To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 1)

I’m smack dab in the middle of the People’s Republic of China.; Our adventure starts tomorrow morning, when we’ll begin a 370-mile drive from Lanzhou to Wuhai.

Monday, November 13, 2006
I’m smack dab in the middle of the People’s Republic of China, in Lanzhou, a city of 3 million people on the banks of the Yellow River in Gansu Province. I arrived here yesterday as a guest of Mercedes-Benz USA to join the fifth and final leg of the E-class Experience, a 25-day, 8500-mile drive in a fleet of diesel-powered E-class sedans from Paris to Beijing. This is both a commemoration of a drive that took place 99 years ago from Beijing to Paris (only three vehicles finished, a minor miracle at that time) and also obviously a promotion exercise for the fuel economy, drivability, and durability of Mercedes-Benz diesel vehicles.

The caravan of 36 Mercedes-Benz E-classes (plus dozens more support vehicles) drove into Lanzhou on schedule yesterday evening, and tonight, the drivers from the fourth leg, who started in Almaty, Kazakhstan, will turn over the keys to the 80 drivers from 21 countries that will see this event through to its finish in Beijing this Friday. The E-class Experience group is made up of not only journalists and Mercedes-Benz personnel but also customers and enthusiasts. I just came from a drivers briefing meeting, where I met an English guy named James who is a Mercedes owner and who was chosen from a pool of some 50,000 customers who applied for a chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our adventure starts tomorrow morning, when we’ll begin a 370-mile drive from Lanzhou to Wuhai. But today, we had an opportunity to do some sightseeing in Lanzhou, including climbing the hundreds of steps in White Pagoda Park that wend their way up a hillside overlooking the Yellow River and the city skyline, a dramatic sight that would be even more so if one could actually see anything through the haze of pollution that hangs over this city, trapped by mountain ranges on both sides. One of the American journalists who just finished the fourth leg says that on their entire drive across China, from west to east, was under a big cloud of air pollution, even though most of the territory they drove through was sparsely populated.

Today was also an opportunity to reflect on the massive logistical and financial undertaking that this 2006 Paris-Beijing drive represents. This event was two years in the planning and involved the efforts of well over a hundred full-time employees. The entire route has been pre-run four times by Mercedes personnel, and although the bulk of it lies across the vast countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, and China, arrangements had to be made for the caravan to make eight border crossings through nine countries, all across Europe and Asia. Imagine the diplomacy and the greasing of palms that must have taken! We have our own Aral diesel fuel tanker truck, a medical team, and a helicopter for aerial photography and film footage (and to whisk anyone who’s injured to a hospital, but let’s hope that service is not needed).

We’ll be following extremely detailed route books, but the departing drivers have already told us that the Garmin GPS systems installed in the cars will be our most useful guides. “It’s impossible to get lost,” we’ve been assured. We’ll see if that’s true starting tomorrow on the drive to Wuhai.