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 historic 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 English expat who is keen to hang onto her one-storey shack with no toilet and limited running water.
But as the government ploughs money into creative industries such as fashion, media and textiles, the hutongs are fast being transformed into a cultural business district.
Fortunately, many have been saved thanks to the government's investment in creative industries; a number of hutongs are being reinvented as chic cafes, retro boutiques and antique shops which wouldn't look out of place in London or New York.
"This is the equivalent of the Shoreditch of Beijing," says Nels, the editor of a Beijing style magazine, referring to the arty-cool region of East London.
"The internet and travel has redefined culture in Beijing. People have more knowledge about the outside world.
"Five years ago it was normal to meet people who've never been outside of China. Now everybody is going abroad.
"It's changing the way they think about the world."
A fine example of Beijing's cultural development is the exclusive, appointment-only Wuhao-curated shop.
Tucked away behind a red steel door, many tourists would simply walk by without stumbling on this hidden gem.
But inside is an ambitious project which uses the Chinese philosophy of the five elements - wood, fire, earth, metal, water - to provide a platform for emerging local artists and designers.
Founder Isabelle Pascal directs me to a rack of black dresses and pulls out a long gothic number thick with lace and a short mini encrusted with crystals.
"Our designers have taken their own interpretation of what the little black dress really means," she explains proudly.
Surrounded by unique pieces of jewellery and bespoke furniture all made by local artists, it's clear there's never been a more exciting time to set your creative spirit free in Beijing.
But for all its economic and cultural leaps, the city is still fiercely proud of its rich tradition and history.
Dragging myself out of bed at 5.30am, I make my way - bleary-eyed - to Tiananmen Square for the daily flag-raising ceremony.
I'm joined by a crowd of more than one million people, old and young, who have come to pay homage to their nation and proudly see their country's flag waving in the fresh morning air.
A large portrait of Chairman Mao hangs outside the Forbidden City, paying homage to the founder of the People's Republic of China.
Beijing's unique attraction will always be its rich history, with tourists flocking to have their snaps taken on the Great Wall of China, but there's also reason to be excited by this city's future.
The world's eyes are sure to be watching with anticipation, and just a little hint of jealousy.
IF YOU GO:
Fly China Southern Airlines to Guilin from Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne with return economy fares starting from $1063 and return business fares from $3943 (including taxes and subject to conditions).
China Southern Airlines flies double daily between Sydney and Guangzhou, double daily from Melbourne, four times a week from Brisbane and three times a week from Perth. It also offers daily direct services from Auckland to Guangzhou.
For more information on China Southern Airlines call 1300 889 628 or visit www.flychinasouthern.com.
STAYING THERE: Rooms at Raffles Beijing Hotel start from 4100 CNY ($A627) per night, based on two people sharing with breakfast. For more information call +86 10 6526 3388 or visit www.raffles.com/beijing for seasonal rates and offers.