CYCLING IN SOUTH KOREA
I had never thought of cycling in South Korea. It is so far from my home (London) and really not a place I would have gone out of my way to get to. However, living now in Shanghai, and both myself and my girlfriend (Kseniia) coming up against some visa issues, we thought it would-be the perfect time to have a little adventure together. I am an experienced rider (and bicycle lover), so want to ride everywhere I possibly can. However Kseniia is not, so I wanted to make sure that her induction into long distance cycling , was as enjoyable as possible.
So it seemed perfect. I planned the routes. I spoke with the RCC to organize the bikes (we would be borrowing them from Rapha in Seoul, not taking our own), and booked the flights.
The moment I stepped out of the metro, onto the streets of Seoul, and took a sharp, clean, cold breath, I felt good about the city. I had a day before Kseniia arrived, so explored of the kooky and fun architecture of the Gangnam district and squeezed in a small sight seeing tour ride in with the RCC coordinator over there, Adam Choi. That night, after coming back way too late from a few drinks out in Icheon, the ‘soho’ of Seoul, we got our things ready to pack into our Roswheel bags efficiently the next day.
Day 1: Seoul - Gapyeong Gu. Approx 88miles with 3300ft climbing.
Waking up was hard. We’d definitely been out too late. Poor form from the experienced rider, who should know an early night is essential for a good days riding! In a bewildered haze I packed the bags and shoveled a banana into my mouth. We managed to get out only half an hour late (timing was of extra importance with night falling early and and bringing harsh cold in November) and started down onto the infamous Seoul bike paths. I had heard some mutterings about these bike paths from friends, but I hadn’t expected their sheer brilliance. Helped by a piercing morning sun and clear blue skies, we swept down to the Han riverside and warmed our bodies from both solar and aerobic stimulus.
The impact of these paths was immediately apparent. They are part of The Four Rivers Renovation project. A project predominantly for controlling flooding, drought and water quality. But the opportunity was also taken to create an extensive cycling path network all over South Korea. One that doesn’t just follow main roads, but often cuts its own path across the landscape.
Through Seoul, we passed by beautiful tree and swamp filled storm drain outlets, cycled on wide and smooth paths with blue on one side and green on the other. There was a mix of people riding in big groups, and people simply walking in this fantastic green public space.
Its rare to find somewhere that prioritises a bicycle path on the waterfront, over a building. I felt almost honored to be experiencing it. Well done South Korea.
About 40 miles in, we were still riding on smooth, designated bike paths. Even though we had well and truly exited the city limits. Amazing.
We could have continued along the path much further, but the route I had, turned off to get in a bit of climbing (the one downfall of a riverside bicycle path…no hills!).
We slowly started climbing this 300 meter rise. Gradually it became steeper, but also straighter. Soon we could see the top, but only just, as it seemed like a mile away. This is when the mental challenge of riding a bike really hit Kseniia for the first time. She had never climbed anything like this on a bicycle before, let alone after 3 hours of riding.
She made the classic cries, shouts and curses that any bike rider does, when challenged with something previously thought to be beyond their limit.
she didn’t stop. She put her head down and ground it out. Needless to say I was proud. We crested the hill, had a quick break and descended down to have some well deserved lunch.
In the following few hours, we had one lucky miss:
Ending up on a highway, we circled back thinking we would have to take the (really) long way round, but thankfully managed to spot a trail of cyclists moving across the town like a trail of ants. Using detective-like skills, We found an old railway bridge, and realized it was marked. The path continued!
We were way behind schedule by now. Without the bike paths however, I don’t know what we would have done. They were a life saver. Especially when the path started through a tunnel (specifically for bikes) and was laced with speakers blaring out some pop folk music. A very strange experience in the middle of, what by now was definitely, rural South Korea.
We got to Buk Myeon, the last significant town, as it started to get dark. We were now in the, supposedly beautiful, area of Gapyeong-Gu, But It had been icy cold for a couple of hours, and we were in full ‘get-to-the-warm-hotel’ mode, so the beauty was lost on us.
There was a final drag up to our hotel. We took a break and set up the lights on our bikes. The climb started fine, but the more of the subtle ascent we climbed, the colder and colder it got.
It became hard, especially for Kseniia. At one point I said the wrong thing, and after such a long day cycling, and with the temperature now at 3 degrees Celcius, that was it; she cracked.
It was fair enough. She had been pushed way beyond what she’d done before. In a reverse phycological kind of way, it actually gave her more speed. She transferred anger into pace.
We came to our accommodation surprisingly soon after that.
Relief. Anger passed.
She went to get us some corner shop food (there was only a 7-11 nearby) and I set up our bed for the night before we downed a couple of instant noodles, watched the end of Mission Impossible number ‘something’ on the TV, and went to bed.
Day 2: Gapyeong Gu - Seoul. Approx 55miles with 4100ft Climbing.
We woke to a frozen world. It had dropped to -1 in the night. Although beautiful looking out onto the morning sunrise, it was hard to accept we had to get out onto the bikes.
A couple of coffees and some motivational chat later, we were down on the main road.
The harsh morning sun really did give us strength. Going in and out of ever increasing sun filled patches while cycling up the valley kept our cold heads in good spirits.
The climbing was constant slow and hard. We stopped once in a sunny patch of road for Kseniia to warm her feet with her hands, but otherwise battled on and finally reached the first peak.
It was very anticlimactic. Views were blocked and although there was a few people there, we didn’t hang around for anything. On these mountain descents in South Korea, they carve in small groves (about the size of a 19c road tyre) In order to help water or ice flow down the road in a more controlled manner. They were very nerve-racking for me as I know what it is like to get your wheel onto something that makes you loose control of the front wheel. No major problem, it just took away the full potential joy of descending lovely autumn mountain roads.
The next ascent would take us up to the closest point we’d be to the North Korean boarder. At the foot of the climb, by a T-junction, we stopped. There was an empty military check point we wanted to photograph due to its ominous silence in the bottom of the valley we were in. Something looming. Something you could easily miss if you weren’t fully aware of where you were in the world.
I’d actually found the whole military presence on our trip very subtle. There were many times that I had only received a hint from the signs of it around me. Even when groups of American soldiers in Seoul passed us on our night in Icheon, they had seemed to blend into the madness of the area, like a regular intimidating group of ‘jocks’ on a night out.
Apart from an eye-opening and grin-making motorcycle gang, driving Harleys and blaring out k-pop, passing us, the climb again was slow and quiet. We crested the top: Another anti-climax of views being shrouded by trees. But Kseniia now knew we wouldn’t have to do any more climbs like that again. A well deserved break, chat, and we got on our way down this steeper descent.
By this time we were much behind schedule (we had started late again this morning, of course). I was getting a bit worried and therefore pushing to go a bit faster down these descents. Somewhere we could make back time. It was becoming increasingly obvious we weren’t going to get back before dark. Also Kseniia had started to hurt. First long bike ride always does this to the rider, and although I knew none of her pains were serious (due to the low extremity of the displeasure she was displaying), it didn’t change the fact that it was adding to the challenge. I was empathetic yet mission driven.
We stopped for lunch and hurried back to the road. It joined next to the highway and became a little less fun. We then skirted the highway closely, and then inevitably, all we could do was join it. Damn. This days route I had planned with no help from anyone. Telling if the road you are planning on is a highway or a scenic route is in the hands of the routing site, and theres always a danger of being guided onto bad roads.
I scanned google maps for a way out. And found the road continued on the other side of the highway. Phew….. However I’d noticed that further on, we could run into more problems.
We did. We came to a highway junction, along a small side road, and now there seemed to be ‘no way, but the highway’. We studied a number of different map applications and my Garmin further. We were now in danger of not even getting our rented bikes back to Seoul in time.
We did a quick recce to check that our maps weren’t lying to us, then made a complete change of plan. A friend had told me the day before that if on the way back, we’re running late, we have the opportunity to head for a train station, which would easily get us back to central Seoul.
Of course, being stubborn, I REALLY wanted us to finish our planned route. But it seemed more than stubborn now: It seemed stupid to try.
So we altered course. We had one more bad moment where crossing the highway involved cycling a short section of hard shoulder against the flow of traffic before ducking under a tunnel and back onto a fairly calm road.
We ended up back in a town we had passed through the day before and very easily got ourselves onto the train platform. Our journey was over, and we decided it was only fitting to have some of the cities finest roast chicken to celebrate.
I found it interesting how accommodating it had been for our bikes for so much of the journey, but that in unsuspecting moments you could be left so high and dry and be in a situation that could actually be very dangerous. It had occurred a few times more than I’ve cared to mention (to save you the boredom), and so I’d come away with a strange feeling of such a progressive grand engineering project.But the trip left me wanting more of South Korea, and it definitely left Kseniia wanting more of bike riding. I was so impressed with her endurance and mental capacity. She had not stopped once on any difficult sections of any climbs, and had dealt really well with the descents (probably from her snowboarding youth).
We went home feeling tired, but satisfied.
BIKES AND GEAR
CANYON CF SLX
Roswheel Attack saddle bag, frame pack and handlebar pack
Roswheel Essentials top tube bag