We probably shouldn't have giggled when our lovely Beijing guide referred to Adidas as a Chinese brand. The German sportswear label is as much a part of the sensory experience of her city as cigarette smoke and fermented bean porridge.

I remember having a similar feeling when I landed in Los Angeles. The McDonald's, Starbucks and Hollywood signs that flashed by as I drove to Santa Monica were familiar as the backdrop of at least a dozen movies. The signs were an essential part of the city.

In Beijing, it was the labels — Adidas, Gucci, Kappa, Burberry, Converse — that were everywhere. Again, it felt like a sort of homecoming, or perhaps it was more a feeling of having landed at the control terminal of the universe.

Beijing is a crazy city of contradictions. Streets are pristine, and for every grubby footprint there is a city maintenance worker with a big willow branch of a broom, yet the air is so steamed-up with exhaust that it singes your nostrils.

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It is probably because they are busy protecting their airways from the pollution that all the residents, particularly the snappy businessmen who are leading their country's race to the future, busily puff away on cigarettes indoors.

Realising there was a bit of a smog problem prompted the authorities to cushion the 10-lane boulevards with trees ahead of the city's Olympic hosting duties in 2008.

High-rise apartments beat them to the sun every day, but the lush canopies make Beijing appear green from the ground, even though anyone arriving by air will note it's actually covered with a thick layer of brown gas.

That probably wouldn't be the case if everyone still rode rickshaws but now for every squeaky old thing there seem to be five shiny Audis.

Similarly, for every traditional street vendor there are now about three shopping malls.

Despite the competitive playing field, vendors prefer to sell en masse — rows and rows and rows of Maoist sun hats and identical elitist knock-off handbags — but stall keepers show diversity in their approach to sales. One dishes out flattery, while her neighbour launches a physical attack on any haggler who backs out of a sale.

Between the manic ring roads and malls are pockets of manicured gardens that look like they have jumped out of provincial postcards. As the sun rises, groups of elderly moving like liquid practise their Tai Chi. A young, poker-faced rake of a soldier stands opposite, frozen, angry, a massive weapon at the ready. The payback for a safe, protected city is that you could have your head blown apart at any minute.

In less regimented areas, like the roads, it's more a survival of the fittest than survival of the sage. Lining up next to the elderly on rusty bikes, are "illegal taxis", like pie-warmers on three wheels. They weave through intersections, a thin sheet of malleable tin protecting them from the oncoming European machines.

Despite being home to more than 22 million people and 4 million cars, the city gives off an overwhelming sense of space. Sitting between the lovely old government buildings, casually floating on a pond, is an enormous silver dome, the National Theatre apparently.

It's on the way to the Forbidden City, 980 palatial buildings bang smack in the middle of the city, and adjacent to the most anticipated, yet censored, of all attractions, Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately on days when a foreign dignitary is visiting, security tape prevents the public from traversing it. Six militia stride past lest you try.

"This is where we have our national celebrations," says our guide pointing at the expanse of concrete stretching into the haze. "It can hold one million people."

Beijing could be at once the cleanest and dirtiest, the most polite, and rudest, the most futuristic and most ancient city in the world.

The toxicity of the place is intoxicating and I would not feel I was contradicting myself by saying I want to return, to breathe it in, deeper, for longer than just 48 hours.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon offer daily connections between Auckland and Beijing via Hong Kong.

Getting around: Adventure World runs independent and small-group journeys through China.