Dates: May 13 – June 3, 2019
Location: Incheon to Busan, South Korea
Distance: 978 km
Photos by Brittany
South Korea might be the easiest place to bike tour in the world. Let me enumerate the reasons:
- 70% of the bicycle network is on cycle-only roads
- On the cross-country route from Seoul to Busan, there are only a half dozen hills. Most days your biggest climb is going over a bridge.
- The route is signed at every single intersection. In most cases it’s impressive if you can manage to get lost.
- There are public toilets everywhere with potable water
- You can camp almost anywhere
- There is a “Cycle Passport”. At major landmarks, a red phone booth with a rubber stamp and ink lets you mark your progress. At the end of each section you get a completion sticker.
The cycle passports especially have a huge motivating effect. Brittany and I were making detours from our intended route onto minor trails in order to collect more stamps meaning we turned a 600 km tour into just under 1000 km.
A typical day for our Korea tour was to wake up around 5:00 a.m. when the sun started to rise and the first of the old ladies or fishermen started moving about the parks. Two hours later the urge to pee could no longer be ignored and we would arise to cook our oatmeal outside the tent. The fireball that is part of preheating the stove can be an object of excitement for some of the people. On one occasion three office workers rushed out from their building because they thought we had set the table on fire. We could usually pack up quickly since the dry air meant a dry tent.
During the remainder of the morning we would generally make good progress on the flat roads built on the tops of the embankments that provide flood protection for the towns and cities. Around noon we would seek out a convenience store for lunch where we would buy whatever drink was on a 2-for-1 special and a few gimbaps – either rice and filling rolled in seaweed or a triangle of rice and filling wrapped in seaweed. In the afternoon we would either make incredible progress or have decidedly more trouble depending on the direction of the wind. Almost every day featured a ripping wind that started around 11:00 a.m. and died at sunset. We were lucky that it was in our favour about half the time.
Sometime between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. we would call it quits when we found a suitable camping location. Features we sought out included water taps nearby, a toilet, and some protection from sun and wind. The nights varied widely with a couple spent shivering until sunrise and a few spent sweating through the night.
During our two weeks of riding it rained twice and in those instances we got a hotel room. At one hotel they let us check in at 9:30 in the morning so we got to spend more than 24 hours in comfort. That hotel also featured mirrors on the walls and ceiling and pictures of different ladies with their phone numbers on the kleenex boxes. The places aren’t seedy though – they are just more about providing some privacy.
We were lucky to stay with a couple of warmshowers hosts (Jo-Anna and Sanghyun) in Seoul who got us set up straight away. The true start of the cross-country cycle trail is about 50 km east of Seoul in Incheon so Jo-Anna made sure we picked up our passports and started cycling as soon as we got off the airport island rather than take the train all the way into the city. That meant we were building our bikes at Cheongna Int’l City Station at 9:00 a.m. after a 20 hour itinerary from New Zealand.
Since we spent three nights in Seoul, we had the opportunity to retrace my tourist steps from a work trip in 2016 (visiting Insadong, Namsan, and Myeongdong) as well as visit some new areas like the well-preserved traditional homes in Bukchon.
On our last night, Jo-Anna annotated the cycle map you receive with the cycle passport with highlights of the cross-country route and on the last morning I sent a package home with 5 kg of gear. Who needs winter jackets, hats, or mittens when it’s hitting the low 30’s?
Suanbo is a hotsprings town with numerous Korean bathhouses. The water that comes out of the ground is 53°C and is controlled by the town authorities. We rode by the big water tanks on our way in that are then piped to each bathhouse. The tourist information lady put it this way, “It doesn’t matter where you go. All water is same water.”
We chose a very classic bathhouse in the basement of a hotel. Men and women go to separate entrances where you first put your shoes in a shoe locker. You take the locker key with you into the changeroom where there is a full-sized locker that uses the same key to store your clothes. Other features of the changeroom are grooming tools like hairdryers, ointments, combs and a barbershop.
After getting naked, I went down the stairs into the bathhouse. Inside there were three different pools (very hot, hot, and positively icy) and the room was ringed with showers, mirrors, and little stools. Scrub towels were provided and you could soak in the different tubs, scrub yourself from head to toe while sitting on your stool, brush your teeth (toothpaste provided at the entrance) and shave. An employee (also in the nude) would also give you a full body scrub if doing it yourself was too arduous. The last two amenities were a sauna which was over 95°C and benches for sleeping. There were quite a few patrons and I availed myself of all the amenities except the napping tables.
After an hour and a half, we emerged into the afternoon sunshine feeling like we were made of jello.
Wild flora and fauna
Korea isn’t the number one destination to see wildlife, but because we were following the rivers and because the cities are all set back from the rivers behind the flood banks, some animals do thrive. We saw lots of big herons, egrets and cormorants. Near the city of Chuncheon the waters were still enough that we watched a cormorant swimming underwater as it chased a fish. After a few zigs and zags, the fish was snatched and eaten.
A different evening the surface of the stream near our campsite came alive as hundreds of small fish started jumping to catch small flies. In other instances we saw fish as long as our forearms jumping and making a loud splash.
The last exciting animals we saw were water deer. These tiny deer are only 11 – 18 kg and their backs are about as high as my knee. They don’t have horns but they do grow tusks, especially the males.
As for flora, there weren’t wild apple trees or blackberries like in New Zealand, but the mulberries seem to be in season so one time we were able to stop and pick a few handfuls. I thought they tasted exactly like Concord grapes but the internet at large doesn’t seem to agree with me on that. The preponderance of wildflowers along the trail was also special. We would ride for mile after mile of yellow, pink, or purple flowers.
By the time we reached Busan, we had been in Korea for more than two weeks. We were much better at finding food, finding campsites, and finding water. These were things that were a bit more difficult to accomplish for the first few days and aside from a Korean BBQ dinner with Jo-Anna and Sanghyun in Seoul, we had been pretty unsuccesful eating well at restaurants.
At the first hostel in Busan, the owner rounds up anyone who is hungry and takes them to very classic Korean restaurants. The first night he took us for bibimbap which is a bowl of rice and a melange of vegetables. This is a really common quick and easy meal you can buy anywhere, but at this particular restaurant you assemble it yourself in a back room and it came with some extra stews that we didn’t know how to order.
The second night was seafood where some sidedishes of mussels and vegetables led into a big bowl of seafood cooked on a burner in the center of the table. The bowl contained more mussels, crabs, shrimp, octopus, and at least two more kinds of shellfish in a spicy red base. After they cook, an employee (the matriarch of the family business, in this case) comes and separates out all of the shells and cuts up the crab and octopus with scissors (a ubiquitous kitchen utensil in Korea). Earlier that day we had visited the biggest fish market in Korea, and now we could sample the goods.
Our last big meal was with some English teachers from warmshowers who showed us their interpretation of must-try food. After starting at a dakgalbi restaurant (stir-fried chicken) and somaek (soju mixed with beer), we went to “Tony’s” for makgeolli (a cloudy rice wine). Tony was a middle-aged Korean man in tracksuit bottoms, a polyester jacket, and had slicked back hair. His restaurant is a tiny room open to the street and decidedly grungy. Along with the beat-up teapot with the liquor and the four heavy bowls to drink from, our new friends also ordered a cheesy kimchi pancake. When the pancake came out, Tony grabbed a blowtorch and made a show of heating it up at the table. Part of the show is passing the blowtorch quickly across the table, briefly igniting the vapour in the bowls of makgeolli. He also stuck it in my lap and singed the hair off my knuckles. Tony DGAF and that’s why the place was packed.
Tonight we leave for the last country of our trip: Japan. We will be taking an overnight ferry from Busan to Fukuoka and then riding on to at least Osaka. We can’t expect the same quality of cycle roads but Brittany, a certified Japanophile, is very excited to test her progress after 7 months of diligent Japanese practice.