The capital city of China is rich in culture and history, from the breathtaking temples and palaces of the Ming dynasty to the stark reminders of the country’s troubled past in places like Tiananmen Square. Amongst these historical sights, there is the unmistakable evidence of China’s breakneck development and prosperity, with shiny malls and skyscrapers signaling the country’s status as a new world superpower.
Despite these signs of rapid progress, gay Beijing does lag behind other Asian cities. Beijing may be the capital, but the country’s biggest gay hub remains Shanghai, and the gay scene is still very much emerging. While this means that you may not have as much choice as in cities like Bangkok and Tokyo, it does mean that the scene is young, fresh, and exciting.
Aside from a slowly-growing collection of gay bars and clubs, gay Beijing is also particularly arty. The city hosts an International Queer Film Festival, while exhibitions, galleries, and film screenings pop up regularly throughout the year.
From true 5 star luxury to backpacker hostels Beijing has it all and for a world capital city hotel rates are very low offering great value. Despite the fact that China still has a long way to go in terms of homosexuality acceptance, a cultural focus on the respect of privacy means that most hotels in Beijing are gay-friendly. You shouldn’t have any trouble booking and checking into any hotel in Beijing, but there are a few that are more popular with gay visitors.
Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in China in 1997, and homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 2001. Same-sex marriage remains illegal, and a large number of Chinese gay men remain closeted due to societal and family pressures. Homosexuality is tolerated in China in the sense that most Chinese consider sexuality to be a deeply private thing.
The authorities in Beijing are not particularly gay-friendly, but they will most likely not give you a hard time. The locals do not tend to be homophobic, particularly the young, trendy crowd you are likely to see in bars and clubs. It is relatively normal for heterosexual men to hold hands, so a certain level of PDA will go by unnoticed. Overall, you are not likely to be hassled, but be discreet unless you are in a gay space.
A decade ago, the gay Beijing nightlife was discreet and almost underground. Gay bars in Sanlitun such as the now-defunct Lemon Tree were once a venue for gay rights’ events, when the country was still just opening up to any form of public discourse on homosexuality.
Nowadays, the massive Destination Club dominates the gay Beijing scene. Over several floors, this megaclub is packed every weekend and includes go-go dancers, themed rooms, restaurant, and even HIV testing. It is located near Sanlitun Road, meaning you can easily start the night in Sanlitun’s many bars before moving on to Destination.
Generally speaking, the gay Beijing sauna scene is so small and underground as to be quite hard to access for tourists. Saunas are often shutting down, changing names, or switching locations. To make things even more difficult, they are often found down nondescript alleyways or in basements of complex buildings with signs written in Mandarin or no sign at all.
Gay Beijing saunas vary in quality and cleanliness, but generally are a far cry from the gleaming, modern saunas you can find in other major Asian and European hubs. The crowds tend to be local and of mixed ages, the most popular time being the weekend.
Male-only massage parlors, on the other hand, are very popular and common, with many offering call-out services. Most of these are aimed at an affluent, professional crowd, offering a high-end spa experience. Good examples include gay-owned Beijing Power Spa and the gay-only Red Dragon SPA.
Blued, the Chinese version of Grindr, is widely used as a platform to create community gay cruising groups such as the popular Beijing subway groups. Cruising on Beijing’s subway (usually in the last car of any given train) is becoming somewhat of a gay Beijing institution. Aloha, is another popular gay dating app, the concept is more similar to Tinder with Instagram but exclusively for gay men.
The most convenient place to get tested in Beijing is at the Destination Club, Beijing’s biggest gay club. Their HIV clinic takes place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons on the 4th floor, and is run by Danlan, the LGBT organization behind China’s gay dating app Blued. The test is free and results are available within 20 minutes. There is also a mobile testing van in Mudanyuan Park, which is a popular cruising spot, but the staff are unlikely to speak English.
China’s rate of HIV infection is 5-6%, but rises to 20% amongst the highest-risk groups, which include the patrons of gay saunas and brothels. 30% of new HIV infections in the country are reported to come from male gay sex. Condoms are easily found in shops throughout the city; lube can be a bit harder to find but is still available.
Beijing is divided into five districts, with Dongchen (East City) and Xichen (West City) making up the original old city. Three larger districts surround them (Chaoyang, Haidan, and Fengtai), making up most of Beijing’s metropolitan area. Within each district are multiple neighborhoods, each with its distinct character and attractions.
Sanlitun – This is one of Beijing’s liveliest neighborhoods and the heart of gay Beijing, located in Chaoyang. This expat hotspot is home to some of the city’s most exciting places to eat, drink and party. It is also close to Worker’s Stadium (Gongti) and Destination Club, as well as many other nightlife attractions.
Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – Located at the very heart of the old city, these two adjacent UNESCO World Heritage sites are China’s most famous landmarks, capturing an incredible amount of history.
Gulou – This area has the best-preserved hutongs in Beijing, with a winding network of narrow alleys and streets full of traditional charm. These streets are home to some of Beijing’s best 24-hour eateries, tiny bars, cafes and the city’s best live music venues. Gulou is also where the Drum and Bell Towers are located.
Chongwen – A pleasant neighborhood which houses the iconic Temple of Heaven as well as the surrounding Longtan Park.
Wangfujing – A mostly pedestrianized street that is one of the city’s best and oldest shopping hotspots. It is great for modern shopping malls, street food, and the nearby night market. The excellent National Museum of China is also located here.
Beijing Central Business District (CBD) – Beijing CBD is home to some of the city’s best restaurants, cafes, and bars. This is the place for swanky cocktails, high-end shopping, luxury spa treatments, and top-notch restaurants.
Beijing operates on a grid system, so it’s not difficult to get around. The main difficulty lies in the fact that officials are constantly demolishing and rebuilding entire sections of the city, so things have a tendency to change quickly. Some areas of the city, such as Gulou and Wangfujing, and perfect for navigating on foot, but as a general rule you’ll want to either get a bike or a subway card.
From Beijing Capital Airport – The Airport Express rail service is the most convenient way to get to the city center, connecting to the subway at Sanyuanqiao station and Dongzhimen station. There are also plenty of shuttle buses, which could be more convenient if you are staying in another area of town: check all the routes here. A taxi should take about 40 minutes (depending on traffic) and cost between ¥90 to ¥120 ($13-$17) – be wary of anyone trying to sell you a taxi for more than this as scams on tourists are common.
Bicycle – Beijing is an incredibly bicycle-friendly city, and cycling is the best way to explore the old heart of the city. The ground is flat and cycle lanes abound, with the old-fashioned network of hutong being particularly perfect for discovering on two wheels. There are plenty of rental shops and many hotels also have bicycle rental services.
Metro – The subway is probably the best way to cross longer distances, but avoid peak hours (8-9 am and 6-7 pm) as they are crowded, sweaty, and uncomfortable. The network has 16 lines which cover the vast majority of tourist spots, and there is a user-friendly Beijing Subway app to help you get around. You pay a refundable ¥20 (about $3) deposit for a subway card, which you can buy at major stations, or you can link your card to your smartphone if you use an Apple device.
Bus – The bus network is huge and the service very cheap (there is a 50% discount if you buy a travel card), and there has been some effort to make the buses more accessible to foreigners with English announcements and signing. However, it is still relatively complicated and unintuitive to use, and the buses tend to be crowded. In most instances, you are better off taking the subway.
Taxi – The easiest way to get a taxi is to hail one from the street – free taxis will have a red ‘空车–” sign on them. Always make sure you have the name of your destination written in Chinese characters, otherwise the driver is not likely to know where to take you. Always check they are using the meter. Phone apps like Didi Chuxing (the Chinese version of Uber) and Meituan are popular, although the latter is harder to use for foreigners.
Rickshaw – These are rare nowadays, and an obvious tourist trap. They are more expensive and less comfortable than a taxi, and foreign tourists are likely to be charged even more.
Car Rental – Renting a car for visits outside the city is a viable option, but you will need to obtain a special permit and deal with chaotic roads. Hiring a driver for day trips is quite cheap and far more convenient.
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