The New Silk Road – Starting in Beijing
Series: Travel diary
The documents have arrived – time to go west again!
Preparations have been in full swing since the day before yesterday – at long last! After four weeks of hope and trepidation, the Chinese authorities have issued the necessary papers two days before our scheduled departure. We can finally start the long journey home to Stuttgart. “We”, incidentally, is our team of development engineers from Mercedes-Benz Trucks and a crew of Chinese drivers who will be accompanying us to the border. The trucks, one semitrailer tractor with the OM 473 engine, two with the OM 471, comply with the brand new China 5 emissions standard. As part of the quality assurance process, they have been undergoing endurance testing here in China for a year to demonstrate their reliability.
The first leg.
It was still night-time when we drove the three vehicles out of Beijing – during the day, the inner city area is closed to trucks. Last stop before the big trip: Zhangjiakou. This has been our base for the test drives and here we make our final checks.
And then the big moment: we're underway at last! We head westwards through the wine-growing regions of the Hebei province, past green meadows and yellow fields of sunflowers. Our destination is Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. We arrive at the motorway rest area close to the capital Hohhot. Its name, by the way, comes from the Mongolian for “blue city”.
We've still managed to cover a respectable 511 kilometres today. On the menu tonight is the “national dish” of Chinese truck drivers: instant noodles.
The rest area in the desert.
After breakfast, we continue on our way through Inner Mongolia. Eventually – having long since passed the towns of Baotou and Bayan Nur – we reach the G7 motorway. For 1,500 kilometres, it runs along the Mongolian border through sparsely populated desert. And is almost completely empty: to save on toll charges, the local truck drivers drive in convoy on the old regional highway which runs parallel to the motorway.
After hours on the motorway, we need a change of scene, so we take the Actros down to the regional highway. But our “detour” is over very quickly. No sooner have we turned off at the motorway exit than we get stopped by the police: foreigners are only allowed to drive through the border area if they have a special permit!
So it's back to the motorway. After just one hour, we arrive at the next checkpoint. Awaiting us here, however, is more than an order to stay on the motorway: “Everyone out!” We are escorted to an office by police. The uniformed officers, machine guns slung over their shoulders, wear serious expressions as they check our papers – and promptly find an expired visa from an earlier trip. The tension in the room rises, video cameras are switched on. The only thing we can do is stay calm and keep smiling! Eventually, the valid visa is found elsewhere in the passport. The tension eases – and after 20 minutes, the police are satisfied with everything. They're even laughing now. We are allowed to continue on our way.
Relief all round as we head back onto the motorway which is pretty much unused. It's so new that most of the rest areas haven't opened yet. So no opportunity for us to top up our supplies of food or diesel.
Sleeping area behind the counter.
To get to a rest area, we eventually make our way down onto the old regional highway. A narrow strip of road in a vast landscape, with no centre reservation, in places completely covered with sand by the wind. The service area is a 1.5 kilometre-long area of gravel. Along the side is a row of small shops, workshops and restaurants. We stop at the filling station. As the attendant takes our banknotes and give us our change, we notice that he is standing on a mattress – his “bed” is right behind the cash desk!
For dinner, there's chicken Chinese style: a whole chicken, plucked, chopped into pieces and fried.
By the way: I have never had such a good view of the Milky Way as I have here. The darkness of the desert landscape means that you see everything incredibly clearly. It's time for our own three stars to take a break for a few hours. The journey continues tomorrow.
Photos and video: Eberhard Joos
Editing: Alexander Tempel