Saturday, December 28, 2013

Stockholm: Europe's Grown-up, (But Still Fun) Gay Uncle

You know that older, endlessly single guy in the family who spent the 80's and 90's partying it up? Well now (since he survived all the drugs & HIV) he's gay-married, owns a posh house in the best part of town and maybe even adopted. That's Stockholm for you. It's possible he'll feel rowdy sometimes - so he'll go party outside Sweden. He's more conservative now, makes good money (he also better be paying if you come visit him). The preppy but-not-arrogant town is an uber post-modern gay place & most boys are looking for more than one night! I'm happy to report they still have fun gay parties - but the gays often travel south, even in the summer, for warmer fun.

Tel Aviv Pride Pic - via Sweden gay mag QX!

While everyone must visit Stockholm, I definitely recommend summer when its beautiful & the warmest - and especially for Pride (if you buy tickets now - it's 2 for the price of one!). The city is clean and quaint with endless pastel-colored blocks, historic promenades and a respected royal family (including at least one gay former king). Furthermore, the people are friendly and helpful if you're lost, if not entirely warm (I'm from Minnesota - I know how we can be "nice"). For all your gay questions, refer to QX magazine - where I was excited to be featured (not surprisingly, they covered Tel Aviv Pride!).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hong Kong: Asia's NYC; Minus Hipsters, Plus Natural Beauty

View from a friend's high-rise apartment!
Like New York City on dramatic cliffs (and without Broadway or Brooklyn) this gritty, frenzied financial center has the best and the brightest - of Asia and the world - from dining experiences to languages and ethnicities. Millions flock to the city, whether consult for a top multi-national or entertain, feed and clean for those energetic businessmen & women. It is also becoming Asia's art hub - with exhibitions and the planned opening of Asia's MOMA! If you feel like some spectacular views, smartly dressed yuppies & (what else in Asia) shopping galore - you've found it! 

But wait - what country is it?

Technically, the UK gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, but (thankfully) with a number of caveats. China may appoint the Chief Executive, but the "city-state” has its own passport stamp and visa card – its own money (printed by each of the banks!) and it certainly doesn’t feel like China (and Hongkongers don't feel Chinese). Cantonese is spoken - "thank you" is "uhm-goi" (or "doh-jeh" if it's a gift you are receiving) not the mandarin "sheah-sheah" - and English is also an official language. Furthermore, it might be busy with throngs of people – but they are not running over each other in the street, like the "metropolis-villiage" of Beijing.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Taiwan: The Best Gifts Arrive in Smaller Packages!

View of Taipei at Sunset!
It’s incredible to see two countries with the same history, heritage and culture act so differently. If anything is a true reflection of the terrible effects of Chinese-style communism, it’s the vast difference between China and Taiwan. The “Beautiful Island” has kept in touch with the classic food, conservative, chivalrous values and enterprising, if bureaucratic, nature of the Chinese – while becoming an open, advanced, and civilized society, unlike much of its overflowing, polluted, backward mother-land. Whether it’s the influence of western culture or its smaller size, visitors to Taiwan will find a much more livable place to thrive than across the Strait.

Look at that HUGE space left for
peds to walk in!
I witnessed this difference everywhere. On the streets of Taipei, cars and even motorbikes (!) stopped BEFORE pedestrian walkways. In China – it’s a miracle anyone even obeys traffic lights! The Taiwanese are by and large a very friendly people – plus most speak at least some English (compared with my tea-scaming Chinese thieves). Every time I had a problem or a question, all were friendly, smiling and open to showing me the way. The clubs were thriving with smiling, engaged and excited people – as opposed to many shy conservative guys in China (although, don’t get me wrong Taiwanese are plenty shy!).

For all these reasons, Taiwan served to be my favorite destination overall in Asia.  Thailand was more inexpensive for the same value with amazing beaches and better food (my next favorite) and Hong Kong was a well-dressed yet gritty metropolis, still Taiwan wrapped things up in the best way from reliable services to the most fun clubs – with lots of natural beauty to boot!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tea House Scam: Ashton's Revenge - Part 1

Here I conquer the Great Wall of China, but I had some other exploits in Beijing!

Most know me as a smiling, happy-go-lucky kid who's rarely out for revenge.  Well, this might change that.  However, the way I was treated by only a few select Chinese will explain why.

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In my critical blog about China, I explained the tea house scam - charming girls or guys looking to "practice english" or "get to know foreigners" only to lure you to a pre-planned, illegal venue and overcharge or outright rob you. Perhaps these particular Chinese girls and guys see themselves as welcoming foreigners; that they provide a service, even if that price isn't advertised when they smile and ask where you're from. Maybe they guess (correctly) that most people can afford a $5 soda or $15 "traditional tea", but it's still unfair to do so in an underhanded way - plus they steal credit card information, force you to pay for others and charge ridiculous extra fees.
Who would suspect these cute girls, but why do they need
big sunglasses? The sun is barely visible through the smog!

Let's start from my first encounter in Shanghai where a group of 2 girls and a guy approached me; smiling and friendly, they wanted to take a picture with me. They guy was talking a mile-a-minute spinning stories about his hometown of Harbin and discussing why northern Chinese are taller (they are farther from the sun!). I actually was in the middle of trying to find a friend in the park - but this seemed like a neat opportunity to meet people so I chatted a bit - and then they asked, "have you tried China's traditional teas? We're going just around the corner to have some - come along!" I had to meet my friend, but they insisted it would just be a minute - so I obliged. The key to all of this was putting me in such a great mood and making it feel like a shared experience; these kids were pros!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tea House Scam: Ashton's Takes His Revenge - Part 2

You should know that it took a long process that brought me to my final solution - and decision to act out against the Chinese who robbed me, a process where I decided police and authorities would not help me; I had to set down a marker. I acted alone as a vigilante, but I did so to represent a group of vulnerable people without a voice:  tourists.

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The fake Dashanqing "Tea House" entrance
before I took action.

Cleverly, these Tea House scammers preyed on a group of people in Beijing least organized and most vulnerable, while at the same time the wealthiest. But after seeing what they had done myself and then witnessing others experience that same "gotcha" feeling, I decided I should act.

You see, these Chinese people not only robbed me physically, but they robbed me emotionally; they robbed me of my excited happy feeling in coming to a new country. On my first day in Beijing, I encountered not genuinely friendly people, but desperate, manipulative thugs in the guise of innocence -- and they were doing this to victims again and again.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tea-House Scam: An Avenge Attempt? - Part 3

Of course, after committing a crime like defacing a building you just have to return to the scene to see what's happened. Yet, who knew the tea-scammers would approach me again!

Much of the overcrowded Beijing
Subway is at least fresh & new!
Feeling a bit paranoid the next morning, I worried the police would find me and I knew I should avoid the crime scene. However, the previous night they would have lost any attempt to trail me, even if it was by accident! On my comedic return home, I got off the last train at the wrong stop - and then, unable to hail a real cab (as often happens; cabbies hate English speakers), an old man in a tok-tok-cart (like rectangular metal box on wheels) finally picked me up. Neither he nor I could figure out how to get me home (again remember, first day in Beijing!). We meandered a long time until finally finding familiar buildings - after midnight by now, my hosts (thankfully) were in bed.

My genuine Chinese friend who didn't rob me!
So in an attempt to avoid the temptation to go back, I just played tourist that day and headed to Beihai Park, north-west of the Forbidden City - but, I must admit, still close to Tiananmen Square. Unsure of the park entrance as I walked outside the Beihai Park North Subway Station, I asked (what seemed to be) a friendly Chinese guy for directions - he and I had coincidentally left the station and train together...

Telling me it was his day off and that he too planned an afternoon in Beihai, I immediately felt uneasy - but surely not everyone planned to scam tourists. Indeed, we had a lovely day at the park and no questions arose about taking me for a drink. Still - the dirty deed I had done constantly nagged at me - I must go see it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Myanmar/Burma: Where's that?!

Want to go somewhere unique and developing, yet functional and relatively safe? Check out this magical Southeast-Asian nation. Despite lots of growing pains and a still shady government, adventurist tourists have discovered Burma at an exciting juncture in its history. So, if you’re looking for a challenge, beautiful sights and friendly people, come check out this emerging country. Gays are flocking here too! Being LGBT might always be difficult in a relatively conservative society, yet the predominant religion (Buddism) remains relatively ambivalent and you’re likely to find friendly eyes just like everywhere else in the world.

What’s in a name?
So what should you call it? Burma or Myanmar – the regime officially changed the name to Myanmar, but in the local language the words are the same. Refusing Myanmar might be a political attempt to dis the ruling junta, but for your purposes as a tourist, it really won’t matter. The people don’t care either way – some will tell you that people prefer Myanmar. After all, Burma was just the English “translation” of the word; this BBC article breaks down all the details, if you're concerned.

To gain access to the country, I used a (questionable) Internet site that actually worked out: Becoming  part of a “tour group” visiting the country, my visa request was taken care of before I arrived. At the airport, officials stapled the visa to a passport page (I'm planning to remove it, when I need more space - which will be happening soon!). It only cost me about $70USD; the visa is $30, the extra ~ $40 saved me a day of going to the embassy since I was in Thailand (definitely worth the cost in time and frustration unavoidable when traversing Bangkok).

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Nepal: Kath-MAN-DU!

Can you see Mt. Everest?

Please support Nepal's efforts to survive and rebuild the historic sites mentioned below by giving to Earthquake relief funds like this one or simply text "Give Nepal" to 80088.

Kathmandu must be one of the most beautiful places to arrive by air (likely also meaning most complicated for pilots!) – as you dodge mountains and the bustling city teems from below, it feels like you’re about to land on a different planet. On the way in, you also have the opportunity (if the weather is right) to catch a glance at Mt. Everest, its outline barely visible; you have to train your eye to recognize the snow vs. the clouds. Great, I thought – I don’t have any need to climb Everest (though it might make headlines), I’ve already seen it!

For all the serene beauty on the way in, you’re about to land at one of the least-updated airports in the world. And, of course, authorities at Tribhuvan attempt to make a buck off everyone who enters. You need this or that visa for this many days – so much to hike, so much to climb. Many are not prepared with cash for the required permits and fees - I watched some young people struggle to find an ATM. My biggest problem:  I lost my pen to fill out the long visa on arrival application.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Berlin: Lionesses, Twinks & Bears - Oh my!

Plenty of Germans wanted to see Obama...
Whatever gay scene you're looking for, you can find it - in the best ways - in Berlin. Everyone is here, from leather daddies to the baby gays. The city might be a "poor" university town, but the seat of the German government has a lot more to offer than bureaucrats & their patrons (unlike a place I know well, DC!). Hopefully with the healthy tourist industry and loads of creative young people, the city will continue to amaze.

However, this is the view most of us had!
Since the end of World War II, the city has served as a symbol for the success of capitalism and democracy - and the new center of Europe, which is why Obama visited... and also mentioned the gays!

Now the Eastern parts of the city are the most interesting - as smart entrepenures have turned old buildings into hip avant-garde party and restaurant venues - its the perfect city for Fete de la Musique (which coincided with Pride) held here since 1995, free music of all genres is played in open air venues city-wide. Venues like those at RAW near the new "up-and-coming" area (still rough, but becoming "trendy") is Neukölln. It still has a long way to go - and it's mostly an immigrant area - so no holding hands boys (Germans rarely do this anyway...)!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Poland: Where Will this Rainbow Lead?

The Zbawicelia Plaza Rainbow (gay or not) sits in one of the
 most popular -mixed hang out spots, but has suffered some
"chance burnings"
I might be taking this too far, but when 17 year old students (smartly dressed & clearly well-off) tell me Polish people are depressed and envious of others’ success – that's not good. That's only one view from the people of this cool, but cold country - yet it seems to be the case that kids are dreaming about NYC, instead of working to create success at home. Of course, it doesn’t help when you lose 1/5th of your population and then enjoy the relative ease (if not comfort) of communism for 40 years. The same students, in transit from Krakow to Warsaw, told me older family members would rather go back to live under communism.

Poland is resurgent; there is incredible potential here. Yet, first the Poles must escape the past.

Pride Parade passes by
"Stalin's Middle Finger"
The pride of Poland of course is John Paul II – and that’s also problematic. Catholicism became all this war-worn society could hold on to during the Communist era and the public and private ways that John Paul II fought back against Soviet ideologues made him their champion. Poland needs a new figure to lead them! Thus, in a deeply religious society, violent homophobia maintains an existence - and straight people lack motivation to support LGBT rights. Getting kicked in the street as well as facing violent verbal threats should not happen anywhere - but especially not in the western world!

But lets not dwell on the negative! Poland has lots to offer, from very pretty boys and girls, beautiful cityscapes, a happening night life – and even a Gay Pride not to be laughed at (mainly due to the tension in the air).

Warsaw Pride

I have never felt as protected in my life than along the Warsaw Pride parade route - not only did yellow-vested police walk just feet apart along both sides of me as we marched, but dozens of groups of swat teams, armed and suited up with full riot gear swarmed moved all over - and immediately responded to any conflict. Yet, I never thought I would get as many middle fingers - and glares from the general public. I won't go into what I was told their signs said (in Polish) about LGBT people...
Your own Ashy working it (seriously) with drag queens on the main parade party bus.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Secret's Out: Pinkwashing rules! - Israel Hosts World's Best Pride in Tel Aviv

Thousands Attend Pride in Tel Aviv
It's unfortunate gay men have yet to find a way to procreate - especially in Israel! Already a plethora of beautiful features exist in the mix of people here - think of the result of further combinations! Yet, more seriously, in Israel more than half of kids come from orthodox Jewish homes and the conservative, Muslim Palestinians have a higher birthrate.  The secular population is not growing. We need more gaybies - otherwise someday, we may say goodbye to the world's best location for PRIDE!

While Tel Aviv might be (in theory) dangerous - with an ongoing civil war less than 100 miles away and general threats of catastrophic destruction of this secular city - it's an fun-loving laid-back beach city and brings together a great mix of gays world-wide.  Anyway, we can count on Israeli/Jewish determination (yes, ok Zionism) and the U.S. Congress for protection.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

China - Not Boo-yah, bu-yao!

Admittedly, haters have some to hate about this challenging country - and its true there often are just too many people - often who've they've just moved in from the villages; it's too much "new money." Furthermore, often the new generation grew up each as an only child. Still, there are tens of thousands of Americans along with hundreds of thousands of other foreigners: It's clear to me, I'm missing something as a tourist.
Apparently "Pedestrians can safely cross"
(in Chinese, this must mean dodge cars)
That's the problem, the tourist sites here are awash with a plethora of pedantic picture-taking populations from the world over. And, as with many tourist destinations, a huge group of Chinese people take advantage of those masses. Just one of the many scams is the traditional "Tea House." Here's how it goes...

You arrive at one of the main tourist attractions - say at the Tiananmen Square East Subway station, like I did.  You're walking along, and then there is an attractive female on your side. But, don't be fooled - it also might be a group of Chinese "from outside the city" or a group of guys that are friendly and want to be in a picture with you. While people here are - can be - mostly friendly, its unlikely that they would randomly approach you (especially at a tourist site).

She says in accurate, though broken Engrish, "I just finish school and I want to practice my english, perhaps we can walk and talk and I can show you some of my city." Well, that's not a big deal - why not, right? And I agree, if this simply is the proposition, go with it! However, here's when things might get interesting:  First, she tells you that her brother/uncle/dad/someone she's living with is a policeman -- this is a key thing they use to (theoretically) threaten you with later. Second tip-off, "Oh, are you thirsty? Do you want to have a drink/try some of China's traditional teas?  I know a place nearby." Then you know you're on your way to being taken for all you've got.

Fake "Tea House" on South Chizi Street,
North of Tiananmen Square East Subway Stop
They will walk you to a nearby, nondescript building - usually it says "Tea House" and "Tea, Coffee, Beer" on the outside. Then charge exorbitant rates for drinks, sometimes including a 100 yuan "room-fee." And be sure not to give up your credit card to pay! Anyway, just don't go as far as I did - (read my three part adventure with terrible Chinese thieves).

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Clubbing in Bangkok: Go beyond mixed brown & white rice; Sticky is sweeter!

Getting your groove on in Bangkok leaves something to be desired for your typical tourist gay (male). You’ve got tons of little bars and lovely people watching (Balcony & Telephone, the main pre-clubbing venues) in Silom, Soi 4, but only two real late-night clubbing options DJ Station and  G.O.D. (Guys on Display) – it's pretty strange that such a prolific gay city has really a few dance floors, at least where foreigners come. But that's before you realize - there's much more to gay Bangkok!

To find authentic gay Thai scene, you've got to do your homework. There are a number of other incredible discos – all considered to be sticky-rice clubs; meaning Thai-for-Thai, there were none or maybe a couple foreigners at each. For Thais, there is not much mingling going on: you go with your friends, talk with your friends (despite very loud music), watch a go-go boy and drag show (with those same friends). It's more difficult in Asia to meet people if you're not into the online scene and even more difficult, obviously, if you don't know a local language (more on this in a future post).

See K – or K Dance Pub according to one local – is a bit far from central Bangkok (still just over 100 THB - like $3 or $4). Upon finding the club (off the road, in a pedestrian mall), an exasperated Thai guy attempted to ask what I wanted to drink. I heard Heineken and whiskey – but not vodka, so he took me to 7-11 nearby (as if I needed a chaperone) where I purchased a little (half liter) bottle of Absolute (for a whopping 270 THB, yes that’s almost $10—and YES! you can buy vodka at 7-11 mi by midnight). 7-11 is Thailand’s (and for SE Asia in general) – convenience store for everything one might need, but remember that you can’t purchase alcohol in Thailand between 2pm and 5pm weekdays (nor between midnight and 11am).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Travel Rule #1: Arrive like a Rock-Star (or with one!)

Few advantages exist when traveling Korea Air via Seoul, but when you get to arrive in Bangkok like a rock start, with screaming teens and extra security, the kimchi airline redeems itself! 

That yellow blur is Jang Keun Suk
 flanked by security ...
Known as the Prince of Asia, Jang Keun Suk arrived with me at BKK for a concert he performed on Sunday. He's a Korean movie star-turned rock star - with a resume at 25 that we can all envy.

Anyway, I felt like Justin Bieber arriving at the airport (though my new Bieber hair was pretty greasy after 24 hours of traveling). As I happened to clear customs with this Asian star, I got whisked out with his entourage and into a teen girl screaming competition - what a way for Asia and Thailand to greet me!

I've flown from the East Coast to Seoul before - 14 hours leaves lots of down time (I finally got to see the very-cute, Perks of Being a Wallflower). Yet, I never followed that jaunt across the Pacific with a "normal" 5-hour follow on journey.

Admittedly, Korea Air has improved; you can't help but love the pale, doll-like stewardesses, who may not understand your problem, but they'll still smile (and giggle) and try to help you.
Looking down from 1st "Prestige"
Class to Economy (and duty free)

The aircraft (A380) beat the airline on my initial flight, since nothing beats walking up (and back down, when they forbid you from walking into 1st Class) stairs on a plane. I felt so Star Trek!

In-seat Camera View from Tail of the A380 
And of course, this view is pretty incredible (even if you can't see anything) as you're traveling over the ice caps...

After my rock-star arrival, I made it safely to my hostel thanks to my first Bangkok friend, named "Wood" (i'm told everyone has a nick-name in Asia). More soon on my first weekend in the Asian City of Angels

My first friend in Bangkok - "Wood"
(who I already ran into at the club on Saturday!)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Gay-Ok in Jordan?

In February, I joined my partner in adventures (read debauchery) abroad, Derek, in Amman - thanks to the USG I stayed with him (for a discounted rate) at the 5-star Hyatt (with exquisite daily brunches).

Amman is a stable, safe - albeit boring - Middle Eastern city (think call to prayer plus Friday-Saturday weekends), but forgive Amman for being a bit tepid since its been around for, I donno, like 5,000 years!

There is a great Roman amphitheater that's a fun place to people watch and get harassed by loitering groups of Jordanian teens. The 2,000 year old theater is just down the hill from the Citadel that has ruins dating back more than a millennia - so those are the main sights of Amman. The busiest markets are nearby as well - so you can pretty much "do" Amman in a day.

One week was barely enough to dig into gay life here - but it exists if you know where to go - and of course if you know Arabic, you're golden. The one place where it's ok to be gay is Books Cafe. Protected by a bookstore and discerning security, this "bohemian" cafe is no different socially than your HK gay bar (with a bit more excitement). Be sure to go to the back bar (straights are in the front). It's the gay Jordanian sanctuary - no other real place exists for LGBT people to socialize. They are still there smoking hookah and hanging out with friends (like typical Jordanians) - but nearly all of these guys are not out to their families, nor few, if any, other straight people in their lives.

View from the back of Books Cafe on a Thursday night (the western Friday)
Apparently, there are gay-ish nights at some of the clubs - and one club is called "G" - so there are likely other outlets, but Grindr and other social gay networks online are definitely the place to actually make a friend (if you're too shy to pick up a guy at Books).

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Gearing up for Asia!

Greetings gay travelers and gay travel wannabes,

Next Thursday night I won't be twink-hunting at Cobalt - nor will I be jamming on top of the world at Le Bain's Zig-Zag party- I will arrive in Bangkok with Asia at my feet.

What I hope to do before I depart is create a basic play-by-play for my trip across Asia over the next 2-plus months, and this is the shimmy right now:

Thailand:  Mar 21-Apr 17  (with the new year "Songkran" in Chiang Mai ~Apr 10-17)
Hong Kong:  Apr 17-22
Myanmar:  April 22 - 27
Phuket:  Apr 27-30?  (it's Phuket Pride)

Now it gets tricky...

I wanted to spend a week in Nepal with the Kathman-duo Cain & Nathan

But I also am supposed to fly from Taipei to Shanghai on May 8th...

Either way, I'll be in Beijing and in China most of my birthday month (May) before I make my Asi-exit and fly to Tel Aviv (via Vienna) on June 1 for Pride week!

Anyways, stay tuned as I find out if I've totally over-planned my next few months - and see all my adventures in Asia.

Where are you going? or where have you gone? that could help us all plot-out our gay geography - it's a big gay world out there and this blog is all about creating a working and dynamic understanding of the world both for gay travelers and for ourselves as we record our travels - our gay-ography.

Join us!