Hopping off a boat and cycling into a new country is a strange and unique experience. You don’t get that feeling of helplessness while stumbling around whatever station you’ve arrived at, be it plane, boat, train, or bus. You don’t have to shit yourself about learning an entirely new public transport system, or about what to pay for a taxi, or about which of the thirty mustachioed men screaming at you are going to overcharge you and laugh about it later as they stuff noodles into their face and get grease in their lip hair. You just stroll out the door, climb on your bike, and instantly blend in. And by blend in, I mean be super-obvious on a bike covered in bags, and have a foreign face (in my case).
When you arrive in South Korea and realise that Google maps doesn’t work because of an arcane law where Korea refuses to give mapping information to other countries, you haven’t booked anywhere to stay, you can’t speak the language, and everything is written in Hangul, then you are allowed to feel a little bit helpless.
We did actually book a hostel to stay in, but when we arrived at 9 a.m. it looked very closed. Knocking and ringing proved useless, so we cycled around until we found an unsecured wifi network called IPTIME. IPTIME could be found all over Korea, and didn’t seem to require agreeing to any online forms. We would use it often during our cycling. Perhaps some shady Korean boffins were harvesting our data while we were hooked into IPTIME, but they weren’t likely to harvest anything particularly interesting. Map routes and restaurant locations were about the extent of our public searching.With internet available, we contacted the hostel people and sorted everything out. Check in wasn’t until 3 p.m., but we could leave our bags there for the time being. And so we spent the day cycling around Busan.
It was our first taste of Korea, and the most obvious and apparent difference from our last few months was a return to spastic traffic. It was very similar to Chinese traffic, which is to say not as mental as Vietnam and not as boring as Japan. There was honking, running of red lights, near-crashes, and motorbikes on the footpaths, but there was also a kind of semi-order where people generally stayed in the correct lanes. The roads were paved and contained few holes, and the footpaths were wonky with rogue bricks. Plastic bags roamed the avenues like black tumbleweeds, there was an unpleasant smell that wouldn’t go away, and old women sold food and vegetables on the streets. Things in Busan were kind of a shambles. It felt like a city with no planners at the helm, growing all over the place in a hodge-podge array of tangled alleys, weird intersections, factories, apartment blocks, malls, and general stores. The characters roaming the streets here seemed far more jovial than their Japanese counterparts, and the atmosphere felt extremely vibrant. ‘Dynamic Busan’, is the official tag line for the city, and it’s very appropriate.
We wanted to cycle to Seoul. It’s a common route, and an amazing 600 km cycle path connects the two cities. It is supposed to be a great route for new touring cyclists, and is grandly named ‘The 4 Rivers Cycle Trail’. Great lengths have been gone to by the Korean government to keep the cycle route away from traffic, and the rivers it follows are mostly flat. Bike-only bridges have been built, and old railway tunnels have been converted into bike-only paths through mountains. Wooden boardwalks have been constructed along routes previously only available to trains. It seems like a cyclist’s dream, and so of course, we went a different way instead.
Jan Boonstra runs a website filled with crazy gifs called ‘Bicycling in Korea’. He has his own optimal route for travelling between Busan and Seoul which he developed several years before the relatively new 4 Rivers Cycle Trail was built. One of the main concerns is that the 4 Rivers trail tends to avoid small villages, arguably one of the highlights of cycle touring. Jan sends the GPS information of his route and a set of maps to anybody who requests them, and so Caroline did just that. We left Busan early on a Monday morning.
Caroline’s bike had been making a weird, clunking noise for about two weeks, and the mechanics we took it to in Japan brushed us off with things like, “It’ll take several days to fix.” Caroline just dealt with the noise, and in the evening after a cycle we would both conveniently forget to try and figure out what the problem might be. We knew it was something inside the pedal, but we’re limited in our repair skills. On our first day cycling in Korea, the clunking noise began to drive Caroline slowly mad, and so we decided to shorten our ride and deal with the issue.
Because there are so many cyclists racing around in Korea in fancy spandex, there are a large number of bike stores – especially around the areas with dedicated cycle lanes. The first mechanic we went to was very friendly, but he couldn’t fix the bike. He gave us coffee and took photos with us, but that was about the extent of it. The second bike shop, a dedicated Merida store (our bikes are Merida), was closed. The third place was where we struck gold.
We realised the mechanic knew what he was doing the moment he put his hands on the bike. He wasn’t tentative or polite, he just went in guns blazing with all the correct tools, and soon diagnosed the problem: Caroline needed a new bottom bracket. What is a bottom bracket, I hear you ask. I’ll tell you: it’s something we didn’t have a spare one of. Please consult your local library for further information.
In a country filled with road bikes, racing bikes, and mountain bikes, it wasn’t a huge surprise to learn that the bike store didn’t have a bottom bracket for our weird, Chinese made touring bike. Five men, all other cyclists, stood around our sad bicycle while the mechanic was deciding what to do. They asked us many questions that we didn’t understand, but seemed content with our basic, probably unrelated answers.
“What size spindle is in the crankset?” they might have asked.
“New Zealand,” I’d reply.
They would nod thoughtfully. “Is is cartridge bearing, or one-piece?”
“We came from Japan!”
We were told to wait at a table, watch baseball, and drink coffee. Soon, one of the men approached us and made lots of pointing gestures, then he hopped in his car and drove away. Half an hour later, he was back with a fitting bottom bracket. The mechanic installed it, we paid about $20, and they sent us on our way.
“Where will you stay?” asked one who could speak a little English.
We shrugged. “Motel?”
To this, they laughed, and pointed towards town. “That way!”
We soon discovered the reason for their mirth. Yangsan was filled with discreet love motels. We chose one that didn’t seem completely seedy, and walked inside. Lengths of rope hung over the entrance to keep prying eyes out, and the receptionist sat behind blackout glass with a tiny hand-hole. Business would be conducted without any party seeing the other. We paid our cash, then a hand gave us a key and a goody bag: toothbrushes, a disposable razor, shaving gel, and a ‘ladies set’ consisting of a hair tie, cotton pads, and cotton buds. There was also a sachet of body massage oil and a couple of condoms.
30-something percent of Jan’s special cycle route is the same as the 4 Rivers path, and at this early stage of the game we were still on it. The ride away from the Busan region was a dreary and uninteresting mix of brown, dug up crops, muddy farm equipment, and a river without much water. Gloomy identical apartment buildings with large numbers on them rose up from the ground like tombstones. “Where do you live?” “Floor TWELVE, concrete rectangle SEVEN.”
We were worried that all of Korea might be like this, but the big city hangover slowly faded away and we found ourselves in what looked like familiar surroundings. Were we back in rural China? It certainly appeared that way. Clay huts, rice fields, and trees overflowing with persimmons made up the foreground of our cycle. The landscape was mountainous, and the early winter sun sitting low in the blue sky made everything awfully dramatic. Korean drama at its finest. It was all very lovely, and it got lovelier as we veered away from the cycle path and into the rolling hills of the North Gyeongsang province
“Hello! Welcome!” called a woman as we rolled into the tiny town of Sannae. We were slowly realising just how many people in Korea could speak at least a little bit of English. The woman kept walking as we waved in reply, and disappeared into a shop.
Camping was officially ruled out after we realised how cold the evenings were going to be. We had a couple of miserably cold camps in Japan, and the temperature here was going to drop the further north we rode. Even with blue sky and sun we still wore jackets and gloves, and at night the mercury was dropping to 3 degrees Celsius. The motels we found were always warm with heated floors and electric blankets. Our motel in Sannae was no exception, and the room we were given was immaculate. I think we were the only guests there, and we had a great view of an abandoned restaurant shaped like a pyramid with a pig face on it.
It rained on our third day, but after the typhoons of Japan, Korea’s rain failed to make us miserable. Also, the fact that we were staying in motels instead of a tent was an amazing boost to our comfort and happiness levels; we felt very refreshed every morning. The road continued in a rural fashion, and a moderate headwind made our progress slow. We got 10 km past Cheong tong, and planned to find a motel in Sinnyeong, but both places were full due to some sort of function.
Backtracking is always lame, but we soon realised we didn’t have much choice. We rode back 10km and found a brand new, rather luxurious motel for cheap. It too, was awfully discreet. A talking machine in the lobby dispensed room keys after guests paid for an hour or two, but it didn’t seem to offer a full night. We dinged a bell and spoke through the tiny sliding window to the woman in charge. When she realised that we weren’t there for an anonymous sexy rendezvous, she came out of her privacy hole and helped us sort out our belongings. All the owners of these love motels seemed to be middle-aged, friendly women, not the smeared singlet-wearing, sweaty, mothball-smelling men you might expect.
The room was tastefully decorated and very welcoming, although this was definitely a love motel; there were several things that gave the game away: under-bed lighting, short robes, massage oils, and perhaps most obviously, a vending machine in the corridor that dispensed dildos.
It had been a great few days of cycling. We hadn’t yet ridden much of the 4 Rivers dedicated cycle path, but Jan’s roads were almost always void of traffic. Only on the very rare occasion where his route would cross main roads did we have to share it with trucks.
My rear gears were giving me grief, so I attempted to adjust the bit that makes the gears change (it’s called a derailleur). I turned screws, twisted bits, tugged things, and finally snapped the cable. We don’t carry spare cables, so Caroline quickly found a bike mechanic nearby using Naver Maps, Korea’s non-English answer to Google maps, and I proceeded to race through town, stuck in the highest gear, to beg for help.
While the mechanic was desperately trying to remove the bit of stuck cable from the inner workings of my shifter, a man approached the workshop. He was possibly in his fifties, and wore an ill-fitting, mint green sports jacket and track pants. He had a concealed radio which blasted Korean crooning music, and he sported orange tinted glasses. He regarded me for a moment, then put his hand on the bike seat to help steady it. The mechanic, in a frustrated tone, told him to let go. The man did so, then looked at me again. Then he asked me something, to which I shrugged. He kept standing there, with his music blasting, until the mechanic finally cracked and yelled at him to go away. The man muttered something, and ambled off up the street. Eventually, the bike was fixed.
Right in the middle of South Korea is a cluster of mountains, and anybody who wants to cycle between Busan and Seoul (using a direct route) has to cross them. We knew the mountain pass was coming, so we stayed in the town before the climb and worried about how hard it was going to be. In the end, we built it up to be something more terrifying than it actually was, and we made it over the pass easily.
At the top, a large, noisy group of Korean tourists waited in line to use the toilet. It got Caroline and I talking about the bad reputation that Chinese tourists have globally (have you heard? They shit everywhere!), and why that reputation is so bad considering the Chinese people we met in China were often friendly, considerate, and polite. They weren’t any better or worse (by snobby first world standards) than people in countries without such terrible reputations. In Japan, the county of supposed unrelenting politeness, we saw enough open-mouth chewers, drain spitters, phlegm lobbers, and snot sniffers to completely throw the politeness myth out the window. We came to the conclusion that countries all over Asia (and presumably the world) have their gross people and their nice people. Birds of a feather flock together, and all the asshole birds (think black swans or cassowaries) seem to join tour groups. I’m not sure where this rant is going, so let’s move on.
The closer we got to Seoul, the more cyclists we saw. North of Busan we would see maybe one or two per day, but nearer to towns like Yangseo and Yangpyeong they were countless. All these riders seemed to have very shiny and expensive looking bikes, and branded spandex to match. I’m not sure what they thought of our ensembles (cardigans, tramping shoes, $1 sunglasses, hoodies, shorts that weren’t made from weapons-grade Kevlar), but we certainly didn’t look the part.
A particularly proud moment for us was when we were climbing a short, steep hill outside of Seoul. It was probably only about 300 metres, but the grade was something close to 20%. If you have no idea whether or not that’s difficult, rest assured: it is. Just as we began the climb, two spandex ninjas with bikes from the future overtook us. About halfway up the climb, with our heavy-ass bikes and bags laden with clothes and camping equipment, we overtook one of them. Ha!
And so we carried on up through South Korea, eating fantastic meals and enjoying nearly car-free cycling. There was a hot piece of political news inside Korea which took up a lot of TV time inside the restaurants we ate at. South Korea’s president was under fire in an unravelling scandal that was so juicy it was almost unbelievable. I’m not even going to try and write about it here, but essentially President Park was close friends with a cult leader’s daughter who may or may not have be psychic. She had been wielding influence over Park for years, and had been given access to classified government documents during that time, despite having no authority to do so. There are a ton of exciting conspiracy theories around the saga, which you can find by Googling. Western media isn’t really covering it much because, you know, Trump this and Hillary that, but it’s a huge deal in Korea. So huge, in fact, that tens of thousands of Koreans took the streets of Seoul in protest during our cycle. We didn’t see it first hand, because we were still a few days ride away.
We carried on cycling in a comfortable fashion, and finally ended our 8-day trip in Goyang, a city just west of Seoul. We planned on being in Seoul for at least two weeks, because our future travel plans required applying for a lot of complicated visas.
We’d like to say thank you to Mr Jan Boonstra, the man I mentioned earlier who supplied us with all the maps and a route to make our cycle pain-free and enjoyable. Thanks Jan!
Now, at this point you might be thinking, “That’s fine, David, but you’re in South Korea. What about the food?”
I didn’t forget: