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Three Gay Days: Beijing

Three Gay Days: Beijing

China's capital city has a much more vibrant and accessible gay life than ever before.

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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.

The first gay bar opened over 10 years ago, and the Internet has enabled much online discussion and easy socializing. Local people are able to enjoy a reasonable gay life in the capital, even with the tight control over the media and moral standards, and lack of social acceptance and legal protection. Although Beijing has not held a pride event like Shanghai and Hong Kong, it did manage to hold its 4th Queer Film Festival recently. Gay subculture is also being documented in www.queercomrades.com.

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. In addition, there is a niche market for foreigners as well as a significant market for older men, so why not try your luck!

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.

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Where to stay
There is a whole range of choices available depending on your taste and budget. There are of course numerous properties managed by the usual international chains such as Hilton, Sheraton, Westin, Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn and Shangri La. There are no specifically 'gay' hotels, but many are gay-friendly and will take double room bookings for 2 male guests.

LUXURY
There are several new boutique/designer hotels. The Aman at Summer Palace (1 Gongmenqian Street, Summer Palace, tel 5987 9999, 500 USD+), although a little out of town, consists of 44 rooms and suites in a series of historic dwellings. It has a superb, carefully chosen location, worthy of any emperor or empress (or queen), right next to the Summer Palace. It has been described as a "serenely romantic vision of a bygone China".

The Opposite House, with 99 studios, (Village Building 1, 11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, tel 6417 6688, 300USD+) is in the centre of the bar district and always gets rave reviews. The renowned Japanese architect has created a natural, minimalist environment topamper yourself, starting from airport pick up in a Maserati, rain showers and cool deep-soaking oak bath-tubs, French press coffee and complimentary mini-bar and stainless steel swimming pool.

STYLE
Hotel G (A7 Gongtixilu, Chaoyang District, tel 6552 3600, 130 USD+), with 110 rooms, is superbly located just behind the main gay bar Destination. G may stand for good or glamour but we know what it really stands for. The UK designer was inspired by the retro-chic of 1960s Hollywood. There are several room sizes, luxurious in-room amenities and adjustable colour window shades to suit your mood. It is G-friendly and 2 boys in the same bed are no problem!

Those who want a traditional courtyard setting should try Courtyard 7 (No.7, Qiangulouyuan Hutong, Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District, tel 6406 0777, 120 USD+)?. The small hotel has 19 traditional rooms in a Chinese style courtyard in a secluded hutong (lane) near the interesting Nanluoguxiang/Houhai area. The beds may be harder than you are used to and the level of English lower than in international run chains, but that just adds to the charm of this friendly Chinese hotel.

VALUE
Then for those on lower budgets, look for your ideal hotel on the English version website of www.ctrip.com. Search the "2 rings of east/Workers Stadium" area if you want to be in the heart of the restaurant/bars area. The Red Hotel (10 Taipingzhuang, Chunxiu Rd, Chaoyang District, tel 6417 1066, 40 USD) has been recently renovated and is well-located.

The Home Inn is a budget chain, and its Dongzhimen branch (A2 Xinzhong Street, Dongzhimenwai Street, tel 5120 3288, 40 USD) enjoys easy access to entertainment areas and the metro station. A similar chain is Hanting Inn, and their Dongzhimenwai Hotel (Dongzhimenwai Xiejie, Dongcheng District, tel 8451 6655, 40 USD) is newly built.

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Day 1
For those of you who are in Beijing for the first time, there are several 'must-see' historical sights. You could start at the Forbidden City, the world's largest surviving palace complex. Start at the Tiananmen Square end, hire an audio guide (you'll need a human guide if you want to hear what the emperors would get up to with their concubines, and sometimes even with male lovers) and walk through the various rooms, palaces and museums to exit at the North Gate. Climb up Jingshan if you have time to get a breath-taking view over the golden tiled roofs of the palace. After lunch in a local restaurant (dumplings and noodles are the local speciality), go to the Temple of Heaven (a short taxi ride from Tiananmen Square) to see this magnificent park where the emperors used to pray for good harvests over 500 years ago, and also see the locals relaxing, playing cards or singing Beijing opera. If you enter by the South Gate and exit by the East Gate, you can then go to the Hongqiao Market, and next to it the Toy Market, to get a flavour of the tempting range of reasonably priced gifts to give your friends or even yourself. But remember to bargain hard, start at 30% of the asking price and work up to 50% or so depending on how desperately you want the goods.

In the evening, have a traditional Beijing Roast Duck dinner. Several popular high-end restaurants are highly recommended (Da Dong, Duck de Chine, Made in China), but the much cheaper JingZun (Chunxiu Road branch) is good value for money. Remember that Chinese tend to eat dinner early, say 6pm or 7pm, and some restaurants close by 10pm.

Then if you're not tired and if it's a Thursday night, check out the Lantung Gayographics Happy Hour (till midnight) at Lantung Thai, Solana. This weekly event, starting from around 10.30pm, tends to attract an interesting mix of Chinese and foreign professionals of all ages.

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Day 2
Today it's time to go out of town. At your hotel, it's easy to book a group tour, and while these are cheap, they often waste time with obligatory side visits to souvenir stores and workshops. Alternatively, to make the most of your day, hire a private car to go to the Great Wall. Several sections of the Great Wall are open, and the most commercialised one is called Badaling, the section nearest the city centre. The section with arguably the best views, only partially renovated and well off-the-tourist track is at Huanghuacheng, the 'Wild Wall'. Lunch is available at a farmer's house and you are assured of country fare and fresh food.

If you're an architecture buff, you may make a diversion if on a private tour to see the Commune by the Wall, a Kempinski-managed hotel complex made of several uniquely designed individual buildings. On the way back, drop off at the Ming Tombs, and take in the history of past Ming Emperors and their respect of the gods and fengshui to ensure a comfortable after-life.

Enjoy a nap in the car for the hour's journey back to town. If you are really early, you may squeeze in a visit to the Summer Palace or enjoy a drink at dusk by the Bird's Nest/Water Cube Olympic stadia. After dinner go to Boat Bar, a re-launched gay bar 7 nights a week. This location in an Embassy area has its charms - converted boat on 3 floors, 'cruising' (of the body-watching type) on a canal, outdoor seating space on two decks, underwater disco, and generous happy hours. Add to this the handsome captain from Taipei who has a successful track record in running bars, and his seamen, and you have a ship-shape Boat going full steam ahead for a grand revival. However, note that weekday nights like elsewhere are quiet.

And for those of you not into the bar scene, perhaps a foot massage or high-end spa would be more to your taste? Pamper yourself with the full works at one of the upmarket all-male spas.

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Day 3
Today it's time to get a taste of the real life of local Beijingers, and to do some shopping. For the foodies among you, get up early and go to the local market. There are many open air meat, fruit and vegetable markets where the locals go for the freshest produce. There are also several wet fish markets, the biggest perhaps being Jingshen in Fengtai, south west Beijing. And of course you could then take your purchases and join a Chinese cookery class.

To see how daily life goes on, the Nanluoguxiang area (with boutique gift and clothing shops, restaurants and bars, and beautiful student actors and actresses at the Central Drama Academy) leading to Hou Hai is a good place to stroll in the hutongs or traditional narrow lanes. You can cover even more ground if you rent a bike, but need to be brave to cope with the traffic. The Lama Temple area and adjacent Guozijian, where the Confucius Temple/Imperial Academy are, is fast developing into an alternative to Nanluoguxiang, and is less commercialized, but who knows for how long. The Panjiayuan Antiques/Flea Market is very popular and worth a visit for souvenirs, especially at weekends; however, don't expect to get any real antiques, and remember to bargain hard!

Shopping can be done at the famous (or infamous) Silk Street which is trying to wean itself off fake foreign goods and develop its own brands. The Village at Sanlitun is the latest hip place to go and has several genuine name brand shops and many restaurants/bars and even a cinema. For a more traditional look, you could go to the renovated Qianmen Street just south of Tiamanmen Square. This street has been faithfully reproduced from old photos from the 1920s, but the high rents have forced local brands to move out. Far more interesting are the narrow streets behind, called Dashanlan'er.

If shopping is not for you, then the Red Gate gallery and modern art area called 798 is worth a browse around. Or if the weather is not good, then how about visiting one or two of Beijing's 80 or so state-level museums? Perhaps the best laid out is the Capital Museum which is free if tickets are pre-booked, and often has special exhibitions. The strangest one must be the Eunuch Culture Museum, located on the grounds of the tomb of a Ming dynasty eunuch. Fancy a peep in the castration room?

Time to squeeze in a show before dinner? See amazing acrobatics, or young monks from Shaolin monastery in a kung fu show. A good tour guide can get you discount tickets. If you're interested in Beijing Opera, watch the performers backstage putting their make up on before the performance. After the show, go to Bellagio (Taiwanese) or O Sole Mio (Italian) for dinner before your last night out, which has to be at the nearby Destination bar.

Destination started from modest beginnings in 2004, and has blossomed into 2 stories of room after room after room, each with a bar, plus a seething disco floor which packs in the (mainly young) crowds at the weekends, despite a hefty door charge that can go up to 100 yuan for special events. Or you may wish to go to Yiku or Bear Den, a bear bar (for chubbies and their admirers). Things start hotting up after 11pm, so be ready for a long last night!

The above information, current as of September 2009, has been supplied by ChinaMango, a specialized gay-friendly tour guide company.

ChinaMango offers unique, discreet, and private tours with own transport for the discerning gentleman, including day and night tours. All tours are customized according to the client's schedule and interests. Other areas outside Beijing, such as Chengde (imperial summer resort), Pingyao (UNESCO heritage site) and Xian can also be arranged. A new Xinjiang tour is under planning. For further details, please contact Jet at (+86) 13552 949596 or email jetchina0602@hotmail.dom.

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