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Korea’s Cycling Road Tour 4대강 국토종주 자전거
Shuffling among the suffocating crowds of more than 50 million people (more than all of Canada), it is hard to imagine finding space to breath. If you yearn to stretch your limbs and explore the calmer, more natural side of South Korea, riding cross country is the perfect escape. The cycling paths are a part of a $20 billion project to restore rivers, secure water supplies, curtail floods, and increase tourism. My decision to bike across Korea was one of the best commitments I have ever endured. The trip consisted of roughly 633 km (393 miles) of paved trails, dirt paths, busy roads, excruciating mountain climbs, and exhilarating downhill riding. This is a chronicle of my 4대강 Incheon to Busan cycling tour. The following includes a few logistics. If logistics bore you to death skip to the bottom where I answer the question, “Yeah, but what was it like?”. I want to hear if my experience has any effect on your desire or lack thereof to suffer the intense inclines and relish the sequestration that the back country trails yield. Let me know in the comments if you preferred the details of the orchestration or the narration of the experience.
What to Bring & How to Prepare
Pack light but smart. I wasn’t on a particularly small budget but managed to save a considerable amount of money with simple preparation and good fortune/privilege. I had a loaner bike which is as cheap and subsequently heavy as they come. It’s absolutely feasible to make the trek on a cheap bicycle. You will need a little extra strength or perseverance to make it up the absurdly steep climbs however. I spend a considerable amount of time lifting heavy things, and putting them down so I don’t recommend duplicating my setup unless you do this as well. You can purchase panniers or bungee the hell out of your pack as I did if you don’t mind getting stared at. I absolutely looked like a nomadic homeless person on this particular trip and it didn’t help that I had a dog strapped on the back. Go to YouTube and watch how to fix derailleurs, change a flat, and replace the chain. If you aren’t the DIY type there are plenty of bike repair locations along the way but the DIY route sure came in handy a few times.
A condensed list of items to pack: Allen wrench, spare chain and tube, mini tire pump, headlamp or another hands free bright light source, bungee cable, rain gear, water bladder, water resistant external battery, waterproof phone cover, SPF, clear glasses for bugs, face scarf, hat to prevent scalp peeling, a pair of flip flops, cash, snacks (in my case dog food too), and stamp passport.
You can pick up a stamp passport to create a “gotta collect ‘em all” feel to the ride. It becomes a scavenger hunt that propels you to next segment of the ride with the release of endorphins. Or was that just me? Get one at any manned location but try to pick one up beforehand since they tend to run out. Look for the red phone booths, they will have the stamp pad inside. Here’s a handy dandy link to the certification guide.
Now that you are confident, let’s get your ass out the door. Personally, I began at the Ara West Sea Lock certification booth in Incheon and traversed South where I would end at Nakdonggang estuary bank in Busan. You can go do the opposite if you wish. Getting your bike on a train can be an obnoxious task on its own. The staff will more than likely yell at you regardless if you confirmed with the ticket agent that the train has a car equipped to hold them. So either dismantle your steed, get a folding breed, or take a bus where you can show up and cram it in the underbelly. The subway allows bikes in the first and last car on weekends while the airport Korail train does not, but rebellious me did it anyhow. You may utilize a van taxi if all of this is too convoluted. I highly suggest joining the Seoul to Busan Facebook group and using the search toolbar to get any additional questions answered.
Despite ample signage there are a few places that diverge and if you have a roving mind like myself it is easy to wander off course. Don’t despair, however. As daunting as it may seem to set out with little more than a bike and some granola, remember there are people along the way regardless if you want them there or not. They come in handy. The cycling community in Korea happens to be the most gracious bunch. Simply looking lost (I went with baby turkey mouth agape looking at the sky style) caught the attention of a solitary cyclist. He let my friend and I follow him for a ways. Upon dismounting and turning his back on us while beginning to pee he pointed off in the distance with his free hand and we were back on track. Simple as that. Riders are especially generous as well. I will say they were probably exceptionally kind to my triad seeing as I was carrying a dog on the back of my bike. Doggy attracted a lot of attention and garnered many gifts for me. One instance being a father securing a motel for all of us one evening since his son was enamored with my pint sized carry on. Twice my friend and I were treated to lunch. Many times we were handed snacks and even chocolate. I absolutely accept candy from strangers. I think it would be a nice gesture to pack a little something extra to exchange just for these occasions.
If you aren’t comfortable riding on a moonless night, pacing your ride is the best way to go. I’m not one to plan too far ahead so my approach was a little more, “ride by the seat of your pants”. A couple hours before sundown you can use your phone to locate either nearby campgrounds or motels. The first night we rode till near exhaustion and simply rolled out sleeping bags on a couple of benches and made little cocoons for the evening. The second night we decided to treat ourselves and stayed in a campground. Our foreigner card rewards points got us upgraded to a pop-up camper and dinner. The third night we found ourselves in the lap of luxury at a seedy love motel. Let me explain love motels in Korea. They are affordable little establishments that decorate nearly every city. The culture doesn’t afford coupes much privacy since they tend to live with family until they are married off so the bow-chicka-bow-wow rooms are convenient for a plethora of situations. This one in particular was straight from the 1970s with sparkly Willy Wonka snozberry flavored wallpaper. What a gem. As a disclaimer, don’t lick the walls and dogs generally aren’t allowed. Mine is ninja quiet so often we rebel together.
Along the route any bridge, pagoda, gazebo, or even under the starry sky itself will suffice. Just be discreet.
Yeah, But What Was it Like?
For those of you that came for a story: A maelstrom of gnats harassed my face as I glided across the elevated bearing overlooking an emaciated river. With dusk quickly approaching the expansive sky glowered. The sun, protesting its suppression, bellowed as its alpenglow was beaten further into submission. Its light, corralled by the curvature of the Earth, bathed the silhouettes of two stoic Jindo dogs perched on the top step of cascading stairs high above the path. They surveyed the panorama as I passed, unconcerned, still, and proud. They seemed to guard something precious beyond themselves. There was only a road on the other side. This characterless road carried cars and pedestrians parallel the experience that I am grateful to have participated in. As the day funneled to an end I was already anticipating the morning. What slivers of arbitrary life will I see and how lost could I get in my own head with the quiet of the morning, my dog, a friend, and my bike as companions.
The treads purred as they hugged the pavement. This pleasant noise was interrupted only by intermittently placed trees that bounced the sound off of themselves and regurgitated a more muffled version into the crisp air. Who could have imagined how beautiful desolation could be? The only opposition of my being there was from that of the wind, attempting to betray its lonely existence by flirting with my trajectory. The tandem humming of the wind against my spokes and the wind rushing past my body sounded as rhythmic as the beating of my heart. My real heart and my fabricated one were in sync and this phenomena prompted my legs to tirelessly forge onward. The most sanguine feeling is to have something match your own heart beat so closely. My bike was my muse and the breeze, her sustenance. As I urged my bike faster the undulating of my chest increased. Press on. That mountain will plateau. Reach the top release the brakes, and plummet as fast as gravity will allow.
As I approached a mountain pass I saw two statues menacing enough to humble the most avid wayward traveler. I was tuned in to a euphonious sound, my empty water bottle tapping away at my seat, when I realized the sound had morphed into beating drums. Chanting ensued as the distance closed between myself and a temple. A Buddhist monk was pounding his drums, reciting scripture, and filling the void between the innumerable mountains. My tires whirred faster as I was eager to meet the body behind the sound. I never saw him. Behind a sliding wooden door I made out his form but I was too shy to open the door, shallowly nod, and gaze upon him as he carried out his sacred duties. Sometimes I feel my eyes are too harsh to even glance at others. Like a burden that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. They might sting their victims if they set on their target for too long. Don’t seduce the monk with your dirty eyes. Don’t threaten him like a dog staring down his submissive pack members. Just use your ears. They are harmless flaps of skin and cartilage. I record the lonesome production then continued the climb up the unforgivingly steep mountain.
Having survived the most grueling portion of the day, I got a sense the unfolding landscape around the bend was a reward for my perseverance. The sprawling scene evoked numerous Tennessee Williams quotes and an overwhelming sense of optimism. The flowers submitted to the wind with waves of unison bowing. A weasel bounded across the path and shot into a mess of wildflowers. Birds flitted, dragon flies hovered, and skinks basked along the path until their bellies were too hot from the afternoon heat and sprinted away for respite.
Here I will leave you to use your imagination about what awaits you if you so choose to embark on your own cross country excursion. It could be glorious. Or disastrous. Only one way to find out.