Breaking Ground in Beijing; China Is Developing at a Rapid Rate - Both Economically and Culturally. Cherry Wilson Explores Beijing, Which Is Shaping Up to Be a Hip City Break Destination
As I wander through an abandoned military factory on the outskirts of the city, I feel as if I've just stepped into a warped dream. In one room, I'm greeted by a life-size model of a middle-aged woman squatting down to lay eggs, with just a TV screen for a head.
Walking through the maze of corridors and exhibition spaces, I find myself weirdly drawn to a spaced-out pink panda sprawled across a gigantic brick wall.
On my way out I bump into three dragons wearing business suits, their mouths drooling as they clutch wads of cash tight to their chest.
"Is this legal?" I wonder, reflecting on the artist's satirical take on China's Cultural Revolution.
Prostitution, communism and greed all feature heavily in the complex of galleries, exhibitions and boutiques which make up the Beijing 798 Art Zone.
The former factory, which housed up to 20,000 workers in the 1950s, has been transformed into a haven for artists and designers to express themselves freely.
It's a surprise to find such freedom in a Communist country - I almost expect a government soldier to come out from the dark shadows and whisk me away in handcuffs as I wander through the never-ending corridors of contemporary art.
But after a short break in China's capital, it's clear that the city is ready to move on from the horrors of its past and emerge reborn as a liberal powerhouse.
Beijing has worked tirelessly over the last 10 years to rid itself of the hard-line reputation often portrayed to the western world.
"This country has a lot more freedom than before," says father-of-one Michael, who has lived in Beijing for 10 years.
"Thirty years ago, if you asked people about the Communist Party, they wouldn't speak. But now people feel they can speak more freely about the past and that's reflected in modern art and culture all around the city.
"Beijing is progressing to make things better for the next generation.
"If you want to go back 30 years, move to North Korea."
As we find ourselves stuck in traffic on our way into the city centre, it's easy to see signs of Beijing's economic boom decorating the skyline.
Large, sprawling buildings - with Dutch, German and American influence - point clearly to a city of the future.
The five-star Raffles Beijing Hotel, which is more than 100 years old, is one of the few historical buildings to withstand China's rapid reinvention.
Originally a small shop owned by a French man, the hotel is now owned by the Communist Party.
"This will be here long after we're all gone," says the hotel's ambassador John Spooner, pointing to the original timber sprung dance floor in the Writers Bar where Chairman Mao entertained ladies during his Communist reign.
The hotel's unique history is one of its major selling points; here it's possible to enjoy the grandeur of old world China and the luxury of a modern hotel.
As I step out onto the balcony of my suite and see the glimmering entrance of the Forbidden City just metres away, I understand why this hotel is a favourite with royals and celebrities.
Unfortunately, not all of Beijing's past has been so well preserved. On the outskirts of town, many of the city's famous hutongs (narrow streets and alleys) have been destroyed by developers.
I meet one British expat who is keen to hang on to her one-storey shack with no toilet and limited running water. …