This rally is much more than just an adventure on four wheels. It is accompanied by teams of mechanics, and even by medical personnel. It is the ultimate experience for both human and machine. For example on China National Highway 219, which holds the world altitude record for highways with an average of 4,000 metres above sea level – or when crossing passes, where the classics had to climb to over 5,000 metres. This is also where oxygen canisters for the drivers and fuel boosters for the cars came into occasional use, as 95- to 98-octane petrol is simply not available up there.
Intrepid trio: The “Böhringer Pagoda”, the “Stroke Eight” and the G-Model in eager anticipation of the next mountain stage.
Spectacular stretch: Countless hairpin bends lead up to the base camp at the foot of the world’s highest mountain.
The New Silk Road Rally celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2018. It always begins in Germany in the late summer, passing through eastern Europe and the expanses of Asia to China. This time the long-distance tour started in Hamburg and ended in Hong Kong, with 46 daily stretches and 14 rest days. The participants: 28 men and women in 14 classic cars, six of which were made by Mercedes-Benz. The drivers from Switzerland and Germany expected temperatures ranging between a sauna and a deep-freezer. 14,000 kilometres. Eight countries: Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Highlights such as the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas, then the delta of the Pearl River on the South China Sea. Our photographer accompanied the participants on the most exciting stretches. What memories remain of this tour? After their return we met the drivers of a “Pagoda”, a “Stroke Eight” and a G-Model. This is their story.
Kurt Infanger acquired his Mercedes-Benz 230 SL (W 113) dating from 1964 a year before the rally, with one aim in mind: “I had it converted to make it practically identical to the famous ‘Böhringer Pagoda’ in which racing legend Eugen Böhringer achieved spectacular long-distance victories in the early 1960s,” says the 69-year-old. “The car already fascinated me as a child.” And as he is a “passionate driver and true mountain-lover” himself, he wanted to see how he and his car would cope on this ultra-long rally along the Silk Road.
“The time was right for a highlight like this. We’re both retired, and we wanted to do something really crazy together.” His wife Susi, 67, fondly nudges his arm.
So the Infangers decided to take part in the New Silk Road Rally. Their doctor gave them the all-clear, and the car with its special underbody protection was ready to go.
So how was it? “14,174 kilometres of highs,” he enthuses. “We drove through the Pamir Mountains and Himalayas for weeks at an altitude of 4,000 metres and more,” says his wife. “It was superb, breathtaking and grandiose. It was interesting to see the division of roles between the men and women on such an extreme tour. The men almost exclusively concerned themselves with technical aspects, while the women provided the social cohesion.”
Engine check-up: taking a look under the bonnet. The 230 SL runs like a Swiss watch.
Although the air was often very thin, the Infangers were repeatedly compensated by the many natural wonders and encounters with people along the route. They only used the oxygen canister for a short time: it had two thin tubes that were attached to the wearer’s nose. And the 230 SL? It ran as reliably as a Swiss watch. It was only when flying back from Hong Kong to Zurich that they realised what they had achieved – when they saw the plane’s flightpath on the screen. “My goodness, Susi, pinch me,” Kurt Infanger said to her. “Have we really just covered the entire route by car – or was it just a dream?” “It was a dream, Kurt,” his wife answered with a smile.
Andreas Honegger, 62, a businessman from the Upper Zurich region, was already an experienced long-distance driver before the rally. Driving his 220 (W 115) petrol model produced in 1969, he had already completed long tours through southern Asia and northern Europe. “This time I wanted to drive through the wide expanses of China – and park my car in front of Mount Everest,” he says. His daughter Tatjana, 23, a student at London’s King’s College of Liberal Arts, accompanied him as co-driver on the high-altitude stretches. “My only condition was that we had a good sound system on board,” she says. Indeed, they both had their reservations about being together so long and so intensively in a confined space, as they were prone to coming into conflict fairly quickly.
So was he the sole decision-maker and she the dutiful daughter? “Fortunately it wasn’t like that. We learned to appreciate each other much more on the journey,” says Tatjana. “After all, we were spending practically 24 hours a day together, and felt a new closeness,” her father confirms. Both found it “absolutely sublime” to enjoy the shared and intense feeling of freedom and independence in the robust and dependable Stroke Eight.
Densely populated Switzerland and the hustle and bustle of London were a world away. It truly touched their hearts.
Good-luck symbol: The key fob of the Stroke Eight reads “Safe Journey”.
She collected stones for her friends and washed them in the mountain lakes. And he simply enjoyed “the stretches of sometimes over 250 kilometres with nothing but stony desert, high plateaus, glaciers and hardly any oncoming traffic on the absolutely straight roads. And of course my grown-up daughter next to me, with her cool music, her intelligent ideas – and also the hot noodle soup she sometimes prepared for us in the hotel in the morning.”
“The Rally was a lifelong dream come true,” says industrialist Tom Rüggeberg, 79. He intentionally purchased a car that had already mastered the Silk Road: a red 230 GE (W 460) produced in 1983, in which the previous owner had driven to Shanghai.
Tom Rüggeberg’s wife opted not to accompany him, but his daughter Eve was willing. Her father gave her the trip as a 50th birthday present.
His wife had only one wish for her when they departed: to bring him back safe and sound. And that is what Eve did. “Whenever my lips turned pale in the mountains, Eve gave me oxygen,” Tom Rüggeberg explains. They took turns at the wheel. The thinner the air became, the more often she took over. And the highlight of the journey? Tom Rüggeberg does not have to think for long: “In the Himalayas I heard that I had become a great-grandfather. That was simply overwhelming!”
Attraction: The drivers and their classic cars soon become a popular photo motif in the Himalayas.
Andreas Flück organises dream journeys with his team at China Tours.
What’s the great appeal of long-distance rallies such as these?
For us, these tours in classic cars are always also a mobile intercultural encounter. Wherever we appear, practically the whole village comes out to meet us and we arouse both curiosity and enthusiasm.
In what way?
Where have you come from, where are you going? These are the questions local people ask us. And we start a lively conversation right away.
What else can participants in the New Silk Road Rally expect?
Everybody must be well aware of what an adventure like this means. It’s a physical and mental challenge. Perhaps you get to know yourselves in a completely different way – both yourself and your co-driver.
So this rally really is a journey of self-discovery?
When is the next one planned, and where?
On 24 August we’ll be leaving Kurfürstendamm in Berlin for Beijing, taking the Silk Road in 52 days to mark the 25th anniversary of these twinned cities. It’ll be yet another amazing adventure!
Cold start: The daily stretches ranged from just under 100 to a maximum of 600 kilometres. The departure time was usually very early.