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South Korea is better known for its Samsung smartphones and K-Pop than for its cycling but this is changing. South Korea has built a massive cycling infrastructure in recent decades, including a network of cross country bike paths. Paths that span the length of the country, run along stunning coastline and explore areas of natural beauty. They are a mix of well maintained cycle lanes through parks, beside rivers, along quiet country trails and small roads. It is one the whole family can enjoy. The cycling is rarely challenging but always scenic. The country would be a great option for someone looking to dip their toes into bicycle touring. I arrived after a couple of months in the Himalayas and the combination of excellent yet easy cycling was just what I needed.
Cycle path into Seoul
Flying into Seoul from Kolkata I experienced something akin to a culture shock. Talk about chalk and cheese. The difference between the noise, dirt and chaos of Kolkata and Seoul was seismic. People obey traffic laws here, there are cycle paths, it is immaculately clean and it felt so quiet. No one honks their horn. I doubt the people of Seoul would ever describe their city as quiet but that's how it felt to me cycling into the city one fine May day. It is an undoubtedly crowded city but there is a harmony here. It is an excellent place to leisurely cycle around helped by the abundance of cycle lanes that dissect the city.
Mountains in the north east of South Korea not far from the DMZ
After a couple of days exploring the city I headed north into the countryside. To get some proper leg rest after the exhausting brilliance of the Indian Himalaya. Luckily I landed in a great AirBnb, hosted by Won-Hi, in the mountains a short distance from North Korea. A rural house with 60 years of history handcrafted by Won-Hi's paternal grandfather who lived a carpenters life. One rainy day Won-Hi was worried I might be bored and whisked me off for a tour of the mountains near the border. It was fascinating to talk to him about his family. His maternal grandfather lives only 200 kilometres away but he has never met him as he is over the border in North Korea. He has no idea if he is alive or dead. We are all aware of the situation in Korea. A country divided but it was only until I visited that I felt the true sadness of the situation. You can see the sadness in the faces of the people here when they talk about the North. It is a deep felt pain to all who live here. I think about all the friends I have in London who I would never have known if the same situation existed in England. Won-hi took me to the demilitarized zone. A 250km border that divides the two Korea's with heavy artillery, North Korean nukes, and two million soldiers. Life along the 38th parallel is a stalemate. There are many view points along the border and it is fascinating to gaze out into North Korea. The two sides are technically still at war but tensions have eased of late and there is hope for the future. One day this country will be reunited but sadly I don't think any of us will live to see it.
Won-Hi and family
I actually returned to Seoul to meet up with friends that had just landed before beginning on the Four Rivers Cycle Path. The longest of South Korea's many cycle paths which crosses the entire country. You can start in Incheon close to the airport and ride all the way to Busan in the south, a distance of over 600km. The trail follows rivers and streams, rice paddies and soy fields and for the vast majority of the time is away from any traffic and noise. Built and designed for cyclists with tunnels that keep you away from the roads and bridges to take you across huge dams. It is comfortable cycling. Mostly flat and easy and you can enjoy the wonderful nature of South Korea in total peace and quiet. The camping is excellent. It is not really wild camping. There are designated free camping areas along the route but in reality you pick your spot where you like and enjoy a peaceful night's sleep.
Typical cycle path along the Four Rivers cycle route
There is also plenty of great cycling away from the cycle paths. The mountains in the north east are largely empty and offer up some good climbing on quiet paved roads. The coastlines are more populated but you can follow excellent roads and cycle paths that hug the coastline. Passing through sleepy fishing villages and the occasional surf town. I particularly enjoyed exploring the island of Geoje after I'd finished the Four Rivers cycle path in Busan. The island is a near endless series of calm blue beached coves and sheer pine forested grey cliffs overlooking the sea.
Cycling the coastline of Geoje south of Busan
It is worth mentioning the food in South Korea. It's fantastic. There are lively markets in every town. The street food is great but South Korea is one of the few places where it actually makes economic sense to eat in a restaurant. They really feed you. I rarely had any idea what i was ordering but the main dish always came with a vast array of side dishes and Kimchi (spicy and sour dish made up of fermented vegetables). Often after you have devoured a side dish you will find it quickly replaced with another. You would normally be paying $7/8 dollars for a meal but I always walked out feeling nicely stuffed and ready to hit the road again. I would spend the rest of the time topping myself up at the amazing bakeries you will find in even the smallest town.
So many side dishes!
I only have happy memories of my time in South Korea. The people are incredibly polite and welcoming. Every local feels like a cultural ambassador, ready to teach you what it means to be Korean. Everything runs like clockwork. There is no litter. The scenery is not the high Himalaya but it has an old world charm all of its own. I was kinda sad to leave but I hopped on a boat from Busan to mainland Japan for the final leg of my cycle around Asia.
Seoul. Once off the airport island of Incheon there are excellent cycle paths that will lead you into the heart of the city. The city itself is smart, clean, modern and expensive.
Excellent. All paved. You could easily spend the majority of your time on immaculate cycle paths away from roads and traffic altogether.
Superb. Lots of designated camping sports along the Four Rivers route and easy to find a spot anywhere in the country. South Korea is the easiest place in the world to find canister camping gas. They make it here! As a result it is available in every standard supermarket and at a bargain price.
Most countries get 90 days on arrival. There is only one land border. North Korea. Obviously a no-no. Easy to get a boat from Busan to the Japanese mainland. Cheapest option is the overnight ferry on the Camellia Line who happily take bicycles.
Never needed one myself but due to the growing popularity of cycling in South Korea they are easy to find. Not cheap but you can expect high quality parts/service.
Amazing and the restaurants offer good value as you are guaranteed to leave full to bursting.
Expensive. Love your tent.
When to Go:
Late spring (March to May) and early autumn (September to November) have the best climate for cycling. Winters (December to February) on the Korean Peninsula are bitterly cold, and summers (June to August) are hot and humid. In the spring, you’ll get a chance to see the cherry blossoms bloom, which happens about several weeks later than in Japan. In the fall you can catch the leaves changing.
Japan is a touchy subject. Tread lightly. Koreans are haunted by the 35 years of Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. Tens of thousands of men were forced into the Imperial Japanese Army and tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery. Since then, the tragedy of “comfort women,” as they are called, has cast a shadow over Korean-Japanese relations. In December 2015, the two nations finally struck a deal, with Japan issuing a formal apology. Japan pledged one billion yen to support Korea’s 46 surviving comfort women but the issue is not fully resolved. Do read Min Jin Lee's excellent novel Pachinko for an insight into the history of relations between Japan and Korea.
Inside South Korea, as it’s referred to on the world map, the country is known simply as ‘Korea’.
One of my best AirBnb experiences. Lovely hosts and authentic Korean house in the sticks about a day cycle from Seoul.https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/23346186
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