2006 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Paris to Beijing 3 - Yekaterinburg to Almaty

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W XYZ

 

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(from DaimlerChrysler Press Release)  Long-distance drive Paris–Beijing 2006 / Day 13:  First Day Off for the E-Class Fleet

• Tour day spent in Yekaterinburg
• Weather: fair with occasional cloud, –3 degree Celsius

Yekaterinburg – The engines are silent for the first time on this, the 13th day of the “E-Class Experience”. Instead of driving, many of the participants go in search of historic traces of the last Czar, or of the Trans-Siberian railway. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz technicians make the most of the scheduled day’s rest to take a thorough look at the fleet vehicles in preparation for the teams in the third stage.

For some, the Paris–Beijing adventure is only just beginning on this sunny morning, while for others it came to an end the day before with the drive to Yekaterinburg. On the 13th day of the E-Class long-distance drive, the entire focus is on the change-over of the stage teams. Both the drivers who have just finished and those who are just about to start take the opportunity to get to know something of Russian history and culture, and find out about the local economy.

The history of Czarist Russia came to an end in 1918 with the murder of Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg. The last of the czars was canonized in August 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church. Three years later – 85 years after the event – the city helped organize a formal consecration ceremony dedicating the “Church of the Blood” to the late Czar. For those E-Class drivers with an interest in culture, this place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in the Czarist era is the starting point for an organized tour that leads to Ganina Yama, a monastery north of the city that is also dedicated to the Czar’s family. A wooden cross in the traditional Russian style has been erected here for each of the seven members of the family.

Yekaterinburg is also one of the stopping points for the Trans-Siberian railway, which follows its infamous course from Moscow to Vladivostok. The municipal train station, with its painted ceiling, and the adjoining Sverdlovsk Museum of History, Science and Technology bear testimony to the national significance of this railway line. After all, Russia’s first steam locomotive was constructed in Yekaterinburg, and this innovation opened up more distant regions of the country to economic development. However, the railway enthusiasts among the E-Class long-distance drivers notice that the clocks in the station area are all two hours slow: they are set to Moscow time, not Yekaterinburg time. The station itself is due for a full renovation in 2020. Good things take time, but the planning stage has already started.

While the guests take a closer look at the city and its surroundings, the Mercedes-Benz technicians look after the E-Class fleet: The vehicles have already been filled up with fresh diesel early in the morning, then washed and carefully examined. The tires on each car are checked and new routes fed into the navigation system. Not even the smallest detail is forgotten, such as replenishing the water for the windshield wiper system – an important safety factor in preparation for snow on the roads in Kazakhstan. All in all, the crew is extremely satisfied: the mechanical and electronic systems in the 36 diesel saloons are running as smoothly as on the first day of the tour.

Finally, the evening is devoted to a long-standing Russian tradition: Russian author Andrei Kurkov, who accompanied the E-Class Experience on the second stage, had explained the previous day that every large city in Russia has an opera house, a theater and a circus. And so the Yekaterinburg Circus was chosen as the perfect setting to farewell the participants from the second stage and to welcome the team members for the third stage of the drive, from Yekaterinburg to Almaty. The circus tent is a permanent installation constructed by architects Shvartsbreim and Korobov, and large parts of the interior are made from marble and various metals mined in the Urals. It has a seating capacity of 2600 and comprises two rings – one for the performances themselves and a smaller one for rehearsals. The only other dome construction of this kind anywhere else in the world is in Brazil. During the evening performance in the Russian city, the participants in the E-Class Experience are thrilled by the top-rate acts of local artists.

Paris–Beijing Tour 2006 / Day 14:  E-Class Convoy Reaches Kazakhstan

• Third-phase teams leave Yekaterinburg
• 14th day covers 335 miles to Kostanaj
• Weather: -1 to 11 degrees Celsius - changeable with bright spells

Kostanaj – After poor weather with some severe snowstorms, the third-phase teams encountered almost ideal conditions on the first day in their E-Class cars. On a dry, sunny day and with good road conditions, the contestants had only a short delay at the border crossing between Russia and Kazakhstan, where they received a very cordial welcome.

The first contestants reached the border in the early afternoon. They were greeted with great warmth on Kazakh soil by an official delegation accompanied by local folk musicians.

The tour cars were able to cross the border without any significant delay thanks to the intervention of the Kazakh President's office. The border controls generally take four to five hours to complete, but every car was carrying a thick folder with entry documents, so that the wait was reduced to about 50 minutes on average – some teams were on their way in just 15 minutes. Even the final contestants, who left the border for Kostanaj at 5.46 pm, were given a distinguished reception; the latecomers were escorted to the end of the stage, the square in front of Kostanaj city hall, by a police car with its blue lights flashing.

After 13 days on the road and one rest day, the tour has now crossed seven of the total of eight national frontiers that break up the teams' transcontinental journey. Having covered just under 4,225 miles, about one-half of the tour has now been completed. Apart from geographical borders, the contestants have also crossed a time zone (+ 1 hour) and passed an endurance milestone: the first of the 36 E-Class cars have already clocked up 100 driving hours.

On the evening before they left Yekaterinburg, the E-Class drivers were given an emotional send-off by the retiring second-phase contestants. In a spontaneous speech at the communal gala dinner in the Yekaterinburg Circus, Pradeep Paul, who had driven from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg for the South East Asian team, promised, "You can look forward to some tremendous times and a unique team spirit." Another team member described his experiences during the second phase, "We feel very much among friends, even though we're thousands of miles from home."

Besides creating a formidable team spirit, the second-phase drivers also achieved admirable fuel economy. With average consumption of 42.7 mpg (6.62 l/100 km) on the stage between St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the Benelux team beat the existing record that was posted during the first phase by 1.2 mpg (0.2 l/100 km).

The excursion to Yekaterinburg took the third-phase group off the original 1907 route for the first time as well. Instead of crossing the marshy lowlands of western Siberia, the stage skirted the Russian Cossack fortress of Chelyabinsk and endless miles of birch forests. During the trek the contestants became very familiar with the hospitality, kindness and curiosity of both the Russians and the Kazakhs.

Car 12 was made to stop by the indigenous police, for example, only because they were fascinated by its striking design and Cyrillic logos. Other teams were invited to a typical local lunch by an Azerbaijani, Shamil Shirinov, who runs a car repair business in Cologne, and the operator of a service station, for the simple pleasure of entertaining such exceptional guests.

The evening in Kostanaj was celebrated in similarly hearty mood in a medieval-style restaurant. Yakine Nikolaievitch Leonid, chief advisor to the mayor, expressed his wish to the 80 drivers, representing 20 nations, that their shared experience would reinforce the friendship between the participating countries. He closed by wishing all the teams the very best of luck during the rest of the tour.

Long-distance drive Paris–Beijing 2006 / Day 15:  Vast expanses and the new Kazakhstan

• The E-Class convoy reaches the Kazakh capital, Astana
• Fifteenth stage covers a good 435 miles to Astana
• Weather: clear and sunny, maximum temperature 15 degrees Celsius
• New daily record with average consumption of 47.9 mpg (5.9 l/100 km)

Astana – While the topical satire "Borat" is putting the emerging nation of Kazakhstan on the map, the contestants in the E-Class Experience today had an opportunity to witness the country's anomalies and the hospitality of its inhabitants at first hand. After traversing the vast expanses of the Kazakh Steppes, the E-Class cars finally reached the new boomtown of Astana, which succeeded Alma-Ata as the country's capital in 1998.

The day was dawning with a brilliant sunrise as the teams departed for Astana which, with temperature differences of as much as 80 degrees Celsius, is regarded as the world's second coldest metropolis. With temperatures around freezing in Kostanai and midday values of about 15 degrees Celsius en route, driving conditions for the E-Class teams were good. The roads, on the other hand, varied greatly, ranging from excellent to downright hazardous. In view of the numerous pot-holes, a lapse in the drivers' concentration could have proved costly.

Thanks to skilled use of the gears and full exploitation of the car's roll behaviour, the Poland team improved the stage consumption record from 47.0 mpg (6.0 l/100 km) to 47.9 mpg (5.9 l/100 km) on the very flat route. In fact, they beat their own previous record, posted on the stage between Riga and Tallinn.

While taking care not to burn excessive fuel, the crew revelled in the carefree experience of driving in Kazakhstan. Golden fields, houses painted every shade from turquoise to sky blue, black soil and a beautiful, burning autumnal sky provided the backdrop for their many personal encounters on the roadside. These included several Kazakh weddings (yesterday was Saturday), but also cattle, sheep, goats and horses accompanied by cowboys, which nonchalantly wandered across the road even as an ambulance approached at speed with its blue lights flashing.

Joe Fellner summarised his impression of Kazakhstan's vastness as follows: "At Easter you can already see who's coming for Christmas." Rolf Deinzer, on board car No. 6, concluded, "I really enjoyed the great sense of freedom. I hadn't anticipated such feelings among all this beauty." Alongside him, enjoying the ride in the "world class" car, Michael von Zitzewitz, was able to confirm what he had been told beforehand – the flatness, the sun, the sheer space . The chairman of the Frankfurt Convention Centre, which is represented in 130 countries, had asked the managing director in Moscow, a Kazakh, what to expect.

The destination, Astana, stands in stark contrast to the immense Steppes. With a population of half a million people, the capital formed in 1998 embodies the new Kazakhstan. Ten years ago still a typical small town, the capital of this mineral-rich country is now characterised by strong economic growth and is regarded as a two-paced city, embracing both the lethargy of the Steppes and the turbo-charged speed of its construction boom.

According to plans drafted by the Japanese urban architect, Kisho Kurokawa, Astana is to become a fully developed eco-city by 2030. One of the current prestige projects is an enormous peace pyramid designed by the celebrated architect, Sir Norman Foster. Already fêted as a "modern wonder of the world" before its envisaged completion by the end of this year, the glass structure is to serve as a global meeting place for people of different religions. Its size will put both London's St. Paul's Cathedral and the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in the shade.

The day wound down at a reception high above the illuminated streets of Astana on the 22nd floor of the Club Parisienne, where the project leader, Florian Urbitsch of DaimlerChrysler greeted the deputy governor and deputy mayor, Amanshaev Ermek Amirhanovich, who gave a welcoming address. Amirhanovich expressly thanked Dr. Galia Shunusaliyeva, the local representative of German business in Kazakhstan, whose active support and personal intervention facilitated the visit. On Sunday the contestants are heading for Balhash, where host families are already looking forward to their encounter with the E-Class convoy and its crews.

Paris–Beijing 2006 Tour / Day 16:  The international language of hospitality

• Balkhash greets the drivers in the E-Class Experience like film stars
• Sixteenth daily stage covers just under 600 kilometres
• Weather: changeable with sunny spells, maximum temperature 13 degrees Celsius

Astana – The journey from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to Balkhash, across the endless expanse of the region known as the Hunger Steppes, ended with a huge reception for the participants of the E-Class diesel marathon. For several weeks the residents of the copper-processing city on the shore of Lake Balkhash had been preparing an unforgettable stay for their international guests. Rather than staying in hotels, the drivers are to spend Sunday night with local host families and get a very personal feel for the hospitality of the Kazakh people.

"We were greeted here just like film stars," remarked an astonished Jan Zengel, representing the eBay E-Class. He was referring to the countless children and youngsters who had surrounded every one of the 36 diesel saloons as they arrived, asking the drivers for their autographs. Following the directions of the local police, the entire convoy, comprising 60 E-Class cars and back-up vehicles, parked in front of the magnificent classicist arts centre, a little way inland from the banks of Lake Balkhash. With a surface area of more than 18.000 square kilometres, the lake ranks among the world's greatest. It is also remarkable for its mix of freshwater in the western part and high salt content in the east.
The special atmosphere of the visit was reflected inside the communal building as well. All the principal administrative and business representatives of the city's 74,000 inhabitants were present to welcome the drivers, including the mayor, Kajimurat Tokushev; his deputies, Talgat Ejibaev and Linza Kvan; the director of protocol, Sandugash Asilbekova; the mayor's aide, Oljas Kulikov; and the general director of the city's main employer, the Balkhashtsetmet copper works, Erjan Ospanov.

In his address, the mayor said, "120 different ethnic groups live in our multicultural country, and we respect and tolerate each other." He spoke with pride of the good educational opportunities available in the city, which is home to two universities. The mayor presented the E-Class Experience project leader, Florian Urbitsch, with an indigenous costume, comprising a shapan, which is a blue velvet coat richly decorated with gold, and matching headgear, as a symbol of the city's hospitality. In return, on behalf of Mercedes-Benz, Urbitsch handed over a tour team jacket and a certificate commemorating the outstanding reception given by the citizens of Balkhash.

In view of the city's modest hotel capacities, the mayor of Balkhash had personally arranged for host families to offer the teams accommodation. The hosts who provided beds for the contestants in their private homes included the dean of one of the city's universities, doctors, lawyers, a German teacher, the director of the copper works, the head of the local KGB, and various businessmen, such as the proprietor of the local internet café and the owner of a photographic store.

Before leaving for their quarters, the hosts and guests got to know each other at a communal dinner in the arts centre, featuring local delicacies. Hospitality proved to be an international language, as one of the tour members, Frank Dlugos, explains, "I'm staying with the director of the municipal utility, and all at once he started peeling an orange for me. He couldn't speak either German or English, but he simply wanted to do me a favour. I was very touched." Dr. Volker Ahrendt added, "Their kindliness is overwhelming; the people's sincerity simply has to be reciprocated."

Even before the E-Class Experience tour left Paris, Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of DaimlerChrysler AG and Head of Mercedes Car Group, had promised, "This trip will also be a fascinating journey of discovery in other cultures. You will hear strange tongues, come across the unknown and even make new friends. In this respect, the E Class diesel marathon also represents a unique inter-cultural exchange."

The Kazakhs had already shown their great affability on Sunday morning in Astana. At a rather cold 6 degrees Celsius under a glorious blue sky, the 36 E-Class cars formed a 500-yard-long convoy as they left the tour hotel with a police escort to inspect the capital's new seat of government. The journalists in the cars were amazed to see so many people giving them a send-off from the roadside. Astana originates from a 19th century Russian fortress called Akmolinsk. In 1961 the city adopted the name Tselinograd, before becoming Aqmola after Kasachstan obtained its sovereignty. When the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nasarbayev, decided to relocate the government from Alma-Ata to the centre of the huge country in 1994, the city was renamed Astana, which translates simply as "capital city". Since then a new centre with parliamentary buildings, ministries and embassies has been under construction in the midst of an enormous country estate on the southern banks of the River Ishimo. According to the master plan conceived by the chief architect, Vladimir Laptev, the colossal site is scheduled for completion by 2030. It reminds many visitors of Dubai.

Volker Ahrendt summarises a Sunday on which the tour was treated like a presidential convoy, by saying, "Astana is spectacular. The futuristic buildings and new projects, as well as the freedom to occupy all four lanes, were amazing. His two sons, Paul (9) and Jakob (7), will be following the next stage of their proud father's journey on the internet as well. It covers a journey of about 650 kilometres to Kazakhstan's former capital, Alma-Ata, now Almaty.

Long-distance drive Paris–Beijing 2006 / Day 17:  Wistfully onward to Almaty

• E-Class Experience convoy reaches the former Alma-Ata
• Seventeenth stage covers about 400 miles to Almaty
• Weather: changeable with fine spells, maximum temperature 23 degrees Celsius

Almaty – Day 17 of the E-Class Experience was marked by plentiful impressions of the night spent with the Kazakh host families in Balkhash, but also by appreciable tiredness as a result of the efforts expended in the past few days. This was the final day behind the wheel of the E-Class cars for this third-phase group of drivers; it took them to Almaty, a city with more then one million inhabitants.
As they took leave of Balkhash, the drivers were clearly moved by the hospitality of their hosts; their comments ranged from "incredibly inspiring" and "a unique experience" to "one of my best travel experiences ever – simply wonderful". Just after dawn the crews assembled to depart in convoy from the arts centre car park. After the previous evening's official gala dinner, many of the host families had invited their guests to a three-course meal, prepared as a token of high regard for the visitors. In many cases the crews were engaged in friendly conversation until well after midnight, sharing experiences with their hosts and toasting their new-found friendships.

The drivers were still a little tired and melancholy when they reached the day's first check-point. They had driven out of town to the banks of Lake Balkhash for a group photograph on its rocky shores. The constriction about half-way along its length makes it the only lake on earth whose body of water is half fresh and half salt.

With a surface area of 7,025 square miles, it is almost half the size of Switzerland and, after the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan's second largest inland water body. As the cars traversed the surrounding Seven Rivers region, which is known for its fertile soil, the temperature climbed from 14 to a balmy 23 degrees Celsius.

Having spent the previous days on very flat land, the contestants were now in hilly country again, and occasionally caught sight of lush green grass amidst the greyish yellow Steppes landscape. Further variety was provided by camel herds, grazing to the left and right of the road, where horses or cattle would have been a more commonplace sight.

On his final day behind the wheel, Richard Yarrow commented, "I found the roads to be in a much better condition than I had anticipated. The young Brit had become good friends not only with his Swedish co-driver, Kenneth Olausson, but also with their E 320 CDI, "It was the perfect car for the tour; it was easy to drive and the engine performed exceptionally well." Kenneth praised the E-Class for its great comfort, and remarked, "But it also has a fantastic 6-cylinder diesel engine."

As evening fell, the teams reached Almaty, surrounded by the snow-topped peaks of the Tian-Shan mountain system. Formerly the capital city known as Alma-Ata, it remains the country's cultural, academic and economic hub. Some 1.2 million of Kazakhstan's population of 15 million people live here. Most of the drivers spent a quiet evening enjoying the local food served in the oriental luxury of the Alasha restaurant.