Sunday, 24 November 2013

Once upon a time in China


Yup, another Blast from the Past. This old story actually started back in 1907, long before I was born, with the Peking to Paris Race. My part in the story was relatively recent, in late 2006, when I was one of the two Malaysians invited by Mercedes-Benz to participate in their Paris-Beijing run to commemorate the centennial of that historic auto race. My part in this epic adventure began in Lanzhou, China, and ended in the final destination, Beijing. Though I did not get to drive any four-wheel-drive car, there were several shiny new G-Wagens running around as support and media cars.



IT was not love at first sight. Everything was one shade of brown or another. Beige, buff, cream, khaki, ochre, sand, russet, tan, tawny, terracotta – these are just some of the many shades I needed (yes, a thesaurus was necessary) to describe the desert landscape around Lanzhou in north-western China.
The drab scenery rekindled memories of the month I had spent in the Sahara with the Petronas Adventure Team two years ago. That was an “adventure of a lifetime”. Now, on the edge of China’s Gobi desert, I was about to be a part of another – the Paris-Beijing 2006 E-Class Experience.
On Oct 21, a caravan of 36 diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI sedans had set off from France, on a modern motoring epic that was to end in China, 28 days later.
The journey was broken into five legs, with new teams taking over at the end of each stage. (The only other Malaysian picked for the event was motoring journalist Khong Yin Swan, better known as Y.S. Khong, who went for the second leg from St Petersburg to Yekaterinburg, Russia.)
The participants came from all walks of life and they presented a colourful cross-section of peoples of the world. Tens of thousands of people around the globe responded to advertisements in newspapers, magazines and websites, and were put through a rigorous selection process that included interviews and driving training and evaluation.

Car #35, representing Malaysia and Singapore.
The lucky 360 included several French cabbies (pardon; they insist that they are Parisian taxi drivers!) driving an E320 fitted out as a taxi; a German woman who could pass for a model but builds custom bikes for a living (“yes, just like American Choppers … I’m like Paul Sr”); an engineering consultant who got “very lucky” just by replying to a letter from a magazine; a Mexican who speaks Cantonese; Poles, Slovaks, Koreans, Chinese and journalists.
In the four stages before handing over the cars to the last group, the motorcade had traversed Germany (passing through the cities of Stuttgart and Berlin), Poland (Warsaw), Lithuania (Vilnius), Latvia (Riga), Estonia (Tallinn), Russia (St Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg), Kazakhstan (Astana, Almaty), and into China.
The final leg, which I was invited to be a part of (as a writer for The Star), took the modern-day caravan from Lanzhou through Hohhot (capital of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia) to Badaling (where tourists get up close and personal with a part of the Great Wall) and, finally, Beijing.
Along the way, most of the participants absorbed sights, sounds, smells and experiences far different from the daily routine of home.
Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province and the geometrical centre of China, is the only provincial city through which the mighty Yellow River (Huang He) flows. It used to be an important stopover on the ancient Silk Road and is still a vital hub for transportation and communications today.
Heading from Lanzhou towards the coal-mining and industrial city of Wuhai, those of us who were first-time visitors to China were amazed by the superb new highways that linked the various towns and cities.
And, with a population of 1.3 billion and low wages, it seems the Chinese can afford to have sweepers stationed about a kilometre apart, keeping the multi-lane macadam clear of sand blown in from the surrounding desert! There were also stretches that were so bad that it was like driving through virgin desert.
One of the less savoury discoveries was that there were hardly any toilet facilities along the highways so the travellers simply defecated anywhere and everywhere along the roadside.
Traffic on some sections of the extensive road network was so sparse that we could park the Mercedes in the middle of the highway and take photographs leisurely, while other stretches were congested with everything from toot-tooting three-wheeler lorries to huge semi-trailers and tiny tractors pulling loads of hay as big as houses.
Chinese drivers can be described as unpredictable at best, and red lights are not even a suggestion that you might want to stop.
One particularly useful bit of advice we received was to avoid driving at night since the local motorists do not deem lights to be necessary when travelling on the dark, unlit streets.
But, after a while, my Singaporean co-driver, Geoffrey Eu, and I learned to expect the unexpected. And, a while later, we learned to
overtake using the slow lane, the middle lane, or the emergency lane, just like the locals.
Despite the widely varying road and traffic conditions, there were no serious accidents during the entire journey, and only five fender
benders occurred in traffic.
The well-known German aptitude for organisation and logistics (see Adding up the figures) ensured that things went smoothly, but it
certainly was not an easy task.
The low-sulphur diesel fuel needed for the Mercedes engines was not available on most of the route, so the German oil company Aral had to pre-position supplies. Fuel for the Russian sector was sent via Finland because of its simpler customs procedures while the containers for China were shipped to Shanghai, from where they were taken by trucks to the intermediate stations along the 5,000km route through the Middle Kingdom.
Each evening, as if by magic, a refuelling station complete with regulation pump appeared in the hotel parking lot to top up the tank of each E320 CDI.
But, even the best laid plans cannot forestall every conceivable problem. On the penultimate day, the convoy ground to a halt because a trucker’s blockade completely closed off a stretch of the route.
Fortunately, the enterprising locals quickly organised a guide service – for a small fee, of course – to lead the Mercedes cars around the blockade and through back lanes and rough fields.
As part of the unplanned adventure, we had a surreal moment driving into a new property development called Jackson Hole, complete with American-style log cabins and stone chalets set against a backdrop that looked uncannily like the famous Wyoming resort, just a hundred kilometres from Beijing.
I was among the fortunate ones who made it through the detour quickly and arrived at the next town, Badaling, with ample time to visit its most famous landmark – the Great Wall.
The following day, all that was left to accomplish was a short 90km run into Beijing and the finishing point at the ancient city’s landmark Yongding Gate, with progress aided significantly by police escorts.
Thus ended the adventure inspired by the original 1907 Beijing-Paris rally initiated by the now-defunct Parisian newspaper Le Matin (French for The Morning).
The 2006 edition does have a more practical objective – to demonstrate the economy of diesel engines. With an average consumption of 8.32l/100km for all 36 vehicles over the entire distance, the goal of demonstrating the diesel’s superior fuel efficiency was met on the individual legs as well as over the entire distance.
Although Mercedes probably wouldn’t want to highlight it, the marathon drive is also a confidence booster that demonstrates the company’s recent quality issues have been resolved.
Officially, the total distance travelled was 13,608km but, with cars getting lost, diversions and detours, most cars had clocked up over 14,000km at the finish line on Nov 17.
The fact that the toughest test drivers – ordinary people who don’t own the cars and don’t have to pay for repairs, and journalists – can push the cars over real world roads and tracks, with a punishing schedule, and arrive without any mechanical problems, is convincing testament to the reliability of the new E-Class.

More photos here

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IN Paris 23 days ago, one of the great modern automobile adventures began. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, 36 Mercedes-Benz E-320 CDI cars set off on Oct 21 on a 13,600km journey to Beijing, where the fleet will arrive on Nov 17.
Mercedes-Benz intends to use the diesel marathon across two continents to demonstrate the global potential of its technology. It is also a commemoration of the world’s first ever long-distance motor race, the great Beijing (then known as Peking) to Paris run of 1907.
Then, the winner reached his destination in 62 days. With the modern E-Class cars, Mercedes-Benz aims to accomplish this journey in only 26 days.
A total of 360 drivers from 35 countries will each take turns behind the wheel of one of the latest E-Class sedans, which will cover a combined distance of more than 490,000km before arriving in the Chinese capital.
With Mercedes boss Dr Dieter Zetsche.
“The long-distance route from Paris to Beijing is not about speed. Rather, the sporting challenge for the participants is to achieve the
lowest possible consumption on the individual stages and across the overall distance”, said Dr Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the DaimlerChrysler AG board and head of the Mercedes Car Group.
The route of the Paris-Beijing E-Class Experience passes through France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and
Kazakhstan, to China.
The event has been particularly challenging not only because of extreme temperatures, ice, snow, dust and mud, but also the short hours of daylight. Tackling the daily stages of up to 750km under unusual traffic conditions, and crossing passes at altitudes of up to 2,900m requires concentration, experience and fitness.
In a reverse re-run of the original long-distance route of 1907, the drivers will cover five stages, each stretching between 1,750km and 3,550km. These include international journalists, VIPs and celebrities as well as participants selected from more than 50,000 Internet applications.
The first stage (Oct 21-27) took participants over approximately 3,400km from Paris to Stuttgart, Berlin and Warsaw as well as the Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn to finish in St Petersburg, Russia.
The next batch took over for the second sector (Oct 28-Nov 1; 2,700km) that leads to Yekaterinburg, Russia.
On this stage, one of just two Malaysians invited to take part in this event was automotive website editor and freelance writer Y.S. Khong, 55, better known for being a Malaysian rally champion four times in the 1980s.
“It was very, very cold … days were short and it got dark early, and there was plenty of snow, ice, more snow, more ice, and yet more snow,” Khong recalled from his first experience of the notorious Russian winter.
“The roads were very slippery, and we could see many local cars and trucks that had come to grief in the ditches by the roadside. Even though the Mercedes has an excellent traction control system, the tail will wag if you accelerate too hard.”
The third stage (Nov 3-6; 3,100km) crossed into Kazakhstan and ended at Almaty, the country’s old capital. From Almaty, the fourth stage (Nov 8 to today; 3,100km) takes the convoy into Western China and ends at Lanzhou.
On Nov 17, four days and 1,750km after setting off from Lanzhou and travelling through the valley of the Yellow River, crossing the outer reaches of the Gobi desert and the grass pastures of Inner Mongolia, the drivers are expected to reach the finishing post for this remarkable long-distance drive: the Yongding Gate in the centre of Beijing.