Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gay Travel China - Three Days in Beijing

Here is an excerpt of an article we wrote for recently. There is some information of general interest, though it was written for a particular audience/scene in mind. See the full article at<;pid=170>

.......It's time to see the new Beijing, now that the Olympics fever is over. China has the world's longest continuous civilisation still in existence today, with a history of 5000 years or so, give or take the odd thousand years. Beijing is not quite that old, but is still steeped in history and culture, having been the Imperial capital of a united China for over 700 years. Years of spending recently on infrastructure and urban renewal have enabled Beijing to leap into the 21st century with changes in its appearance every year. There lies the fascination of this city of contrasts, blending traditional and modern, socialism and capitalism, and East and West.
Society has also been changing though not at such a frenetic pace. There have been gradual but significant shifts in attitudes towards homosexuality. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and declassified as a mental disorder in 2001. However, traditional values also place tremendous family pressure on young gays to marry and continue the family line.

Despite all this progress, there is, as in many other countries in the world, a 'long march' to go before gay marriages and gay rights are recognized. If as a tourist, you are restrained, and don't come here for the same reasons as you would for going to Bangkok or Rio, then you also can have an enjoyable time in this discreetly gay-friendly city. You would never believe you were in a country ruled by the Communist Party if you could see all the goings-on beneath the surface.
October is the 'golden month' for Beijing as far as weather goes, with dry, bright sunny days and cool autumn evenings, but it also means peak tourist season. November is somewhat cooler and less crowded. Winter does not see Beijing at its best, with no greenery or leaves on trees, and long dark nights. April to May sees the short spring here, and benefits from tree blossom everywhere, whereas the summer months of July and August are not peak season because of the high temperatures and humidity.
A word on tipping. The usual custom is not to give any tips. However, if you feel you have been given exceptional service, by say your bellboy or tour guide, then do show your appreciation. Service sector workers are on very low wages (average worker's wage in Beijing in 2008 was around 3700 yuan RMB or 550 USD - per month!).
The scene is dynamic in Beijing and is constantly changing. It's best to get up to date information from your local tour guide or English language websites such as Utopia, Gayographic, Time Out, the Beijinger, Agenda and City Weekend.
Lay of the Land
There are frequent direct flights to Beijing's very modern Capital Airport from major cities around the world. Beijing is very spread out, and the city proper is laid out on a rectangular grid, so get to know which way is North, South or whatever. The city's spiritual and geographical centre is Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) Square and the Forbidden City (Palace Museum), around which a series of ring roads (up to the 6th at the time of writing) have been built. Transport by taxi is cheap and easy, though few taxi drivers speak English and hotel and place names sound different in Chinese, so make sure you have the destination name/address written down for you in Chinese. Allow longer travel times during peak hours or rainy days, since traffic can be heavy and empty taxis few and far between. There is also the rapidly expanding metro system which costs only 2 yuan for any distance.
For those of you who are eco-conscious and with time on your hands, you can rent a bike and get to see the real Beijing down the narrow hutongs or traditional lanes. Beijing is flat and there are bike lanes on most main streets. Traffic speed is slower than in cities in the West and accidents relatively few, despite the aggressive car driving, no crash helmets and no lights on bikes.
Whereas many of the local sites are within the city proper, if you are going out of town to say, the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, then the most efficient and comfortable way is to hire a private car or taxi. The cheapest way is to catch a bus or join a group tour. The entertainment areas tend to be concentrated on the east side of town, so it is advisable to choose a hotel near the 2nd or 3rd East Ring Roads.
Beijing is a convenient base for exploring surrounding areas such as the old port city of Tianjin, the Imperial summer resort of Chengde and the UNESCO heritage site of Pingyao. Many tourists also go for a couple of days to Xian, only a 90 minutes flight away, to see the terracotta warriors............