For a long time my friend Tim and I had been talking about doing a cycling tour across South Korea and the obvious one to do was from Seoul to Busan, the two largest cities on the peninsula. We knew people who had done it previously and it seemed like something we'd be able to take on. The distance itself is not that epic, only 500km, but we were going to have quite a tight schedule - 5 days (I would argue 4 and a half days). We dubbed this trip "CYCLOPATH!"
In terms of planning the route we really didn't have a clue which way we were going to go. One cyclist had suggested that we take the highway straight to Busan which sounded like my idea of a living hell, so I scoured the internet to find some useful suggestions and stumbled across Jan Boonstra's homepage. Jan has cycled all over Korea and has put together some incredibly detailed maps of how to cycle from Seoul to Busan and vice versa, so I got in touch with him and he gladly emailed the maps to me. Jan has broken down the journey into 13 maps all marked with accommodation and other useful sorts of info such as the elevation along the way. His website also provides some written instructions for some of the trickier parts of the way.This was a godsend and we can't thank Jan enough for the help he gave us. It kept us off the highway and allowed us to see some of the more remote rural parts of the country.
The Route Map, courtesy of Jan Boonstra.
Now we needed to put the finishing touches to our crew. The difficult thing in Korea is finding people that actually have the time off to indulge in an activity like this. Most teaching jobs here give you next to no time off for holidays especially hagwons (private academies) and after school programs. If we were to put a crew together we would need to find people that work at either a university or a public school. Tim and I both happened to work at universities so we had plenty of time off for this excursion. In fact despite working on opposite sides of the country our schedules were almost completely identical. One of my oldest friends in Korea, Gibby, had also expressed interest in cycling from Seoul to Busan. Now this was super convenient as he was also Tim's co-worker, so everything fell into place. A three man crew was assembled!
The only bike I had owned in recent years was a Dahon Speed D7 which I used for commuting around Seoul and Gwangju. It's a great bike but completely inappropriate for any long cycles so I simply had to get hold of a new bike. Being on a pretty tight budget I wanted something that wouldn't be too costly. I also didn't want to spend 5 days hunched over a road bike so I ended up opting for a Giant Escape, a hybrid. I can't remember exactly how much it cost me, but I think it was around 300,000 KRW. The stock saddle that came with it was pretty uncomfortable so I ended up splashing out on a Brooks B17 Imperial. It was not cheap at all, but it has been worth every penny spent in comfort.
Gibby opted to take a road bike as did Tim, but the crazy twist is that Tim's bike was a heavy single speed beast from the seventies. I thought that Tim was out of his mind and to be honest I still do to this day! There was no way in hell that he could traverse this mountainous country on a single speed. Well, that's what I thought. Not only did he complete this trip, but he dominated it the whole way. With the exception of just a few ridiculous climbs he nailed it. Never tell Tim he can't do something because he's stubborn, superhuman and will simply prove you wrong.
Day One: Seoul to Yangpyeong.
The day before we set off I chatted to my friend Hassan to try and get him involved. I wasn't sure if he would make it but right at the last minute he appeared so our crew tally rose to four.
It was to be a late start in the afternoon on Sunday 17th April and I like to argue that this was actually a half day of cycling. We spent the previous night out at SHAKE, a dance party in Seoul where I was DJing. I didn't get finished until about 5:30 am that morning and it had been a heavy night involving plenty of tequila and beer. It was a dreadful option considering that we were going to end up cycling 68km that day. I would say that I probably only managed to get about four hours sleep that night. Those are not preparations that I would recommend to anyone!
Day One route: 68km
We set off from Kyungridan in Seoul and headed down to Banpo Bridge to get to the south side of the Han River. From here we headed east along the river on the cycle path towards Hanam City. It's a good route to get out of Seoul as you avoid all of the nasty roads this sprawling metropolis has to throw at you, but you still have to contend with the weekend surge of cyclists along the cycle path which is actually much more erratic and unpredictable than real traffic.
This is Hanam City on the other side of the river. You can safely say that you've left Seoul once you get to this spot.
The Paldang Dam, just east of Seoul. It's a nice spot for a drink break and some bondaegi (boiled silkworm larvae) if that takes your fancy. I found it funny how many people would stop here and get there photo taken with it in the background. It's not exactly a stunning beauty spot.
Gibby expresses his joy - at what exactly, I'm not sure.
"We've arrived!". IPhone updates in Yangpyeong. This is the first time I've ever interacted with a complete group of iPhone users. All of us had recently acquired one and it was evident through the perennial texting and internet updating. It's all too easy to become detached from your surroundings when you have one of these devices. That said, Cyclemeter is a brilliant application and it came in really handy during this trip. If only I could have remembered to fully charge the damn phone!
Tim's a vegetarian. When we rolled into Yangpyeong we headed to a dalkgalbi restaurant. I can't remember whether we all ate a vegetarian option or if they just brought Tim his own dish. Either way the ajossi who ran the restaurant (below) was enthusiastic, drunk and dying to help us. He inspected our maps and tried to give us some advice. He pretty much just ended up telling us that there were a bunch of hills ahead. At least we were warned and we knew what was coming the next day.
Day Two: Yangpyeong to Chungju.
Day Two route: 105km
Inspecting the maps in the first kimbap cheonguk restaurant we found. Each day was started by consuming gargantuan quantities of food. I was adamant that we needed to eat thousands of calories a day. I'm sticking with that line of thought, but in hindsight those calories should probably have been from a much healthier selection of food. Snickers bars were probably not the best source of energy.
Gibby and I had racks and panniers, but Tim and Hassan had initially worn backpacks. On day two they bought some cheap seatpost racks and bungees to strap their bags to. Cycling long distance wearing a heavy backpack is not a fun experience. Also being April it was threatening to shower and there was still some chilly breezes, so a few of us bought some cheap anoraks to act as windbreakers. Only later in the day did we spot the labels on the anoraks: "Stubbies Schoolwear". What a bunch of dorks.
Near Yeoju we passed some signposts for Yeongneung - the tomb of King Sejong (1397-1450). None of us had any idea that we would be passing this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were making good time and felt it would have been rude not to have swung by. King Sejong "the Great" introduced Hangeul, the current Korean alphabet system which replaced Hanja (Chinese characters).
National Pride, even in electrical sockets.
We decided to try and take a little scenic detour. A slightly bumpy one at that.
Soon it became downright obvious that we had done a god awful job of reading the explanation of the detour. The roads turned into dirt tracks and the hills became outrageously steep.
I ran ahead up the hill to see if I could find any roads in the near distance. It was a beautiful vista but there was nothing much to tell the others about. We were lost.
The the dirt tracks just turned into leafy forests trails.
Jan Boonstra's maps and details were faultless, but at times we were seemingly inept at interpreting them! We got completely lost at this point. "DAMN YOU, BOONSTRA!!!" we cried. We started envisaging him as some kind of omnipotent being watching over us. Sending us through these tests of faith.
We decided to trek on through the forest and up over a hill to see where it lead. Turning back was not an option and it was kind of exciting to be getting lost. Potentially things could have got a lot worse but the situation swiftly improved. We found a clearing in the forest and spotted a farmhouse just down the way.
Dogs howled and barked like crazy as we approached the farmhouse. It was a remote area and I was a little bit worried about what the residents would think when they saw four foreign cyclists emerging from the forests and trespassing on their property. This would be our first real interaction with rural Korean folk. I desperately hoped that they wouldn't be too alarmed or hostile. I can't stand awkward confrontations, especially when there's a language barrier.
A cross-eyed farmer came out from his house as we walked by and offered us some tea. He reacted like he witnessed this kind of scene everyday. I was pretty relieved. The farmer chatted to Hassan in Korean and proudly showed us the concrete drive that he had built down to the main road. It wasn't half bad! We thanked him for the offer of tea but politely declined and headed on our way as we tried to make up for lost time.
At the bottom of the farmer's drive we passed this calm mirrored pond. We were back on our way. Boonstra had delivered us to safety!
Jungangtap pagoda: Korean National Treasure, no 6!
This spot marks the centre of Korea. It's the highest seven storey pagoda that remains from the Silla Dynasty. We found it in a sculpture park as we approached Chungju. There is a liquor museum somewhere nearby, but we didn't have time to visit. The skies were getting dark and we had hadn't planned on cycling at night so we pressed on ahead.
GERMANIAC! Korean beer has to be the worst beer on the planet, so I happily indulged in this ridiculously named beer once we arrived in Chungju. We were shattered and getting pretty cranky so we hit up the first convenience store to get some snacks and beer.
Once we found a motel for the night we headed out to get some food. Eventually we went to a Chinese restaurant to eat dinner but beforehand I had to stop off at an odeng tent to stop myself going delirious. I love a cup of odeng broth on a cold night.
Finally we got in a taxi and made our way to a sauna to soak our aching legs for an hour before heading back to the motel to crash out. This was the most cycling any of us had done in eons.
We had cycled 105km and it felt like an eternal day of cycling but it was nothing compared to what lay ahead on day three.
(photos: Alasdair - apologies for the quality. My regular camera broke on New Year's Eve, so all of the photos were taken on my iPhone)
part one - part two - part three