Today was supposed to be a relatively quick drive, but we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Today was supposed to be a relatively quick drive of about 275 miles from Hohhot up to Badaling and the Great Wall of China, but we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. The first 200 miles were all on new tollways, where we made great time. The topography was hilly and mountainous and brown, and the freeway slicing through it all was just as well-maintained and well-groomed as the others we’ve driven, with lots of new trees planted at the roadsides and in the medians, handsome stone retaining walls, and smooth pavement.
We slalomed between the big, slow-moving coal haulers, which were barely moving on the hills, with 100-mph ease, and if two trucks were side-by-side in the two available lanes, we’d just use the right shoulder: it’s perfectly acceptable here! We soon learned that, at the tollbooths, it’s also acceptable and expected for passenger cars to zoom to the head of the line and nose in front of the line of coal trucks. Basically, if you have a fast car on these Chinese freeways, you own the road, and nobody raises an eyebrow.
There was a fair police presence, but we quickly realized that the men in blue were mostly concerned with enforcing weight and load limits for trucks, a legitimate issue since overloading of transport vehicles is the absolute norm here. We saw lots of big trucks with goods piled so high, they would never make it under the typical U.S. freeway overpass, and it was a wonder they didn’t tip over. And sometimes they do: we saw a huge coal hauler tipped on its side lying sideways across the freeway, with all traffic diverted to the shoulder.
At about 1 p.m., we had exited the tollway and were threading our way through a series of towns and villages on a two-lane road, following a local guy in a Nissan Fuga, which is the equivalent of an Infiniti M35. He was making good time dodging around the coal trucks, the three-wheel, single-cylinder utility vehicles, and the bicycles, using every part of the road: our lane, the oncoming lane, the left shoulder, the right shoulder: It’s every man for himself out here. But the fun was suddenly cut short when we pulled in behind a line of motionless coal haulers. We were text-messaged and radioed by the Mercedes event organizers that the truck traffic jam went on for miles, and they were working with the local police to get an escort.
So there we were, penned in among sooty, chuffing, chugging, diesel coal trucks, ratty old tractors pulling trailers full of bricks, vendors pushing wheelbarrow apple carts, and in the midst of it all, a line of Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans and G-wagen support vehicles. As you can imagine, it made quite a sight for the locals, who crowded around the Benzes, peering into the cabins and grinning at us hapless Westerners.
After a couple of hours of sitting, moving a few yards, and sitting some more, we were instructed by Mercedes-Benz’s local guides to backtrack to a fuel station a couple of kilometers away, where the police eventually arrived and escorted us over a dusty two-track next to a corn field for several kilometers, linking up to a paved road that ran along the base of a mountain and got us back to a scheduled waypoint of the route.
We arrived at the Commune by the Great Wall at about 4:30, a bit too late to get a tour of the wall itself. But this complex of contemporary villas, all designed by noted architects, spreads across a series of hillsides with views of the Great Wall (See www.kempinski-thegreatwall.com). Dinner tonight was hosted by Dr. Z himself, DaimlerChrysler head honcho Dieter Zetsche, who was very grateful that our huge caravan of Mercedes-Benz vehicles had made it all the way from Paris to the outskirts of Beijing with nary an accident, just a few clipped-off side mirrors, some flat tires, and a few broken windshields.
Tomorrow morning, our entire fleet of 36 E-classes, including the three American-spec Bluetec sedans, will fall into formation and drive triumphantly by police escort through the city of Beijing, past Tiananmen Square and the walls of the Forbidden City, to Yongding Gate, the final destination of the E-Class Experience Paris-Beijing 2006.