In July this year I loaded up my folding bike and spent a week cycling from Seoul to Jeonju. I’ve been on some great bike trips before, usually with the other members of the Korean Rooftop team – my son Sebastian and wife Emma. During spring this year we rode and camped from Chuncheon to Seoul and had a great time. Last summer we travelled by ferry to Jeju Island and cycled the circumference of the island over two weeks. We camped and stayed in various cheap accomodation along the way – we met heaps of amazing people on that trip including a poet who’d moved to Jeju to escape a high-pressure career in Seoul, a visiting Japanese Butoh dancer and a professional tour guide who gave us some great tips. We actually made a film about our experience travelling around Jeju Island which is being shown at the International Cycling Film Festival in Germany and will soon be available through this website.
This is Part 2 – If you haven’t already, you might like to start with Cycling from Seoul to Jeonju – Part 1 of 2.
Cycling the Lovely Mountains
I began by getting lost. It was a lovely day; the sky was blue and the rural scenery was, as usual, idyllic – I thought I’d try riding on unmarked farm roads instead of regular ones on the map. I followed a river and saw loads of water birds including herons, egrets and bitterns before eventually riding down out of the mountains and finding my way onto a peaceful, but boring bike path across another vast plain of rice fields. I passed through the city of Cheongju and from there a dreary, truck blighted ride on a six-lane highway brought me to Daecheong Lake – an enormous man-made reservoir in the mountains.
Daecheong Lake itself is fairly forgettable but the countryside around it is extraordinary. The hills are small but rugged, steep and thickly forested – the roads are narrow and twist through forested valleys and along hillsides with every bend revealing stunning views of forested wilderness. I’d done a lot of riding around Daecheong Lake when I lived in the nearby city of Daejeon several years ago and I’d been missing the place terribly. Many of the roads are lined with cherry trees so that in the spring, you can ride for hours through the mountains on pink blossom lined roads – there’s nothing quite like riding through a cloud of cherry petals dislodged by the wind, falling like snow. In the fall, the trees turn bright yellow, the other trees turn red and brown and the skies are deep blue most days. The golden sunlight that you’d usually associate with late afternoons seems to begin sometime after lunch and continues until twilight; the days are warm and the nights are crisp. Right now it was the lush green of summer, a misty rain was falling and the clouds hung low overhead – it was hot, dark and steamy. Despite the fact that I was wet from an icky combination of rain and sweat, I enjoyed the scenery so much that I rode slowly in an attempt to make it last as long as possible. I did this so effectively that it was almost dark when I finally arrived at the city of Daejeon where I spent the night indoors and caught up with old friends.
Daejeon is the fifth largest city in South Korea and is located roughly in the center of the country. It’s a young city by South Korean standards and was little more than a village one hundred years ago. During the Korean War it was the site of an important battle in which outnumbered American forces delayed the advance of the invading North Korean Army. During the battle the North Koreans captured 30 unarmed and critically injured American soldiers along with a chaplain and a medic – the medic managed to escape but the others were executed – it’s now known as the Chaplain-Medic Massacre. Nowadays Daejeon is a sprawling modern city with very little character or charm. It’s dominated by clone-like rows of drab modern apartment blocks that stretch from horizon to horizon and is best known for it’s numerous scientific research facilities.
I slept like a baby that night. The following morning after a lie in, a very long shower, and breakfast with my old chums Jessie and Rodney, I saddled up and got out of the city as fast as I could. The one thing I had really loved about living in Daejeon was the idyllic countryside surrounding it – it’s perfect for cycling. So all morning I enjoyed pleasant country roads winding through a landscape of hills, mountains, scattered woodland, rice fields, orchards and small villages.
South Korea is a country of extremes. In many ways it’s a wonderful country for cycling: it has incredible scenery, friendly locals, good quality roads and abundant cheap accommodation – it even has a dedicated bike path that runs the length of the entire country from north to south. But a great danger for cyclists in South Korea is the city bus drivers. These guys consider themselves the kings of the road. They drive wherever and whenever they like and everyone – I mean everyone – gets out of their way. When they need to stop they will pull across to the side of the road without indicating, slowing down or checking to see if there are any other road users to obstruct them. They even do this across numerous lanes. If I had 5 cents for every time I have been run off the road by a bus tearing up beside me, partly overtaking then pulling into a bus stop – blocking my way forward and crushing me into a tiny space up against the curb – I would be a rich man. Passing a stationary bus in South Korea is playing Russian Roullette on two wheels. If you are unlucky enough to be right beside a bus when he decides to pull out (and somehow, that is exactly what always happens to me) you have two choices – 1. Slow down and hope he moves ahead of you before he swings out into your lane, knocking you into the oncoming traffic or crushing you beneath his oversized tires or 2. Go like the clappers and hope you can get ahead of him before he swings out into your lane, knocking you into the oncoming traffic or crushing you beneath his oversized tires. One time when I chose option 2 – the bus pulled out right behind me and proceeded to accelerate as though I was not there at all. The first I knew of it was that my bike seemed to be wobbling strangely and vibrating – I couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Then I turned around and saw that the bus was driving so close behind me that its front fender was actually touching my back wheel – the vibration was caused by my wheel rubbing on the plastic! Needless to say, after speeding up a little to put some space between our vehicles I proceeded to communicate with the driver using hand signals. He got the jist.
Now and then the roads themselves can be death traps. They can be so diabolically dangerous that it’s hard to believe they weren’t specifically designed to kill as many cyclists as possible. I was once riding on a shared pedestrian/bike path beside a major road when suddenly and without warning the path vanished and was replaced by a set of metal stairs which descended at a very steep angle some three meters. There were no warning signs and no barriers – in short, nothing at all to warn cyclists that they are about to plunge to a painful death; or at the least, severe injury. Luckily, I managed to stop in time and carried my bike down the stairs.
On this sunny afternoon, somewhere between Daejeon and Nonsan, I was about to have a similar experience. After lunch I crossed a small mountain range. This involved another dizzying climb that left me breathless and seemed to go on forever – I did manage to conquer it without walking this time though. The descent down the other side was even steeper than the climb. The road was in poor condition with deep wheel ruts pressed into the tarmac by years of heavy traffic – they were nearly eight inches deep in places and once, when my attention wavered, I was nearly thrown off my bike as I crossed them at an angle. As if hurtling down a lumpy hill with my brakes squealing wasn’t bad enough, there was almost no shoulder and I was sharing the road with what seemed to be a convoy of cement trucks. I assumed they were coming from the quarry I had passed on my way up the hill. The road was also cursed with a small shoulder (sometimes no shoulder) and a deep drainage ditch beside it – at least a meter deep, fifty centimeters wide and with no grill on top. I could imagine myself hurtling off my bike at great speed, going into the drainage ditch head-first and being wedged into position, unable to move my arms or to right myself. It would be an awfully goofy way to die.
That evening I camped in a small patch of forest near the entrance to a Buddhist temple. I found a spot to sling my hammock amongst the trees above the road, where I wouldn’t bother anyone. While I was cooking my dinner, a lay Buddhist who was staying at the temple came past and stopped to chat. She didn’t speak English at all and my Korean is good enough only for basic conversation, so it was a pretty short chat – but she was kind and helpful. In the morning I dropped by the temple to take a look around and she gave me a small tour then showed me where I could refill my water-bottle and sent me on my way with a large bag of fruit. She was a really, really nice lady.
Riding The Final Leg
It was a great way to start the last day of my journey. All morning I rode along roads that were almost totally devoid of traffic. The mountains seemed larger and more wild than any I had ridden through so far – there were a handful of small farms, but otherwise barely any sign of human habitation. After several hours the road descended from this hilly wilderness onto a vibrant green plain of rice. The sky was deep blue and studded with puffy white clouds when I eventually stopped for a swim in the shallow Gosan River – I was surprised to find the water was crystal clear even though I was only around 20 km from Jeonju city. I sat in the river neck deep in icy water and watched fish dart around trying to eat each other, some of them almost two feet long.
After negotiating several arterial roads and riding for an hour through the sort of industrial wasteland that graces the fringes of all modern cities, I followed a bumpy riverside bike path into the heart of town – then spent an hour or so circling the business district in search of an affordable hotel. I decided to forgo the ominously named Motel Pain (I kid you not – it was covered all over in black reflective glass with flashing blue and red neon lights at the corners) and eventually settled on a cheap hotel. It had ancient yellowed wallpaper; a wad of toilet paper stuffed into a hole in the bug-screen, a fist hole in the door and a coin operated hair dryer chained to the wall – but it was clean and had plenty of hot water. Did I mention that it was cheap? In the evening I walked to a nearby shopping center and gorged myself on pork cutlet, noodles, miso, mango smoothie and two very large, fresh peaches.
Cycling Mission Complete
It was with great satisfaction that, the next morning, I loaded my neatly folded bike and bags onto a KTX high-speed train bound for Seoul. I had travelled a long way through countryside I had only ever seen from a moving vehicle; I’d discovered Buddhist temples and camped in forest glades; I’d gone longer than I’d ever gone before sleeping outdoors without a shower and been immersed in landscapes of stunning natural beauty; I’d met some lovely local people (though not as many as I had expected –camping out of town each night had something to do with that) and I’d done it all on a budget of next-to-nothing with my trusty little folding bike. Not bad for a daydreamer.