Bik­ing through Korea

the land of kim­chi and K-pop is great for cy­cling what with ex­ten­sive bike lanes, sup­port sta­tions, camp­ing grounds and help­ful lo­cals.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Story and pho­tos by Peter Choong

THE idea to tour South Korea on bi­cy­cles was first mooted some­time last year by FC Yong, a vet­eran of the Pedal­holics Cy­cling Club (PCC) af­ter he and a bunch of 14 other rid­ers had a suc­cess­ful tour of Tai­wan.

Hith­erto, most of us had only done tour­ing within Malaysia on trips no longer than three days. Now the plan was to fly to Seoul and ride to the south­ern city of Bu­san in two weeks over an es­ti­mated dis­tance of 650km! Camp­ing would be the pre­ferred mode of ac­com­mo­da­tion un­less there hap­pened to be af­ford­able mo­tels along the way. Once we reached Bu­san, we would catch the bul­let train back to Seoul.

Daunt­ing as it sounded, 10 of us com­mit­ted to go on the tour; three of us in­clud­ing my­self would be do­ing an over­seas tour for the first time. An air­line had an of­fer some months ear­lier and we quickly booked our air tick­ets. There was no look­ing back then.

Since I am on my bike ev­ery weekend, rid­ing the dis­tance wasn’t ex­actly my main worry. Rather, as a new­bie to long-dis­tance tour­ing, what was on top of my mind was how to pack and lug around two weeks’ worth of lug­gage, in­clud­ing camp­ing gear, which weighed al­most 30kg. And this was on top of the bike it­self which weighed another 12kg.

Our tour leader wasn’t plan­ning on stick­ing to the ded­i­cated cy­cling tracks that Korea has carved along the banks of ma­jor rivers and along dis­used rail­way tracks. Be­lieve it or not, in re­cent years, this for­ward- look­ing na­tion has built more than 600km of such cy­cling tracks. In fact, one can prac­ti­cally ride on ded­i­cated cy­cling paths from Seoul to all cor­ners of the coun­try!

Through a stroke of good luck, when Yong com­mu­ni­cated with some ex­pat rid­ers in Seoul for ad­vice on route plan­ning, he was re­ferred to the Korean Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion (KTO) which hap­pened to have an on-go­ing pro­gramme to pro­mote green tourism, which in­cluded tour­ing Korea on bi­cy­cles!

Hence when we landed in Seoul in au­tumn, we not only had tran­sit vans wait­ing to ferry us to our ho­tel (which KTO had gra­ciously paid for), we were also treated to a sump­tu­ous wel­come din­ner of Korean BBQ beef and taken on a Seoul city tour the next day. What a great start to our trip!

When we started our ac­tual bik­ing, the 10 of us were led by three ex­pat rid­ers to the scenic cy­cling tracks along the banks of the Han River that runs al­most the en­tire length of Korea from north to south.

Be­ing a Sun­day, the tracks were full of cy­clists of all ages, in­clud­ing whole fam­i­lies. What is amaz­ing is to see ex­er­cise equip­ment at many points along the tracks, all in tip top con­di­tion. There is a speed limit of 20kph and there are sta­tions at 1520km in­ter­vals where one can stop for food and toi­let breaks.

It’s also very in­ter­est­ing that one can buy a “ride pass­port” for 5,000 Won (RM15) with which to col­lect stamps at such sta­tions to sig­nify that you have ac­tu­ally been on the var­i­ous routes. To fur­ther ex­em­plify how much thought the Korean au­thor­i­ties have put into the plan­ning of all th­ese bi­cy­cle routes, there are even pumps pro­vided at th­ese stops to in­flate your tyres should you need to.

For the first three days, we stuck to the cy­cling paths along the Han River, cov­er­ing a to­tal dis­tance of 215km to the town of Suanbo from where ex­ited the man­i­cured cy­cling paths to take on a moun­tain­ous de­tour to the east coast town of Uljin, which we er­ro­neously thought was just another 110km away.

As it turned out, we were not only to­tally wrong on dis­tance, but also on the ter­rain. Rather than easy flat ground, we had to cross a cou­ple of hilly ranges, namely, the Wo­rak San and Sobaek San. This was also when a cou­ple of our rid­ers were hit badly by di­ar­rhoea. All this, plus the in­clement weather, con­spired to slow our progress to a crawl.

So Day Four saw us cov­er­ing a dis­tance of only 48km and we ended up camp­ing at the back of an eatery in a high­land farm­ing com­mu­nity some­what akin to Cameron High­lands.

We con­tin­ued our quest for the east coast over the next three days and reached the small town of Socheon when one of our rid­ers re­ceived the tragic news that

his mother had passed away. For­tu­nately, there was a train sta­tion nearby. The very friendly lo­cals not only guided us to the sta­tion, but also of­fered us shel­ter from the rain, plus cof­fee and grapes, and we man­aged to get tick­ets for the next train to Bu­san so that our friend could catch a flight back to Kuala Lumpur.

We de­cided to skip the coastal town of Uljin and ar­rived in Bu­san two days ahead of our planned sched­ule. In­stead of end­ing our trip here, we rode back up north along the coastal road for the next cou­ple of days, vis­it­ing a num­ber of fa­mous beach re­sorts along the way, un­til we reached the re­sort town of Jinha. There, we had our fi­nal night of camp­ing be­fore turn­ing around and head­ing back to Bu­san.

Ten days af­ter we be­gan cy­cling, we parted ways with three rid­ers who would con­tinue their tour to Ja­pan, whilst two oth­ers would fly back to KL di­rectly from Bu­san.

The re­main­ing four of us caught the bul­let train back to Seoul and still had a good day to clear be­fore our sched­uled flight back to KL. So, be­ing pedal­holics, we hit the cy­cling tracks of the Han River again, this time head­ing for the coast to the west of Seoul which in­volved a re­turn trip of al­most 100km. But it was well worth it as we can now claim to have cov­ered Korea from coast to coast!

All in all, it was a great tour made all the bet­ter by the gen­eros­ity of KTO and the friend­li­ness of the lo­cals, lan­guage prob­lems not­with­stand­ing. We rode a to­tal dis­tance of 620km and spent five nights at proper camp­sites – on the grounds of an eatery, on the banks of a beau­ti­ful river in Socheon, at a beach and even in a pub­lic park (where we were awak­ened by the rub­bish col­lec­tor at 4.30am when he came by with loud mu­sic a la an ice cream ven­dor from a player strapped to his waist).

South Korea is truly a won­der­ful desti­na­tion for bike tour­ing. It’s very safe, clean and bi­cy­cle-friendly. Its peo­ple are very friendly, in­clud­ing the po­lice who ac­tu­ally guided us to a camp­site by a beau­ti­ful river in Socheon.

the Pedal­holics cy­cling club (Pcc) on tour in Korea.

Part of the ex­ten­sive 600km net­work of cy­cling lanes in Korea are built along old rail­way tracks.

Korea has built more than 600km of cy­cling lanes where one can ride from Seoul to all cor­ners of the coun­try.

the cy­cling lanes in Korea even have their own spe­cial tun­nels to cross moun­tain­ous ar­eas.

nice jour­ney: cy­clists in Korea are re­warded with stun­ning scenery.

the Pedal­holics cy­cling club (Pcc) rid­ers camped at lots of dif­fer­ent places dur­ing their two week tour.

One can buy a ‘ride pass­port’ to col­lect travel ‘stamps’ at cy­cling sta­tions to sig­nify that you have ac­tu­ally rid­den on the var­i­ous routes.

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