JUST off the Beijing airport expressway on the banks of the Elm River lies a dusty, wind-blown ghost town. Apart from the security guards quietly dozing by the gatehouses, the high-walled housing complex appears almost deserted, with virtually the only sound being an occasional plane taking off from the nearby Capital Airport. But this is not another ancient village abandoned by the peasantry in favour of more lucrative downtown dwellings. This is Legend Garden Villas, a luxury housing development, completed a year ago and touted by owner China International Trust and Investment Corp (CITIC) as providing a ''lifestyle of grace and elegance'' and a ''garden retreat from the bustle of the city''. Grace and elegance might be a little difficult to find in the mound of dirt and abandoned machinery that was originally supposed to be a miniature golf course, but there is certainly a distinct lack of bustle in Legend Garden Villas. Although the Beijing sales agent claims that nearly all the 389 European-style houses and apartments have already been sold to customers from all over the world, hardly anybody actually seems to be living there. On a recent visit, about the only sign of life at Legend Gardens was a couple playing tennis and an old man sweeping up leaves around the ornamental lake. The sprawling ''commercial centre'', which was supposed to offer a wide range of high-class shops, restaurants and a business centre, is nothing but an empty steel and glass shell with bare concrete floors. And if the ''clubhouse'', allegedly containing a gymnasium, swimming pool and squash courts, was up and running, then it was well hidden. Those few people who do live there, rather than just hold the property as a speculative venture, have complained of exorbitant management fees and service charges, and houses and fittings which are already showing signs of wear and tear. The ''luxury'' villas, retailing at up to US$700,000 (HK$5.41 million), do not appear to have been constructed of the top grade materials advertised in the publicity literature and the landscaped lawns are little more than clumps of grass clinging precariously to the bare earth. Now for the good news. Legend Garden Villas is probably the best equipped and best located of all the dozen or so villa complexes which have sprung up in and around Beijing over the last couple of years. Legend Garden is about the only complex which is ready for immediate occupation. Its location, just 15 minutes on the freeway from the central business district of Beijing, has a distinct advantage over the more remote and inaccessible developments, some of which are situated more than an hour's drive from the city centre. The villa developments took off in the real estate boom which followed paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's ''imperial southern tour'' in January 1992 and, although the boom has cooled off slightly, the villas are still going up. However, most are built in a hurry, poorly equipped and overpriced. The vast majority of villas have been sold to Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies, which are holding them as speculative ventures, hoping the price will rise further. But as more villas come on the market this year, prices are unlikely to increase again and the speculators could be left with an expensive holiday home in the Beijing countryside.