It was an unusual sight, which is why I stopped. Not unusual was the group of mostly older Korean men gathered under a bridge along the bike path between Ochang and Cheongju in Chungcheongbuk-do, South Korea. It’s a hot spot to cool off and take a break from riding or running. I’ve stopped before, but usually I’m in too big of a hurry.
A man has made a business out of selling makgeolli (rice wine) from his truck under the bridge. I’ve been biking in this area long enough to have witnessed his endeavor become successful. What started as just a truck now spills out to create somewhat of an outdoor dining room. Plastic tables and chairs add to the already placed benches for patrons to sit, have a drink, and gaff while wiping the sweat from their brow.
So much has changed since the last time I visited over a year ago. He’s even attached a large tarp-like tent to the truck in case of rain, and he’s added various Korean dishes to the limited menu options. I think his wife even showed up. I found some woman cooking inside the makeshift kitchen.
What drew me in wasn’t any of this, however. I stopped because they somehow managed to get a portable karaoke system complete with a large speaker, a microphone, a computer, and a random Korean woman playing a saxophone on the side. Even though I had other plans, I still hopped off my bike, ordered a bowl of makgeolli, sat by myself, and sipped in the experience.
Under this bridge in practically the middle of nowhere is now one of my new favorite places in the world.
Of course I wasn’t by myself for very long. A group of quite intoxicated men beckoned for me to join them through gesturing. At first they wanted me to sing, but I kindly declined. I simply wanted to be part of the moment. Not the center of it. Give me a microphone, some Celine Dion, and I’ll steal the show.
As is customary in Korean culture, we took turns pouring makgeolli from a kettle into bowls for each other. Being mindful of using two hands, in addition to all I’ve learned about the drinking culture in particular, I turned my head to look away each time I took a swig. It’s also a custom for the younger or youngest at the table to do this.
My new friends were quite pleased with how well I understood Korean traditions, but made sure to remind me each time I did something wrong. We tried to talk, but their ability to speak English matched my comprehension of Korean. So, we just smiled, mimed, and drank a lot.
I bought another round out of gratitude before I bowed a bunch and left. I was already late to meet a friend, and had quite a distance to bike before reaching her. Whether riding a bike slightly intoxicated or not, it’s always a good idea to wear a helmet. Let’s just say I was extra grateful for a helmet this time.
Investing in a bike (and a helmet) is one of the best decisions I’ve made since moving to South Korea. It’s allowed me to get up close and personal with Korean culture. Without a bike I would’ve never known about the makgeolli truck under the bridge—the one where a woman playing a saxophone sat next to a biker belting Korean love ballads.
So much of my life in Korea has been positively impacted through biking. I’ve gone on incredible, cross-country treks, it’s my preferred method of transportation for daily tasks and transit, and it’s become my only form of exercise.
You haven’t fully experienced South Korea until you hop on a bike and go. Rural South Korea is Korea at its best. And as biking continues to gain popularity on the Korean peninsula, more trails will be constructed, and cities will likely become more biker friendly.
As part of a massive river restoration project, the South Korean government has created bike paths that mostly follow four of the nation’s largest rivers. In addition to biking from Incheon to Busan, you can also explore the Guem and Yeongsan rivers.
OFFICIAL SITE: Four Rivers Trail Guide
In my Biking Ventures series with Kimchi Bytes, I plan to highlight aspects of cycling around South Korea. From riding etiquette to tips on traveling with bikes on buses and trains, I hope to be a resource and source of encouragement for you to experience the countryside of life in South Korea too.
Next on my biking itinerary is riding along the Geumgang from the Geumgang Estuary outside of Daejeon, to Daecheong Dam near Gunsan on the West Coast. Join me for more biking adventures ahead, and read about rides I’ve already done including a trip from Seoul to Busan.