2015 May. Cycling around South Korea

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Most of you are still wondering what made me decide to go to South Korea for three weeks of bike riding ? Is it because it is there, because it’s a country I’ve never been to or because I am doing a survey to confirm that Korean food is not as bad as everyone says ? Probably a bit of each.


The food was ok but pickled cabbage with everything ?

Anyway to give you a heads up I have attached some details on the official South Korean website for 4 Rivers, the Korean Government’s official bid to get more people into South Korea and onto a purpose-built cycle system, free of cars and spanning large chunks of the country. check out their websiteFour River guide to cycling in South Korea  This is in stark contrast to their other official tourist attraction, staring down North Korean soldiers at the DMZ ! So I head off on Mothers Day the 10th May for three weeks of exploring a country I know little, no, nothing of.
Hopefully I return having completed the whole 4 Rivers cycle system, about 1000 kms and a love of Korean food ? I’ll try to keep you all up to date on my progress.

I’ve fought the teeming masses in China, bowed repeatedly till I was dizzy in Japan which just left the country in the middle…Korea or to be more exact, South Korea to explore. I’d heard about the cycling there and after checking out some other cyclist’s stories was keen to go.n There was also the chance to get fit and escape the start of Melbourne’s winter, I figured why not. In fact the description was of a cycle friendly country with a network of car free paths criss-crossing the countryside….too easy. I immediately bought a ticket found a hotel for the first two nights and my last two nights and left the middle couple of weeks to wherever I found myself at day’s end, my simplest tour yet. That statement will come back to bite me, I’m sure.
I spent the first day sightseeing up at the border between North and South Korea, the DMZ. I wasn’t getting into the North, evidently you have to be crazier than the dictator Kim Jong-Un to get an invite. The fact that North Korea had displayed their military might the day before I arrived by shooting a whopping great missile from the sea only helped to heighten the situation. The local South Koreans, nervous that the nutcase from the North was about to rain terror down on them was tangible. Eyeballing each other across no-mans land is a big tourism show here. South Korea have even built a five-storey observation towers to peer down on their neighbours. Anyway the morning was full of tension. Our tour concludes by visiting the discovered invasion tunnels evidently built by the North Koreans. We entered the tunnel, immediately banging our heads. We stooped even lower and clambered, bent in half, John Cleese style, till we had gone 500m along. Later we stood wondering why we’d done that. These tunnels were evidently found by the South but dug by their crazy Northern neighbours.

P1020345.JPGSouth Korean soldiers being told where they are….yikes !

The following day, news breaks that the North Korean defence minister has been shot for treason. But get this, evidently shot using an anti-aircraft missile in front of the Supreme Leader, (his given title, not mine ) and his cabinet on a military airport runway. Someone should be sent to their room for bad behaviour. Kim? Wished I didn’t know all that stuff, I’m just here to ride my bike and keep out of trouble.

With my traditional amount of nervousness I wheeled my bike out into the streets of Seoul early on day three and peddled away to Ana on the coast to start the ‘four rivers ride.’ I don’t know why I get nervous but it takes a day or two to get into the groove of fitness, rhythm and the unknown. The route covers around 1000 kms and the first leg is from Seoul to Busan, around 660 kms. I bought my cycling passport courtesy of the Government tourism bureau and will stop every so often at English style red telephone boxes to stamp my passport. The passport is my only navigation tool as all of the signage is in Korean which I have yet to decipher and figure I simply won’t. Again I must point out, all I have to do is ride next to rivers, how hard can that be? Except some passport points are on the opposite bank, you have to negotiate every fork. Construction development breaks the joining dots and this never-ending feeling of…..being lost. It’s not a thing, it’s a state of mind and I’m sure it will cause me much backtracking along the way.
The bike path, so far, has been like a super highway with every metre paved, cycle only tunnels through mountains which light up as you trigger sensors and elaborate cycle only bridges.

P1020378.JPGA tunnel one klm long and just for cyclists.

I cruise along, my touring bike loaded, as the locals zoom along on their exotic new carbon fibre jobs all looking like members of a bike gang wearing their lung protective face masks. I wondered what the hell this face mask thing was about until day’s end when my lungs felt sore. It was from all of the pollution and exercising only means you draw more pollution into your lungs, great. I hope the countryside will give me some reprieve.
Five days in and I’m managing to grind out about 100 kms plus / day. Some of that has been backtracking, some of that has been circling towns where the signs have petered out. I have only one constant, that is the four river logo, anything else on a sign means absolutely nothing to me so I circle when unsure instead of finding out when I’m twenty kms past a stamp station, don’t ask it has happened, my legs are screaming at me….concentrate, concentrate.


The bike paths were well signposted but I still got lost ? The red phone box where you stamped your “passport”

The country towns, like in all countries of the world are where you see the real people. All cities are pretty much the same bar their major tourist spots. I was bewildered by the massive number of coffee shops in Seoul, that’s from someone in Melbourne but they smash us whether it be hot or cold they’re sipping away from early morning till deep into the night. I met a saviour at lunchtime the other day. Stopped in the middle of a forest at a small restaurant, nothing else for miles, fatigued and sapped of all energy I ventured in. I start doing charades, rubbing my stomach pointing at eggs and mimicking a fry pan. Yeah, enough to get locked up at home. The lady nods, nothing more. I get a big bowl of soup full of vegetables and a fiery slick of oily chilli heat on top, a bowl of rice and two eggs. I walked from that table like a new man and climbed the first two big hills without a murmur from my legs. One poor soul I passed was walking and there was still two klms to go. You just need to keep the fuel up to those legs.
I have seen a few of the same people, I pass, they pass, I nod, we are all in this together. A few small groups of mates, fresh out of school, putting together a trip that will keep them bonded for many years to come. Most have a small bag of clothes or a small backpack, I swerve wide as I pass, they have a certain odour about them, sweat on sweat ! Few of them smile.
I’ve seen a lot of bird life, four snakes, a young deer flashing through an orchard and a crazy squirrel. The herons look so majestic standing ankle-deep and holding that stare till their foe simply buckle, snap.


There were many snakes sunning themselves on the bike path.

One late afternoon I was startled by a pheasant all gold and browns. I watched it rise before me as bewildered as I was and far less gracefully. How could the British think shooting them was sport ? This morning I sat on an old wobbly plastic chair eating boiled eggs and hot tins of coffee watching the haze burn off the river with only a dispirited guard dog and the shopkeeper for company. His toothless smile and the constant stare from both him and his dog took the edge off a special moment.
Every day gives me some basic pleasures. The end of most days gives me the greatest pain. 90% of this country’s hotels, especially the cheaper ones don’t have the word hotel in their logo, in fact after a week I still don’t know what the Korean sign for hotel is. My questionable method, and Robyn would absolutely kill me for this, is to look for a medium-size building, not too new ($$) with lots of windows. It doesn’t always work mind you, I gate crashed a wedding on Saturday, walked into a council office on my first day ( the girl there did some aerial map photocopies highlighting where the closest hotel was ) It’s hit and miss. Yesterday I found nothing except a swank place. He spoke no English, I pointed to his hotel, like this but showed him a fifty won note. He took me outside and with a downward sneer pointed me at two places I would never have found.
I tell you this because tonight’s hotel is alongside a highway it actually said Hotel and I’d already run out of legs. So I got the hotel real easy but food ? “We ring for you” they say with the most English I’ve heard all day, “you want fly chicken ?” “We get.” Not what I really wanted but its evidently klms to a restaurant. An hour later chicken, corn, a mustard sauce and a 1.25 litre of draught beer poured into an old soft drink bottle arrives on a scooter. The hotel A$40, the delivered chicken and beer A$32 the food was disgusting, the beer lost its fizz after halfway, but the experience was priceless. Tomorrow morning I shall wheel away from here and see what’s around the corner. As long as the river is not far away I ride without fear.


Pointing with confidence but I didn’t have a clue where I was !

I just wanted you lot to know how quickly serenity can be shattered. That the perfect day can just as easily spiral into an ugly, long, long day.
Two days ago, the day started with clouds looming. After an hour it starts spitting. I pull on my wet weather gear and soon after arrive at my first stamp. Head over my handlebars I press on into a slight headwind but making good time. The klms tick over and before I know it I’ve done 80 klkms but something’s not quite right, the signs are further apart and I’ve just noticed the river is running the other way ? I stop, look around and start riding back to find my last sign.
Ten klms back and I find a crossroad and go looking for some English speaker ? I find a shop, four old boys playing cards barely lift their head as I enter, I don’t even open my mouth, it’s deserted and I head back to the crossroad in heavy drizzle. I wave at cars, they wave back and keep driving then a couple of guys stop. They can speak a little English but seem keen to help, they look at my basic map in the passport and scratch their heads. Then the GPS comes out, more talking. He takes my passport/map and draws a circle out in no-where land, you are here. Even I can see I’m up the creek. They shrug their collective shoulders, hand me a fistful of boiled lollies and wave me off. 60 klms back, a total of 120 kms off route, bloody hell. It’s three o’clock when I find my wrong turn at the fork in the river, yes two river paths both marked !
It’s still raining, I grit my teeth and press on trying to regain some of today’s lost klms. 120 klms for nothing is all I can think of. Amongst all of this a few scenes stay etched in my mind. In the far off distance a weir wall, three pipes with water cascading equally through all of them and a lonely figure standing on top of the wall. As I draw level with the weir he materialises into a fisherman. He has draped a net over one of the pipes and is watching the fish plop into it. Like playing three ball tattslotto ! The other is with the sleety rain and light fading I scare not one but six pheasant from the bush alongside the path. The rustle and attempted takeoff, each as ungainly as the next, eventually they get speed, height and become a majestic airborne flock.  I could have got a bag !
As darkness looms I arrive at a passport stamp box, there are three other young Korean cyclists there too, saturated and dejected. A truck pulls up and the driver asks the boys a question, I thought to tell them to get off the road but no. He owns a hotel nearby, he is now gold and yes, next door is a restaurant, I could kiss him. Four of us squeeze in to the front next to him immediately steaming up the windscreen. Our bikes hang out the back tray of his truck. Ten minutes later we are in a rather tired, damp looking hotel, still better than sleeping in a ditch.
I’ve completed 200 kms for the day, a monster effort on the back of the last week although 120 were for nothing, grrr. Everything is saturated including my iPad, how that happened wrapped in plastic inside another plastic bag but there it is. I wash my gear, its full of road grit, I hang it about the room, wash myself and then stagger next door to eat.
I am the only guest, the owner can’t handle me saying “give me anything” and rubbing my stomach, she phones a friend and hands me the phone. She wants to know would you like chicken with rice ? I go to hand the phone back then grab it again, tell her I want beer too…. The chicken is good the beer gone too fast. I return to my room lay on the bed but can’t get to sleep.

IMG_0392The restaurant owner “phoned a friend” to translate my order.

IMG_0391Two boys I met at the last red letterbox in the rain. All forgotten after a shower !

I’m woken by a rooster who sounded as close as the end of my bed, I guess I am in the country. At least it’s not raining, I pull on my gear and I’m out of my room by six am. 145 klms to Busan, the valleys are full of fog some of it from the sun drawing up yesterday’s rain. I have my own head of steam when I find three decent mountains to walk up in the first hour or so. Some 15-18 degree gradients loom, the loaded bike and I trudge up them together the occasional drip of sweat confirmation of tough exertion. it isn’t yet 7am ! There’s been few mountains to walk till today, thank god.

I spare a thought for many doubled-over female farm hands, stooped till they appear at right angles, years of toiling in the wet ground has left them permanently doubled over from planting and tending the rice seedlings. The only others you see amongst all of this farmland are men pumping insecticides onto the fields and tractor after tractor with neat boxes of bright green rice seedlings ready to be jammed into the earth. Before these machines these bent women would have had to walk through the saturated ground bending and planting every single rice seedling, phew.


The rice planting machines

I want to get to Busan and sort out my transport to the next river. By mid afternoon I am in Busan in brilliant sunshine, the wind burning my face. Finally my last stamp for these first two rivers. A representative of Korea Water, who sponsor the bike route, has helped me and printed maps and rung the bus company to check they’ll take my bike. Every day someone has gone that extra mile.
Tomorrow’s bus leaves Busan at midday and I’ve already bought my ticket. I’ve just counted up my week’s riding, seven days for 949 kms, no wonder I feel knackered. And no punctures, I’ve seen two pieces of glass in all that time, the cycling paths are amazing.

I feel like I have sped as fast as two legs can propel a human around South Korea. some of it was fear, fear of not finishing all four rivers, the thing I’d set out to do. Some of it was about the weather especially after the horrendous day of peddling 200 kms in hissing, pissing rain. Part of it was being completely cut off when my damp IPad refused to communicate with the outside world. But the biggest nerve-racking issue was continually getting lost due to my inability to read Korean written directions. When I look back I can honestly say that I have done more than 300 kms of backtracking in my overall total of 1700 kms. My strength was my ability to peddle, my weakness was navigating, I regret not one minute of it. Some of my greatest moments came about from being up the creek without a paddle and I laugh now…..at the time ? Hmm.

IMG_0376My official Four Rivers map was like streamers by day 2.

A standout of the final week’s riding would have to be on arriving at Daechondam with no idea how to progress overland to the next path. It was mid morning and there was no information centre like the others. I looked about and spotted one Westerner with a dozen locals. “Can you point me towards Hapgang Park ?” “No, I can’t but this guy will know” he said pointing at Mr Buck. Sure enough with an air of authority he was waving his group into some kind of order. He also knew how to get to Hapgang Park and did I want to join his bike group, they would go close to my starting point. I nodded and followed, they stopped often to take group photos and at each intersection he would blow this shrill whistle till we had all passed safely.
The next minute I was in a bustling city and four laneways back from civilisation found me parking my bike outside a seafood restaurant. “Lunch” he announced. Inside the place was heaving and we squeezed onto two small tables. Minutes later communal bowls of steaming pippies, small prawns, noodles and stock were placed in the middle of the tables. The guy next to me scooped ladles of soup into each person’s bowl before the happy slurp of contentment stopped the chatter. Some spoke English learnt working for the American military, others simply smiled and nodded approvingly. Full we waddled back onto our bikes and snaked our way across paths I would never have found.

P1020450Mr.Bucks group chow down before directing me on towards Hanging Park.

Mr Buck raised his hand at a fork in the road. “You go this way, follow blue line “, they waved me off. I did as I was told till a bridge with something in Korean sent me off on another path. I slept in a town I did not know and rode on the next day, again only to realise I was, yep, lost. I backtracked for fifty kms, a local guy riding ten klms out of his way to put me back on the track. That was really how it went one person after another tapping me back on course and me trying not to get too stressed about the whole dilemma.
So, a couple of days ago I rolled back into Seoul on a train from Chugju. The only direct train for the day and with no bike storage. I wedge my bike on the entry stair believing the train to be an express with the guard shaking his head disapprovingly but with little conviction. I plonk myself down in my seat. Then the train starts pulling into stations, many stations and each time I need to check which side. There are few on my side but I don’t know this and spend three stressful hours heading towards Seoul. The train fills and there are sixty people between my bike and my seat, I have images of the bike spilling out of the train when the auto door opens or being crushed as the door closes. People are jammed against it. I breathe a long sigh when we pull into Seoul Central, so do the other commuters.
I was expecting to relax in Seoul, put my feet up but my legs couldn’t stop spinning and I went out riding each day. I was rapt that I had accomplished my goal and was still fit and healthy.

P1020464The receptionist at South Korea Water who arranged my medals.

The first day back in Seoul I head to the official start to get my completed cycling passport acknowledged. This is done with a large amount of ceremony. “You will get a medal in six weeks” the receptionist announces. “Please give me your address in Korea.” I live in Melbourne ? A look of concern covers her face and she makes a few phone calls. “You can use my address” she announces “and I will post it on to you.” Typical of the people I have met, this was way outside of her job description, I gave her some money for postage as she protested. I peddled back into Seoul with the pollution stinging my eyes and hurting my chest. Yesterday I headed out again this time into the countryside, fresh air and a final chance to enjoy the perfect cycle paths. I ate lunch at a small cafe in a pine forest then turned back to the metropolis, it doesn’t get much better than this. One day of rain and two and a half weeks of sunshine, May is a perfect time to visit South Korea.

IMG_4037The very official looking medals and certificates arrive in Melbourne.

This morning I packed my bike and had a last look around the city. Soon I head to the airport dragging my bike bag onto the airport bus. What a fantastic experience I’ve had in South Korea. Overhead military choppers buzz about but the thought of imminent attack from crazy Kim in the North never really perturbed me or am I just naive ? For me it’s been the people, almost without exception they have willingly tried to help me. Often with not one word of English to their name and me, well all you can do is smile and hope for the best.