Endurance Drive: From Paris to Bejing without any Borat
More than 30 Mercedes-Benz saloons - accompanied by their own diesel tankers - have made the arduous 8,500-mile journey from France to China. John Simister joined the team in Russia and Kazakhstan
From Paris to Beijing, by car. Via Kazakhstan, notional land of Borat. I had to say that last bit because everyone makes the connection, a bitter-sweet route to fame for this vast land of minerals, steppes, wheat and jettisoned Soviet-era baggage.
So, why? Because it's there? Partly; the romantic madness of crossing continents by motor car, travelling ancient trade routes and feeling the shift of cultures, has long been a draw. In 1907 there was a road race in the reverse direction, from Peking to Paris, and it was won - by a margin of several days - by Prince Scipione Borghese in his Itala. Clearly it was harder then than it would be now, with unmade roads, minimalist cars of uncertain temperament, no petrol stations and no comforting radio-link back-up, but set against that are apparati of state security far more pervasive now than then. Today, the challenge could well be one of bureaucracy as much as endurance.
The car I'm driving is a Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI, a turbodiesel so smooth and capable and particular in its diet that it has to be excused Russian and Kazakh diesel. Instead, the Mercedes-Benz organising team has brought its own super-clean diesel in its own tankers.
Car 23 is the UK entry, subtly emblazoned with a rippling Union Flag over its upper surfaces. It will do the entire 8,500-mile journey but I'm with it for just the middle section out of five. My stint will run from Yekaterinburg, beyond the Urals in southern Russia, to Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan near the Chinese border. It will be 1,550 miles of which much will be nothingness, and that's the intrigue. I have never driven so far in such emptiness before.
I'd like to say co-driver Dan Trent and I will be alone in the emptiness, cut off from the womb of modern society, but actually there are more than 30 E-classes driven by worldwide teams (including a Stuttgart taxi). Consider it a demonstration of the cars' reliability and mile-eating prowess (so hopes Mercedes), but the car itself is not the issue. It's the travel, and that such a thing is possible now that central Asia has opened up again.
Yekaterinburg is the last city Czar Nicholas II and his family saw before their demise. The final part of my journey there, by Aeroflot following a rip-off taxi ride between Moscow airport terminals, was a character-building experience, with the tray table jammed against my chest and my right leg heading for DVT. And but the sight of a black Zil limo on arrival, all fins and chrome and past party power, sends a Cold War chill through the warm post-Soviet air.
Driving has changed a lot since the fall of communism here. There are far more cars, many of them western European living out a new life after their EU pre-ownership. But the Ladas and Moskviches and Volgas are still here, battered but still running and surprisingly unrusty because the roads aren't salted. There's a queue of trucks at the border, one laden with 1980s Mercedes-Benzes off to a new life yet further east. Kazakhstan seems to be the magnet for every decade-plus-old Mercedes, Audi or BMW once resident in the west. I had wondered where they had all gone, and now I know.
The land here is flat, big sky, endless wheatfields: the granary of the Soviet Union, Kruschev called it, the power of the land marked by cathedral-like grain silos. The road is dead straight, Vanishing Point endlessness; the open road speed limit is 90kph, or 56mph, but there's no small-minded enforcement and it's sensible to move up to a more comfortable speed to maintain engagement and stimulation. Be warned, though, that sometimes the flatness turns to gentle undulation, deep enough to hide an entire oncoming car. The police here sometimes leave the aftermath of head-on collisions by the roadside as a reminder to drivers whose observation skills need honing: gruesome but effective.
Our Mercedes is riding on slightly higher springs than standard, which proves useful when the shiny new road runs out. For the next few miles we pick our own way along a choice of three or four muddy tracks. There are no warning signs, no commands, no health and safety interference. We are just expected to get on with it, and it's very refreshing.
Astana - literally "capital city" - is Kazakhstan's new capital, a showpiece built right in the middle of this vast country because President Nazarbayev thought it fitting. Think Dubai without the sand and some of the tastelessness, check into the Intercontinental hotel (I never expected to find one of those in Kazakhstan), meet the mayor at another of the six-course dinners that Kazakhs love to feed us. I'll stay off the vodka tonight, however, after last night's misjudgment, but what might the mayor think of his country's most famous ambassador?
My attempts to find out are thwarted by a Mercedes public relations supremo. I tried, anyway, and let me say that so far I have seen not a single Kazakh who either looks or sounds like Borat. But then that was never meant to be the point.
Next day, our destination is Balkhash by the vast lake of the same name, a lake with salt water at one end, fresh water at the other and a constricting channel in the middle. A couple of hours in and the air is becoming increasingly acrid, the smell of an ancient steam train firing up in a covered marshalling yard while thick, sulphurous coal smoke chokes the lungs of anyone within range. We crest a rise to see a rerun of the Buncefield oil terminal conflagration, except that here it's happening all the time.
This pall of particulates spews from the stacks of Karagandy, a city built in the 1930s by the forced labour of Stalin's deportations. After the Soviet Union collapsed, almost half the population upped and left this crumbling, desolate, concrete place, but the wooden huts of the labour camp are still there and they are still inhabited.
Beyond Karagandy lies the Hunger Steppe, a desolate land of short, dying, brown grass and scrub. There's a memorial here to those who died in the camps; a Polish colleague tells how his grandmother's sister was deported here in a purge of intellectuals, and would be chained to a giant plough with maybe 100 other women and told every day to plough to the horizon.
Balkhash, the city with the MiG 21 fighter aircraft sculpture at its entrance, proves a little brighterThere are hardly any hotels in Balkhash, so tonight I'll stay with a family in their apartment. Nominally but not overtly Muslim, like most ethnic Kazakhs, mother Batima is a chemical engineer with the zinc and copper-mining company, daughter Leila is learning English and German at college.
The ride to their apartment in an ancient Volga taxi reveals shudder-inducing bumps and engine-straining hindrances contemptuosly dismissed by the Mercedes, but I can forgive it a lot for the sake of its zebra-pattern seat covers.
Lake Balkhash provides a living for fishermen who sell their dried wares by the roadside, usually from the front boot of a rear-engined, air-cooled Zaporozhets. The landscape is less desolate now, and by the time we near Almaty (it means "father apple"), the capital until 1997 and by far the biggest city, there are trees by the roadside and mountains beyond. Everything changes. Broad streets populated with many expensive cars, dozens of new petrol stations to celebrate the oil wealth, signs of affluence and regeneration. It's the cultural centre of Kazakhstan and not only for its 147 casinos. The Cathedral of the Holy Ascension is a beautiful Eastern Orthodox edifice built from wood in 1907 and the most colourful cathedral I've seen. Its flexible construction is why it was the only building to survive the 1911 earthquake.
Kazakhstan wants to be a powerful country free from outside influence, and it has the natural riches to achieve this. One way it is shaking off its past is by gradually replacing Cyrillic script with Roman, a colossal task that will eventually mean the Turkmen-based, Arab-influenced Kazakh language will have been officially written in three different scripts in its history. And as one cultural imperialism is discarded, so another is resisted. In all our 1,550 miles, I didn't see a single McDonald's.