Borat Beware: We Drive Kazakhstan!



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2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec by Gary Witzenburg (9/18/2006)
The world’s cleanest diesel, Benz promises.




The first question has to be why? Why would Mercedes want to drive 30-odd E-Class sedans from Paris to Beijing ? There’s more than one answer, but “because it can” seems to be a good starting point.


The E-Class Experience, as the month-long, 8500-mile trip is called, also links the end of the French city’s auto show with the start of the Chinese one. And it also recreates the route of a challenge laid down almost exactly 100 years ago to prove powered transport was superior to the horse and cart (though to be strictly honest, that went the other way and via a markedly different route).


My four-day stint behind the wheel of car 24, an E320 CDI, would link Ekaterinburg in Russia with Almaty in Kazakhstan. Yes, that’s Kazakhstan, home of legendary spoof journalist Borat. There was some debate about whether anyone had the balls to mention the B-word. Personally I didn’t.


Warned of cold weather, appalling roads, officious police, and double-figure times for crossing the border from Russia into Kazakhstan , the international crew of drivers was set for adventure. But on day one it never came; it was almost too easy. No one got stopped, the sun shone, and getting my passport stamped took 45 minutes. At the end of the 350-mile leg to the town of Kostanai I will confess to being disappointed.


Irritatingly good


2000 Toyota CelicaIt was still dark on the morning of day two as we tackled the first of the 430 miles to Astana, the Kazak capital. Once clear of Kostanai it was monotonous flat nothingness, short beige stalks to the left and right the only clue that this is basically one vast wheat field. Again, the roads were irritatingly good. Every few miles there would be a junction, but the tarmac would only last for 50 meters down the side roads. It just stopped to be replaced by dirt track, stretching as far as the horizon and presumably beyond. What was out there? There didn’t look much. The strangest thing was there was cellphone coverage everywhere.


Every 10 or 15 miles, visible from half that distance away, were towering grain silos surrounded by houses where presumably the workers lived, But there was no sign of life — no children playing, no washing on a line, nothing. These villages had no obvious names, but to be honest it didn’t matter, they were all the same. Each was a ramshackle mess of buildings, some complete, others half-built, many semi-derelict. It was difficult to tell the difference. It looked like there had been a war. Maybe there had. We passed a gas station, long-since abandoned but with the pumps still on the forecourt, their ancient mechanical workings exposed to the elements.


Back on the main road, in the distance something caught my eye. It was people in the mud standing on the muddy verge, grouped together posing for a photo. As we drew closer… was that…? surely not…? Yes, it was. There was a young woman in full bridal gear and a man in a suit next to her. We stopped because we couldn’t help it. Why were they there, 20 miles from anywhere in any direction? I took their picture too, and they looked at my car. We all smiled in that way you do when you have no idea what each other is saying, and then we left with a wave and a hoot of the horn. Sometimes the language barrier is a good thing. It was a surreal ten minutes and I had so many questions, but I like the fact I have no answers.


Running out of road


Audi AllroadAnd then we just ran out of road. It hadn’t been finished yet, and we could see the heavy machinery in the distance. In most of the developed world there would be warning signs from five miles out, a million cones and flashing lights, but in Kazakhstan there was nothing but a short red barrier. The options were either left or right, but both involved a steep muddy decent. We chose the former because it looked less risky. In the rear view mirror we saw a huge petrol tanker on the main road, slowing to make the same choice. Surely he had to come the same way as us? I readied the camera… He went right. I’ve never been very lucky like that. There was 10 miles of it, no set route and tire tracks all over the place. It was like the authorities were saying “yes, we’re building the road and it will be finished soon, but until then you sort yourselves out”.


After a night in Astana we hit the road again. The only real talking point of the drive was Qaraghandy. The view down the hill to the city was truly shocking. It was a perfectly clear day, but for more than a half-mile above the factories the blue sky was completely blocked out smoke from the belching chimneys. It put the world’s ecological problems into context. Yes, I’ll swap out of my 4x4 when I get home and turn the tap off when I brush my teeth, but someone has to talk to the Kazaks about pollution. The paradox of a man on a horse-drawn cart to the side of us wasn’t lost on me.


After several hundred miles of dead straight road across the Hunger Steppe, a vast area of undulating grassland, we arrived in Balkhash. There had been advanced publicity for the Mercedes trip, and our party had been promised a rousing civic welcome from the locals. Being mobbed, asked for my autograph and photographed doesn’t happen often to me, but it was a wonderful way to forget my tiredness. The vodka-laced reception inside the town hall brought it flooding back.


1999 Lexus ISDay four meant Almaty, and again it wasn’t the most exciting drive. A roadside fish seller, trading her catch from the nearby lake, brightening up an otherwise dull coffee stop, though the highlight for me was at the railway junction town of Saryshagen . Left to rot in a siding was the longest, rustiest train I’ve ever seen, CCCP logos of the Soviet Union clearly visible. It was vast, and save for a barbed-wire fence we could drive right up to it. The carriages could have been there for 20 years already, and will probably still be there in 20 more.


Closing in on my destination the landscape got greener and wild camels grazed near the road. And finally we rounded a corner to be greeted by the Zailijski Alatau mountains that tower over Almaty. A beer in my hotel bar had my name on it, and a flight home awaited, but there was no rest for the Mercedes. It had performed absolutely faultlessly, soaking up everything that had been thrown at with no complaint. My journey was over but the E-Class was heading on into China and to the finishing line in Beijing.


What to Drive: Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI


Evoq_FrontWhen you’re a stranger in a very strange land — one recently skewered/celebrated in a hit movie — it’s best to bring something with universal appeal and universal fuel source. Diesel’s easier to find around the world, and with the surprisingly good roads in Kazakhstan , the new E320 CDI proved a faithful companion for hours of mind-numbing nothingness. Imagine how good it would be in the first world?







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