Travelling the world as an LGBT citizen

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Firstly let me start by saying that being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person (LGBT) is not a choice, it is something you are born as and contrary to some religious beliefs it cannot be cured. Love is love, no matter whether it’s between a man and a woman, two women or two men. Simple!

Sadly even in 2016 not everyone thinks the same and having travelled to some of the world’s most remote countries I can begrudgingly say that gay rights still have a long way to go.

Often seen as a “Western ideology”, being gay in some countries can get you imprisoned, fined or even horror of horror, killed. You might not realise it but there are still 7 countries in the world where adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal and punishable by death.

Whilst many condemn Russia for its rather open-opinion of LGBT relationships, you must remember that it isn’t in fact illegal there. My visit to Moscow several years ago certainly opened my eyes as to how much of a scene exists, albeit underground, but for me I was just relieved that it simply existed!

Whilst trawling the internet I found some interesting facts about being LGBT in different countries around the world:

  • 62 countries protect their LGBT citizens from discrimination
  • 118 countries have legalised adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct
  • 75 countries have made it a criminal offence for adults to have consensual same-sex sexual conduct
  • 7 countries including Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen can punish their citizens to death if found to have adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct

Just before I travel many of my friends say to me, “Do you feel safe, aren’t you scared or worried you’ll be targeted?”

Well, I think there are a lot of pre-conceptions about travelling to places that aren’t so friendly towards my community. Many are sadly correct but some amazingly couldn’t be further from the truth. For example when I visited Iran, I was incredibly relieved to discover LGBT life does exist and although Grindr and many other hook-up apps are banned, the joys of using a VPN can easily get you linked up to the local community. I’ve never had so much attention before, but I think it helps being fair and having blue eyes *cough* man-magnet!

I decide to visit these places based on the fact that many religious leaders state that no gay people actually exist in their countries. Well I’m sorry to crush that “statistic” but even in far-flung places like Turkmenistan, Iraq and Eritrea I have experienced gay life and local residents who are trying to make the most of their lives, even if their own government wishes to persecute them. I respect these people because it’s likely that they have no choice but to stay and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them to try to live openly in a homophobic society.

When I arrive in a new country where I don’t know anyone, anybody could literally do anything to me. Maybe that’s part of the excitement, for me it is also part of the adventure and forms a part of my own personal development. Where would I be if I live my life the way I’m supposed to, right? By travelling to a country and meeting people; many of whom have never met a gay person before, I’m broadening their horizons and teaching them that I’m not one of their pre-conceived ideas, I am also simply just a human being like them.

I’m thankful to say I’ve never encountered any remorse or animosity towards me as a gay guy whilst travelling (that I’ve noticed), however I’m more than aware of some of the horror stories. I think the recent Orlando terrorist/hate attack proves that sadly nowhere in the world is safe anymore, but you can stand up to hatred and thankfully the most unlikely people have been standing side by side with the LGBT community in their grief.

Before you begin to think this post is an attack on the straight people of the word…believe me, it isn’t. However if you are straight, have you ever stopped to think what would happen if being straight wasn’t the “norm”, if you went to kiss your girlfriend/boyfriend but it was frowned upon in society, what would it feel like to fear being attacked? This is why gay pride parades around the world still exist.

After travelling the world my advice to anybody LGBT thinking of visiting a country that may not be best friends with us, simply plan your trip very carefully, read forums and blog posts regarding the latest news and updates and try to connect with the local community who will no doubt be incredibly pleased to see and welcome you.

If you’d like any advice on any of the countries I’ve visited and what LGBT scene (if any) exists, please message me via my Facebook page.

Love Wins.

Love is Love.

Be proud of who you are.

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Explore Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital and city of the future

Kazakhstan might be best known for its vast barren landscapes but since 1998 when Astana became the capital city, it has rapidly developed into a city of the future. Known as the Dubai of Central Asia, Astana is growing at an alarming rate but is it always for the best? Let’s find out…

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Exploring Astana:

Most people have probably never even heard of Astana but believe me in the future you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about it. Thankfully I visited in the summertime when it was a beautiful 26 degrees, however this city is officially the second coldest capital city in the world, after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.  

The only way I can describe Astana is odd, one minute you’ll be walking past a gold, sparkly new 5* hotel and then directly next door is a run down house that has been there for years and is about to fall down. However this city has some of the most futuristic buildings that I’ve ever seen and for that I’ll always remember it fondly.

Here are some of my favourite places that I visited:

Bayterek Tower

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The jewel in Astana’s tourism crown, standing at over 105m the Bayterek (meaning popular in Kazakh) Tower provides a picturesque panorama over the city and to the steppe beyond. Amazingly it only costs 500 Tenge (Approx. £1) to visit, so it’s incredible value-for-money. Sadly someone decided to tint the glass yellow and therefore your photos from inside will end up looking slightly odd.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex

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This crazy tent-inspired structure is the largest marquee in the world! Designed by British architect, Norman Foster, it should be far more famous but sadly most people have never even heard of it. I found it similar to the shopping malls of the Middle East as the whacky Khan Shatyr houses its own water park, indoor river, monorail and even an indoor beach with sand specially imported from the Maldives!

Hazrat Sultan Mosque

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After completion in 2005, the Hazrat Sultan Mosque is now the largest in the whole of Kazakhstan with the ability to house more than 10,000 worshippers. In a country where 67% of the population identify themselves as Muslim, for me it was nice to see that the Kazakh people are tolerant of other religions and thankfully it also isn’t illegal to be gay here. There’s still a long way to go but I’m pleased that I was able to visit and roam freely.

Kazakh National University of the Arts/ Shabyt (aka the Dog Bowl)

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I’ve worked at several Universities in London and I can easily say that none of them looked like this! Please can I get a job here?!

Metropolitan Circus (aka the Flying Saucer) 

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Wow! The aliens have landed and built a flying saucer for a circus, well weirder things have happened. As one of the most futuristic-looking buildings in Astana this place certainly catches your attention. It simply looks like a UFO just landed, all credit must go to President Nazarbayev, who came up with the initial idea.

Duman Entertainment Complex 

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This place is just insane, at over 3,000km away from the nearest ocean, it houses the world’s largest oceanarium that’s furthest away from the sea! With sharks, turtles and even local Kazakhstan fish you’ll be amazed at the wonders of the deep. Oh and although it’s mostly for kids, there’s even a mermaid who comes along every hour or so and dives in!

Once you’ve had enough of the fishes you can also check out the 5D or 8D cinema or maybe even the fake jungle. Quite literally like nothing I’ve ever seen, advanced isn’t the word.

Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall

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What would a concert hall be if it wasn’t shaped like the layered petals of a rose? Well Astana has built just that and it houses some of the most prestigious classical music and dance performances.

There are several other incredible buildings/structures that sadly I didn’t get chance to visit but these include a musical fountain, an entire suburb called Family Town designed specifically only for couples and their children and even three amazing apartment buildings called the Northern Lights that illuminate the sky at night inspired by the Aurora Borealis.

Travelling in Astana

Sadly when the town planners got involved in making Astana a city of the future they failed to factor pedestrians into the equation as many of the pavements that should be there, well aren’t! The distances between things are also pretty far so you might want to hire a car or take taxis everywhere, however you’ll need to speak a bit of Russian to avoid being ripped off.

I paid 2,500 Tenge from the airport to my hotel and as a general rule anywhere south of the river costs between 500 – 1,000 Tenge or north costs up to 1,500 Tenge.

There are city buses but every time I saw one they were completely full with people squashed against the windows, however they are cheap at only 90 Tenge per journey.

I couldn’t resist but add this to my article, during my time travelling in Kazakhstan I discovered there’s an airline called Scat! You just can’t make this sh…tuff up.

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Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions.

Explore Kazakhstan’s former capital city Almaty in my previous blog article here.

You can also visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

What to see in Almaty, Kazakhstan

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Almaty – although sadly no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, it is however the largest city and a cultural heartland of the world’s ninth biggest country. Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell you where Kazakhstan is on a map, nor could they tell you what it’s famous for (don’t mention Borat)!

Thankfully the country is finally beginning to open up and see the advantages of attracting tourists. This started in 2015 when they relaxed the visa entry requirements for several countries including the U.K and U.S.

Why should you visit? What is there to see? Well, there’s a surprising amount given that most Western tourists haven’t discovered it…yet!

Where to stay?

When booking a trip somewhere I find that one of the most exciting parts is deciding where to stay (I know, I’m a geek)! I opted for the 4* Worldhotel Saltanat Hotel located in the old part of the city, a perfect location for me to go and explore all that Almaty has to offer.

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They always say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, usually I skip it but I couldn’t resist the lavish spread. Who can resist chocolate pancakes, beautiful fresh fruit or even mini lemon meringue tarts! YUM.

I often find that with hotel beds you either get one that’s really hard or really soft, well thankfully for me the Saltanat was definitely a happy medium and I was so comfortable that I even overslept one day making me late for my tour. The only way I can describe them is like sleeping on a cloud, that’s when you know you’re truly in a home-from-home and I’ll definitely stay here again when I come back to visit Almaty.

I’m always looking for a bargain and with the Kazakh currency being devalued by 100%, now is the perfect time to visit if you are looking for good value for money.

What to see in Almaty

As the largest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty is focussed on becoming a financial, educational, cultural, sports and transport centre. The city itself is surrounded by picturesque scenery from the Tien Shan Mountains with plentiful opportunities to climb to the top of snow-capped peaks, ski slopes and even desert safaris. Almaty offers everything!

I was lucky enough to spend four days in the city, it’s easy enough to put your walking boots on and wander, people are friendly and will help you if you get lost (if they can speak English).

Top photos: Green Market fruits and cheeses. Bottom L photo: 28 Panfilov Park. Bottom R photo: Ascension (Zenkov's) Cathedral

Top photos: Green Market fruits and cheeses.
Bottom L photo: 28 Panfilov Park.
Bottom R photo: Ascension (Zenkov’s) Cathedral

Make sure you take a walk around Panfilov Park, you’ll find 28 Panfilov Park memorial in honour of the 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow and also the eternal flame to commemorate those who died during 1917-20 Civil War and World War 2. Within the same vicinity is Ascension (Zenkov’s) Cathedral, claimed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world.

One of my favourite things about travelling is trying new and exotic foods, well in Kazakhstan you’ll certainly get the opportunity as the national dish is horse. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, however to me it tasted similar to beef and was actually really tasty so I was pleasantly surprised. If you’re wandering around Almaty make sure you head to the Green Market, this is close to Panfilov Park, as you’ll get the chance to sample lots of fresh fruit, cheese, chocolate and many other local specialities.

Often described as a tourist-trap, Kok-Tobe (Green Hill) is a cable car ride that takes you from downtown Almaty up to the TV tower for fantastic panoramic views overlooking the city. It costs 2,000 Tenge (just over £4) for a return ticket so I thought it was affordable and when you get to the top you’ll discover the most random statue ever…of the Beatles?!

Top: Beatles statue at Kok Tobe Bottom L: Shymbulak ski resort Bottom R: Medeu high-mountain complex

Top: Beatles statue at Kok Tobe
Bottom L: Shymbulak ski resort
Bottom R: Medeu high-mountain complex

In 2017 Kazakhstan will host the 2017 Winter Universiade for the first time. It’s an exciting time for the country after sadly unsuccessfully trying to win the 2022 Winter Olympics, the city lost out to Beijing. Medeu is a high-mountain complex that’s easy to visit using bus number 12 from downtown Almaty, just make sure you don’t get stuck by the ever-changing weather.

Sadly for me the cable cars weren’t working when I visited and also the ice rink was closed too, a recurring theme on my trip here. This meant that my exercise for the day was to walk up the steps that are the equivalent of a 15 story building to see the view of Shymbulak.

Although not strictly in Almaty, the Charyn Canyon is a must-see place if visiting the city. It’s located 200km to the east, very close to the Chinese border and can be reached within 3 hours but you’ll need to join an organised tour or drive yourself as there’s no public transport to this area. Sadly for me I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon in the United States, but I’ve heard this place is often rated a close second in terms of vastness and natural beauty.

Unfortunately for me I can only speak a few words in Russian, my driver/guide for the day couldn’t speak any English so I spent the day trying to figure out what the hell was going on. As I booked quite last-minute I booked a private tour which cost 32,000 Tenge (£70) but you according to local people you can easily pick up a group tour for around 7,000 Tenge.

It's only 12 million years old!

It’s only 12 million years old!

I had intended to visit Almaty Lake but due to the hideous weather conditions that occurred during May 2016 the road was washed away and I was unable to visit. Ah well, thankfully it gives me an excuse to return!

Getting around the city:

When you arrive in Almaty, don’t do what I did and take a taxi offer from inside the airport, simply step outside and you’ll see the official taxis. Unfortunately for me I got ripped off big time by an unofficial rogue driver who decided to try to charge me 40,000 Tenge (Approx. £90) for a 15km journey. Thankfully I’d already heard that it should cost 4,000 Tenge, sadly for me he wasn’t going to go any lower than 10,000. Lesson learned!

Just one of the nine beautifully designed Metro stations, try to visit at least one if you visit Almaty!

Just one of the nine beautifully designed Metro stations, try to visit at least one if you visit Almaty!

Almaty surely must win the prize for the easiest city to get around in Central Asia, especially now the metro has been completed. With only 9 stations, each one is individually designed and I highly recommend that you check out each one. It took a massive 23 years to build but was finally completed in 2011. I found it really easy to use with signs in both Russian and English, it’s modern and clean, I just hope they’ll be able to afford to expand it to take in other parts of the city.

Oh and it’ll only cost you 80 Tenge for each journey (approximately £0.15p)!

Travel to Almaty:

I arrived by flying from Kiev, however there are direct flights from many European, Asian and Middle Eastern destinations.

One thing I would say is don’t be afraid to visit Kazakhstan, you’ll find hospitable, friendly locals who will be more than happy to help you if they can. Just be aware that not many people speak English and you’ll need to learn some Russian phrases, here’s some basics:

  • Hello – Zdravstvuyte
  • Hi – Pri’viet
  • Bye – Pa’ka
  • Please – Pozhaluysta
  • Thank you – Spa’siba
  • Yes – Da
  • No – Niet

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions.

Explore Kazakhstan’s new capital and city of the future, Astana.

You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.