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:
The usual way of returning from the Gansu capital to Peking is simply to float down the Huang He on goatskin rafts to where one can easily reach the advancing Suiyuan railway. We had hoped to do this, but we were prepared for the news that it was impossible so late in the season. November was nearing its last lap, and while the river at Lanzhou was still open, big chunks of ice already drifting down it from the Tibetan highlands helped to confirm the general opinion that it would be frozen solid in its broader and more sluggish reaches farther north, where we would be left virtually stranded. We each bought a stout Gansu pony, therefore . . . and hired two [mule-drawn] carts and a [guide].
That American adventurer left Lanzhou in late November and aimed to reach Beijing in time for Christmas, whereas we first slid behind the E320 Bluetec’s steering wheel on Tuesday and planned to be there by Friday morning, covering a leisurely 375 to 400 miles per day while munching on chocolate bars and stopping for afternoon tea at Buddhist temples. (“We” being me, photographer Alex P, and my co-driver, the grande dame of automotive journalism, Denise McCluggage.)
The brand-new, almost deserted freeway rising out of Lanzhou cuts through desolate but beautiful barren hills of loess, the sandy yellow earth that gives the Yellow River its name. Many of the hillsides have been painstakingly terraced to retain the windblown soil and precious water for irrigation. Man-made caves, or yaodongs, are dug into the hills. Cool in summer and warm in winter, some still serve as dwellings. Others are used by farmers for storage and midday reprieves from the hot fields. Mao and his crew holed up in yaodongs in nearby Shaanxi Province from 1935 to 1948. One wonders what the future chairman would have thought if he’d peeked out of his cave and seen our silver Benz streaking by at 100 mph.
One also might wonder how the freeway sweepers regarded our parade of gaily decorated sedans. Every few kilometers, a person in a bright orange jumpsuit idly swept a big straw broom back and forth on the shoulder, barely glancing up as we whooshed by.
The Chinese toll roads are as modern as anything in America or Europe, and much of the signage is in both Chinese and English. Signs frequently warn against “driving drunkenly” or “driving with tiredness,” but there are no warnings about “driving with excess speediness” or “driving on the shoulder.” Huge rest areas, with clean restrooms and lots of fuel pumps under big PetroChina canopies, were just being finished. They were often deserted, but one can imagine that in a few years the rising Chinese middle class will fill them with Geelys, Cherys, BYDs, and Buicks.
For now, we had vast sections of wide-open, glassy smooth concrete virtually to ourselves, so we hustled along at 90 to 120 mph, choosing to ignore the advice from our Mercedes hosts that, if anyone were to land in a Chinese prison, the Germans would not come to the rescue with a fistful of yuan and an S-class for the warden.
Lanzhou’s pollution seemed as healthful as an oxygen caf’s compared with the thick layer of sulfurous haze that we encountered on the outskirts of Baiyin, a city that’s ringed with factories processing copper, aluminum, zinc, and lead and spewing a noxious brew of Confucius knows what into the air. We made the mistake of opening the car’s window and could barely breathe.
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.
To drive the Bluetec is to experience the same privileged ease and comfort that one does in any E-class, except you can travel 600 miles between fill-ups. According to the trip computer, our hard-driven car had been averaging about 26 mpg on a steady diet of Aral low-sulfur diesel trucked in specially from Germany. The local diesel fuel in Russia, Kazakhstan, and China has up to 300 times more sulfur than European regulations allow.
With the aid of exhaust-gas recirculation, two catalysts, and a particulate filter, the Bluetec is the cleanest Mercedes diesel ever. It will be even more so once Mercedes-Benz and the U.S. EPA agree on a system where-by the cars can be equipped with a catalyst that, when primed by an injection of aqueous urea, will convert oxides of nitrogen into nitrogen and water vapor. The sticking point? The EPA fears that owners will fail to replenish the urea fluid every 10,000 miles, rendering the emissions controls ineffective.
Such microcosmic environmental considerations are literally and figuratively half a world away from the so-called coal highway out of Wuhai, where we passed trucks hauling enough coal to power Beijing for a week. People walked alongside the road collecting little chunks of coal that had blown off the trucks. The next 200 miles that unfurled for us in the foothills of the Gobi Desert looked not unlike parts of the American Southwest. We hammered the E320 hard here, jostling for position with trucks carrying coal, livestock, corn, and hay; braking fiercely; and keeping a sharp eye out for long-horned sheep on the roadside. Some of the pavement was rough, but the Benz’s suspension absorbed the worst of it without complaint.
Denise, a former racing and rally driver, was two months shy of becoming an octogenarian, but she was quite literally one of the fastest and most competent drivers in our entire caravan and the object of great interest for many European journalists. I am an incorrigible speeder, but with Denise at my side, I often feared that perhaps I was going a little too slowly for her tastes. When I was at the wheel, she’d canvass the right lane and the right shoulder, calling out “you can take him,” or simply “go” if she spied a passing opportunity that I hadn’t yet perceived. We followed local custom and used the shoulder, conveniently free of debris thanks to the sweepers, to slalom around coal carriers at 110 mph. Everyone seemed to be going slower than Denise and I, including most of the other members of the Mercedes caravan.
We had no time to spare for mere sight-seeing . . . For fast as we urged our horses on, the sun seemed to outdistance us without effort.
From Wuhai to Baotou to Hohhot, the Mercedes was an express train through modern industrial China. Lots more pollution, lots of factories, and lots of signs of progress, like brand-new freeways, gas stations everywhere (one with a sign reading “Positive Big Petroleum”–the Chinese may not understand the oxymoron just yet), and high tension wires crisscrossing the landscape. Dozens of powerplant cooling towers. And an occasional car of the gentry, like the brand-new Nissan Fuga (known in America as the Infiniti M35) we tailed as its driver expertly wove through crowded traffic. At one tollbooth, three attendants came to the window, all raising their cell phone cameras at our car. Denise tossed them Route 66 T-shirts.
On the sixth day north of Lanzhou we reached the great sand-dunes which make what might almost be a possible automobile trail impossible even for Chinese carts. Great ridges of pure sand, everywhere given a corrugated surface by the winds that had piled them up during the centuries, stretch from some unknown distance back in the country.
Xiangsha Wan, or the “Singing Sand Gorge,” was a worthwhile tourist trap, if only for the Mongolian throat singers who serenaded us while we ate lunch overlooking the huge dunes, which ex-tend some 250 miles. Marco Polo thought that the sounds of the sandslides were whispering demons trying to lead travelers astray.
We’d have none of that, so we hightailed it to the heart of Hohhot and the luxurious Hotel Inner Mongolia, where gas masks in a drawer next to my room’s minibar were a reminder that breathing is seldom easy along this industrial corridor. The Mercedes contingent was toasted at a reception by a representative of the Inner Mongolian government, who invited DaimlerChrysler to build more assembly plants in the region (they currently make large industrial trucks there). Perhaps instead DaimlerChrysler could offer its expertise in depolluting the factories China already has. We were then shown a video montage of Mongolian industry, with repeated footage of bloody slaughterhouses. Goat tartare canap, anyone?
We savored Thursday morning’s drive. Brand-new tollways, Denise and I on a mission, and Alex P cowering in the back seat, caressing his zoom lens. Hilly brown topography dotted with brown mud huts and barns that virtually disappeared into the November landscape. Tens of thousands of new trees planted at the roadsides and in the medians. Handsome stone retaining walls. Smooth pavement. Police who seemed concerned mostly with enforcing weight and load limits for trucks, a legitimate issue since exceeding payloads here is the norm: tippy-toppy trucks routinely are piled so high with strapped-on goods that they would never make it under a typical U.S. freeway overpass.
Thursday afternoon was not so expedient. A trucker strike brought traffic on a two-lane road to a standstill. There we were, penned in among chuffing, diesel coal trucks, ratty old tractors pulling trailers full of bricks, and vendors pushing wheelbarrow apple carts. In the midst of it all, a line of Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans and G-wagen support vehicles. The locals crowded around the Benzes, peering into the cabins and grinning at the hapless Westerners.
. . . the peasants here and there were felling big trees squarely across the road, and letting travel drag its way around them as best they could, or wait until the trunk had been sawed up. The traveler in rural China is constantly being reminded that he is an unwelcome trespasser on private domain.
When we finally arrived in Badaling at the Commune by the Great Wall, a complex of contemporary villas designed by noted Chinese architects, it was too late for a Great Wall tour but certainly not too late for a glass of Great Wall wine. Dinner was hosted by Dr. Z himself, DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, beaming with relief that our caravan of Mercedes-Benzes had made it all the way from Paris to the outskirts of Beijing with little more than some flat tires and a few broken windshields.
It was only fifty miles on Friday morning to Beijing, where our caravan paraded by Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City before arriving at the newly rebuilt Yongding Gate and a pomp-filled press conference presided over by Zetsche. What had we learned as we zoomed through China? That the Chinese had better get a handle on their booming economy’s pollution, or living conditions will become so miserable that they will pine for the days when our American friend, Harry A. Franck, traveled by pony. That despite such challenges, the Chinese are riding on a new air of optimism. That the People’s Republic of China is really, really big and a fun place to drive. And that vehicles powered by clean diesel engines are ready for prime time in America.
We were off again quite as usual, therefore, at five in the morning for a twenty-third day of travel; though, including stops, we had been less than twenty-one full days on the road from Lanzhou, which is seldom bettered.
We bettered it, by Bluetec Benz.