up again.

Denise McCluggage, my codriver, is turning 80 in January but is quite literally one of the fastest and most competent drivers in our entire caravan. I am a bit of a speed demon, but I always fear that I'm perhaps going a little too slowly for her tastes. When she's riding shotgun, she'll call out "You can take him" if she sees a passing opportunity that I haven't yet perceived. I think we're pretty good partners, actually. We've both been taking full advantage of the Mercedes E320 Bluetec's performance, accelerating hard, braking hard, and tapping away at the seven-speed automatic's shift lever to get down to fourth or fifth for yet another passing maneuver. And you do pass a lot in China, because no matter what you're driving, there's somebody else in the road who's going a lot slower. And when you're driving a brand-new, state-of-the-art Mercedes diesel, EVERYONE is going slower than you. Or, at least, everyone seems to be going slower than Denise and me, including most of the other members of the Mercedes caravan.

Saw our first mule-drawn carts today. Hey, it beats a pedal cart, and we've seen plenty of those, and they're just as overloaded with scrap cardboard as the mule carts weighed down with huge cabbages and melons. There is an endless array of motor-propelled vehicles on the road, including motorbikes with cargo boxes precariously attached to the rear and all manner of three-wheeled vehicles, with a rigid rear axle and one wobbly tire leading the way in front. Saw lots of people on motorcycles today, who seemed especially appreciative of the Mercedes sedans.

We drove through a number of villages today, and after a while they all blend together. The streets generally are lined by dusty sidewalks lined with single-story, flat-roofed buildings with white tile facades, and these serve as both business and homes. One presumes they were built during the Mao regime. We saw a goat being butchered on a table on a sidewalk in front of one.

Most of today's driving was in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China that is sitting on a wealth of natural resources like iron ore and coal. So, lots more pollution, lots of factories, but lots of signs of progress, too, like brand-new freeways, gas stations everywhere (one with signage saying "Positive Big Petroleum"), and high-tension wires crisscrossing the landscape. Many nuclear silos, too. Yet the socioeconomic contrasts remain stark: as we drove out of Wuhai, the coal capital of Inner Mongolia, we saw a guy on the side of the road picking up the little pieces of coal that had fallen off of the ubiquitous coal transport trucks, stashing them in a plastic bag. Now, that's poverty.

But we've not encountered the remotest indication of resentment toward our privileged status as Westerners zooming through Inner Mongolia in a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, just curiosity, surprise, grins, thumbs up, and friendly waves. When we drove through one tollbooth, three attendants came to the window, all raising their cell phone cameras to take pictures of our car. Denise brought a stash of Route 66 T-shirts that she has been handing out to tollbooth attendants and tossing up to guys riding in the back of trucks.

Today's drive ended in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, where we were greeted by a traditional troupe of Mongolia dancers at a hot pot restaurant. This bustling city, like all we've seen, labors under a big cloud of pollution, but there's a palpable sense of progress in the fetid air. At dinner, we were toasted by a representative of the Inner Mongolian government, who invited DaimlerChrysler to build more auto plants here (they currently make large industrial trucks here). Our hotel, the Inner Mongolia Hotel, is modern and well-appointed. But the two gas masks next to the minibar are a none-too-subtle reminder that the price China is paying for its industrial progress is in the air.

Tomorrow, it's on to Badaling and the Great Wall of China, before our triumphant drive into Beijing on Friday.

Joe DeMatio

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