By Andreas Dharmawan
A quick glance will not note anything special about this white 2010 A4L. The extra 2.36 inches leg room for the back passengers doesn’t impact the dynamic roof line and the original well proportioned sporty silhouette. Unless there is a standard A4 next to it, most people will not even notice the difference. However, once we sit in the back, the extra leg room is greatly appreciated. Since 2000, Audi has been very successful in selling A6L in China. A4L is definitely following its brother’s footstep.
Audi in China
For 22 years, Audi has been the number one premium brand in China. In 2007, China became the largest Audi export market surpassing UK and US. In 2009, there are about a total of 600,000 Audi cars. Based on the increasing number of yearly sales, China is poised to become the largest Audi export market in the world.
This achievement is not only due to the fact that Audi invested very early, but more importantly it is also due to Audi’s persistence and perseverance in quality and craftsmanship. Additionally, because of its long tenure, Audi understands the local tastes. By listening intently to its customers, Audi has been able to customize its lines to meet the Chinese requirements. Today, at Changchun, northeast of China, an Audi factory produces A6L, A4L, and Q5 for this specific market.
It doesn’t take market research or a special inquiry to the Audi country office to learn which model is the best selling. Just look around the highways and city streets—we cannot go for a mile without running into at least one black A6L. It is very common to see a wedding procession that consists of over a dozen black A6Ls and some black A8Ls on weekends. In recent years, people in China started to desire other models such as Q5, A4L, and TT.
Foreign or international driving licenses are not recognized in China. A foreigner must apply for a local permit to drive. So, for this trip, I am being chauffeured around instead. Being a passenger in an Audi, which I rarely do, gives me a different perspective.
Beijing roads are in grid, so they are relatively easy to study. There are ring roads around the city—they are not circular but rectangular—with Tiananmen as the center. Today, our first stop of the day is the Forbidden City. This historical place was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO and has the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Built in 1406, it housed 24 emperors and two dynasties.
After walking through a massive towering gate, we arrive at the outer courtyard. From this vantage point the vastness of the place can be felt. Today, there are close to 1,000 buildings with over 8,000 rooms in an area that is about one fifthNew York City Central Park. Images from The Last Emperor movie come to mind. The yellow wavy roofs, large and tall red columns, ornate carvings on the walls and horizontal beams, vibrant and colorful mosaics, and marble floors highlight the imperial architecture. The gate to the inner courtyard seems so far away from where we stand. Excited, we start to walk towards it.
Turning left from Dongchang’an Jie onto the street that lines the Tiananmen square, we head south towards Qianmen Street. Originally built 570 years ago during the Zhentong Period of the Ming Dynasty, Qianmen Street has gone through several renovation projects over many generations. This saturated-by-history street today features colorful and ornate Chinese structures modeled on the ones from the 1920’s and 30’s.
Many buildings have red, gold, blue intricate mosaics, bright red thick columns, and shiny green roofs. The grand and tall five arches Qianmen Wupailou structure welcomes people to this pedestrian-and-tram-only shopping street. Birdcage, rattle drum, and sugar-coated haws streetlamps invite first comers to continually explore the hidden gems. And, at nights, the buildings on this street glow like gold bars.
During the Ming Dynasty this street served as a trading and shopping center. Today, almost six centuries later, it is still true to its original purpose. It is as easy to shop for traditional garments worn by the people of Beijing for centuries as to shop for modern western clothing. International western brands such as H&M, Rolex, Swatch, Zara, and Sephora can be found next to stores selling silk pajamas, Chinese knots, cloth shoes, and artworks.
The eastern scents of Peking duck, deep-fried twisted dough stick, and steamed dumplings mixed with the modern aromas of western franchise cafes, fried chicken and hamburger fast food restaurants make us think about food even when we are not hungry. A trip to this place won’t be complete without dining at the famous Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant. Originally founded in 1864, the relatively new elegant large and airy Chinese dining hall, filled with ornaments and giant paper chandeliers, transports diners back in time. Each duck served here comes with a certificate of authenticity. Here, the passion for making the perfect Peking duck is similar to the one for making the perfect wine.
One of Audi passions is to ensure that the Audi experience around the world is the same and consistent. From the passenger perspective, I notice such consistency in the level of comfort and luxury. The high quality and craftsmanship of the interior and the instruments, including the tactile feel, are the same as the A4 model in US and Europe.
This A4 features the MMI instrument vertically between the climate control instrument and the main air condition vents on the central console instead of horizontally behind the gear shifter. The MMI button is proportionally smaller in size and doesn’t have the mini joystick in the center since this car doesn’t have the 3G satellite navigational system.
Great Wall – Mutianyu
Following the morning exploration of the city center, we head out of town in the northeast direction. After about one hour drive (60km), through some elevated city highways and ring roads, Jingcheng Express way, and local access roads towards Huairou city, we follow the sign for Mutianyu through a winding mountain road. There are several villages with narrow and uneven gravel roads to pass.
The longer wheelbase and the customized chassis and suspension for the Chinese roads make this ride very comfortable. And despite the fact the suspension is tuned for comfort, when driven through the switchbacks, this A4L feels very confident. The 2.0 TFSI produces ample power to give us some exhilarating ride on the highways and mountain roads.
The Great Wall is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, built and maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century, and stretches for 6700 km. One would have to drive on I-80 from San Francisco, California to Manhattan, New York, and then drive back as far as Iowa City, Iowa to cover the comparable distance.
There are several designated areas for tourists to visit the Great Wall because the majority of the structures are not maintained and crumbling. Mutianyu is less crowded than the popular Badaling but it offers an equally spectacular experience.
There are two options to get to the wall from the parking lot; one hour steep hike or a few minutes cable car ride. We opt for the cable car ride. The view from the lift chair is breathtaking. The deep valleys, rolling tops, and the immenseness of the land instill a sense of awe. To get back down to the parking lot, during the summer time, visitors can take a luge-like slide. The slide track serpentines down the steep mountain side. Unfortunately today, the slide is not open . Snow can still be seen on the ground and it is very cold.
Once we get to the top of one of the watch towers, we are mesmerized by the view. Mutianyu Great Wall winds just slightly over 2 km tracing rolling mountains and high and narrow ridges. Looking in one direction we can see the wall snakes up and down the mountain’s contour. The saw-tooth shape of the parapets reminds us the original purpose of this mega structure. The low fog today shrouds some distant parts of the wall. The lush green vegetation carpets the surrounding grounds. Many trees around here are just as old as the wall. We walk the wall in silence hoping that these ancient stones will tell us some stories.
Hutongs and Nanluogu Xiang
Back in Beijing, crisscrossing the city center, through the passenger windows, there are small alleyways tucked within large blocks of modern skyscrapers. These alleyways are known as Hutongs and there are thousands of them. Strolling or cycling is the best way to explore and experience how the city used to be nearly 800 years ago. Since Genghis Khan’s time, the people of Beijing have built single-story homes with tiled roofs, facing into a central courtyard. From the labyrinth of crumbling grey alleyways, one cannot see the houses as they are protected by high walls.
From a corner of a Hutong, one can watch children playing soccer, men working in a tiny workshop dimly lit by a single bulb, street vendors on a bicycle with a wagon attached selling foods, rickshaw drivers taking locals home, old men in black outfits carrying songbirds in bamboo cages, and a medicine man scooping a cup of mysterious elixir from a big jar filled with yellowish liquid and hundreds of dead scorpions.
Audi A6Ls and A8Ls are also often seen parked in Hutongs. The residences here are very creative in finding small openings to park their cars. The long wheelbase version of A6 and A4 are very popular in China because these versions bring the luxury, comfort, and experience that are usually only available in the top of the line full-size class into the small and mid-size classes. To date, among global luxury car makers, only Audi recognized this market opportunity, and the Chinese are welcoming and embracing these models.
Just north of the Forbidden City, invoked by the entrepreneurial spirit of local designers, Nanlougu Xiang evolved from a typical Hutong into the city center of Bohemian life. Here, locals go to shop for home-grown fashion, jewelry, artworks and crafts at hip boutiques. At night, the alley is filled with aromas of international cuisines. The new generation lounges at bars and restaurants over dumplings, tapas, and glowing cocktails. For us, Nanlougu Xiang is a perfect place to find keepsakes to bring home.
Audi Forum, Beijing
For Audi enthusiasts, a visit to Beijing will not be complete without visiting Audi Forum in Beijing. From the Tiananmen gate, the Forum is three (large) city blocks to the east. Located in one of the most prestigious shopping malls in Beijing, Oriental Plaza, this Forum attracts the most visitors among Audi Forums in the world. Over 1000 people stop by the Forum daily. In the evening, the Forum also hosts many events covering a variety of topics; health, wine, jewelry, charity, music, and others.
A white menacing Audi R8 V10 greets visitors at the main entrance. Other cars that are displayed here are A8 W12, S8, RS6, Q5, Q7 and the upcoming A1. One main attraction that is unique to this Audi Forum is the large sinuous multimedia wall. The dynamic and engaging multimedia program displays short video clips on racing history, design and manufacturing processes, and lifestyles.
For the discerning future Audi owners, the Audi Exclusive Design Studio at Audi Forum offers a large array of customization options. Here, paint strips fill up a wall of this studio providing an array of color shades to pick. A variety of leather, fabric, and wood insert combination options, color and texture, are available to the customer who wants to create his own interior ambient color design. A collection of sporty rims are also on display for anyone who wants to customize his car external experience.
There is no sales person at this Forum. Existing and prospective owners are greeted by Brand and Product Specialists. They are there to help visitors learn more about Audi heritage, technologies, and product lines. The contemporary modern style interior, the collections of Audi historical replicas, and the current Audi product lines and options in this Forum, together, produce a relaxing and inviting, technology and art museum ambience.
Sanlitun Bar Street
Traffic during commute hours in Beijing can be very tiring. Long waits and bumper to bumper cars moving at a snail’s pace are daily occurrences. The weather in Beijing can be draining to its inhabitants. Bone-chilling temperatures with arctic wind chill factor in the early spring can be made worse by a sand storm coming from the desert. When this happens, the sky is turned into brownish yellow and the visibility is reduced to just a few tens of meters. Additionally, it is very hard to breathe as there are so many particles in the air.
Thankfully, in this apocalyptic weather, our A4L isolates us from the nature’s wrath. The front and back silky-smooth leather seats, the extra leg room in the back, the noise reduction material used in the car interior, and the concert-hall quality audio system create a tranquil oasis for us. The rear passengers can adjust the rear temperature separately from the front by adjusting the controls found just behind the middle front-passenger hand rest. Being driven in an A4L, I experience what the Chinese market wants; exceptional comforts, abundant interior space, superb quality, unparallel luxury, and dynamic design.
Before we retire to our hotel, we visit Sanlitun Bar Street. Located in the Embassy District of Chaoyang, this neighborhood caters to the International palates. Many travelers stay at the nearby Westin, Intercontinental, and Hilton as English is the official language, and American Apparel, Apple, Adidas, Starbuck, McDonald, and Hooters are certain to be nearby.
Over two dozen bars string this narrow tree-lined Sanlitun street. Each bar offers a unique entertainment to its expats and local patrons. A dance club, and bars of all sorts including punk, Irish, karaoke, cigar, jazz/blues, table dance, Belgian, sport, and fish-and-chip are just a few genres that can be spotted easily from the outside colorful decors and neon lights. Having trouble to choose one, we decide to just start at the beginning of the street and we will see how far we get at the end of the night.