It All Started When…
I’ve lived in South Korea for six years and for most of that time I’ve dreamed of going on a bike camping trip alone. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a daydreamer but there’s something romantic about the idea of travelling under my own steam through this crowded and mountainous country. For years I’ve imagined myself happily meandering down quaint country lanes, exploring the lush countryside and travelling cheaply and simply on my folding bicycle. I yearned to spend the night camped in forest glades, discover peaceful valleys with ancient Buddhist temples and pause occasionally in my wanderings to pass the time of day with charming locals. In July this year I finally loaded up my folding bike and spent a week attempting to do just that – 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. In the meantime you can check out this fun 90 second film which we tacked together from some of our footage.
Microadventures by Bicycle
Inspired by a book I’d recently read called “Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes” by British adventurer Alastair Humphreys, I set myself a mission: to ride over 300km along the smallest roads and through the quietest countryside I could find. I didn’t intend my trip to be an extreme physical challenge or a race – I planned to take my time, covering only between 40 and 60km each day. My goal was to see and experience the Korean countryside with a maximum of independence and freedom – I had only a vague route planned and I intended to deviate from it if the roads were too busy or the scenery too boring. I had a hammock, bug-net and tarp for camping out; an alcohol stove, a change of clothes and a handful of other bits and pieces. I planned to camp out most nights for two reasons: to save money and just because I love camping out.
The Beginning: Escaping Seoul
On the first day I loaded up my bike and left Seoul via the Tan River bike path. Seoul is the third largest city in Asia coming in behind only Delhi and Tokyo and has a population density almost double that of New York City. In the last several decades Seoul has expanded rapidly; masses of modern apartment blocks have been built on what used to be rice and vegetable fields; the urban sprawl is particularly bulky to the South, the direction in which I was riding. I moved through a seemingly endless straggle of apartments, manicured parks and elevated motorways that roared with traffic and disgorged smoke. After an hour or so of pedaling I found myself in a peaceful rural landscape. The cookie-cutter high-rise apartments had given way to fields of reeds, willow trees, gurgling streams and grassy meadows. I thought I’d finally escaped the city and began to congratulate myself for doing it so quickly and easily. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. I was just riding past an airfield and a few kilometers on I was back amongst more apartments, shopping centers, manicured parks and elevated motorways.
I camped that first night in the woods on a low ridge, beside a small hiking trail not far from some apartment blocks. The forest was a thick green tangle of foliage as most forests are in Korea during the summer; the air was positively wet with humidity and the mosquitoes buzzed around my ears. As I set up my hammock and tarp, a few brightly dressed hikers in their middle years stopped to chat.
“You’re sleeping here?” they asked incredulously, “Who are you travelling with? You’re alone? You’re going where? Is that even possible?”
I’m well aware that my trip was no North Pole Trek, but to them, it seemed outrageously bold. They lived in a nearby block of apartments and hiked this mountain every day. They informed me that yes, it was fine to camp here, though they didn’t think it was a very nice spot. They asked if I needed anything – water? Food? I politely declined. After closely inspecting my camp and all of my equipment in the manner of military officers, they nodded approvingly, said goodbye and continued on their hike. I ate my dinner of rice and tuna in the half-light and fell asleep with a roaring in my ears – not of traffic, but of the wind in the treetops as a storm blew in.
Second Day, Second Thoughts
The following morning I stumbled from my hammock in the grey dawn. It was warm and raining lightly. With bleary eyes, I packed up my wet gear, loaded up the bike and rode on in search of a dry place to eat breakfast. I was hoping to find a café or a small convenience store as I’d passed loads of them the night before but it seemed I was too early and they were all closed. Despite my grumbling stomach and lack of energy, I continued riding and was soon immersed in the rolling countryside with its green rice-fields and ubiquitous forested hills.
Now that I’d finally escaped the city, the roads were flat and quiet; lined with flowers, gingko trees and rice fields – lots and lots of rice fields. Because of the weather, there were very few people around and the landscape felt deserted and bleak. At mid-morning, after a good few hours of steady riding and without a single cafe, convenience store or restaurant in sight, I sheltered from the wind in a disused bus stop to eat breakfast and brew a cup of coffee. Under the influence of the heavy, overcast sky and a poor night’s sleep, I began to feel pangs of loneliness and self-doubt – I missed my wife and son at home in Seoul – the whole trip seemed terribly pointless and self-centered. I even toyed with the idea of giving up and riding to the nearest train station to catch a train home. Deep down I knew I’d never forgive myself if I did – I’d been dreaming about this trip for too long. I finished my coffee, mounted up, put my head down and continued to ride.
In the early afternoon, I found a campsite on a grassy hillside with a wonderful view over… you guessed it – rice fields. I had initially planned to stop just for a break, to spread out and dry some of my wet gear before riding for the rest of the afternoon, but it was such a nice spot that I decided to stay. It was on the inside curve of a u-shaped hill and was sheltered from the wind. It was while I was unpacking my bags that the sun came out and shone gloriously down, illuminating the plain below so that the landscape glowed a magnificent golden green. In the air all around me thousands of golden dragonflies swirled – invisible only seconds before, they glinted and sparkled. The air was warm and smelled like fresh earth and pine forest; birdsong echoed in the still evening air and crickets chirruped in the undergrowth. I watched the light fade and the shadow of the mountain slide silently across the paddies as I spoke on the phone to my wife and son. Afterwards, as I lounged on my hammock and sipped on a mug of tea, I could feel my equilibrium returning – everything really was just grand after all.
Getting Into The Groove
The following morning I stopped in at Anseong, a small city that must once have been a farming community but was now a satellite city of Seoul. The edge of town was dominated by shiny new apartment blocks, but the city itself seemed to have retained much of it’s rural feel with wide streets, small shops, faded signs and a fine coating of dust over everything. I ate some lunch in a small restaurant; stocked up on rice, water and canned tuna; then followed a busy, narrow road out of town and into the mountains.
That afternoon I rode through some stunning countryside. I left the flat plains that ring Seoul behind me with their endless fields of rice, low hills, busy motorways and high tension power-lines. The road wound up and up through narrow valleys filled with small farms and rocky streams. Densely forested mountains loomed over me and the sun beat down out of a deep blue sky flecked with white clouds. Soon the steady but challenging climb into the hills became a 10% grade up a mountainside that left me sweat-soaked and breathless. It seemed to go on twisting and turning upwards forever. It shames me to admit that I even got off my bike and walked some of the way – and I pride myself on almost never walking up hills. This however, was followed by the exhilarating descent down the other side and a brief stop to cool off in a mountain stream.
I had a lot of trouble finding a campsite that evening. South Korea has very little space, it has an overall population density of 487 people to every square kilometer of land – this is ten times the global average. To put this in perspective, the entire nation is roughly one seventy-seventh the size of Australia but contains about twice as many people. As a result, every inch of land is made use of. The mountains of course are too steep and rugged to be used for anything much and so are left in a state of semi-wilderness, but this means that the narrow valleys are crammed full with roads, farms, power-lines, rivers, houses, factories, golf-courses and villages. Even when you are in relatively undeveloped parts of the country, as I was now, very little space is wasted. Orchards, vegetable gardens, rice fields and greenhouses were tightly origamied into every inch of level ground. Even the one-meter wide space between the rice fields and the road was being used as a vegetable garden.
Encounters with the Forest Locals
Eventually I followed a narrow walking path and found a campsite in the woods on a steep hillside. It was alive with creepy-crawlies – even the wildlife don’t waste any space in Korea. The gaps between trees were filled with the webs of black and yellow orb spiders with their hefty owners perched in the center. The forest floor and the trunks of trees were home to small black daddy-long-legs that were insatiably curious and wandered about investigating everything. Within seconds of leaning my bike against a tree, it had five or six of the little the creatures climbing aboard. A tiny white flower blown on the wind, landed on my arm and stuck there – on closer inspection I discovered that it wasn’t a flower at all but a tiny white insect with faux flower-petals coming out of its backside.
Cicadas and crickets serenaded me all evening and for most of the night and then early in the morning I was woken by a mysterious throaty barking noise. It was quite loud and coming from close by – my minds eye flashed with images of shaggy brown raccoon dogs, long-eared wildcats or some kind of small canine – unquestionably a carnivore, I thought, with a bark like that. I recorded the sound on my phone and later, with the help of a Korean friend, discovered it was a Korean Water Deer, Hydropotes inermis argyropus – an unusual creature that’s native to Korea. It looks like a regular deer but has prominent downward pointing tusks that resemble large vampire fangs. Males use these to fight each other during the breeding season and they are occasionally employed in self-defense – they have been known to attack and seriously wound dogs. Fortunately for me this deer didn’t seem to think I posed much of a threat and eventually quieted down.
Continued in Cycling From Seoul to Jeonju – Part 2