Thursday, 23 February 2017

Cycling in Korea - People are nice

When things go smoothly, cycle touring (even a short one) can be a little dull. You get on your bike, ride somewhere, spending most of the time thinking about the next meal or cake. You worry a bit about navigation, how you will fix a major mechanical problem, enjoy the view, sleep, then do it all again.

And South Korea had the potential to offer on paper pretty dull cycling. But I happened to be there in November (as you do) and thought I would give it a go.

The local population is polite (it takes a while to get used to all the bowing) and kind. And it is one of the safest countries in the world with low levels of crime. Someone left an iPod unguarded in the communal area of a hostel I was staying in for two days – something you probably couldn’t do in many other countries.

The lack of information about how to go about cycling in Korea was worrying though. Most guidebooks warned against riding in the city (and indeed, in Korea in general). There were few maps out there and it seems that google aren’t allowed to let you download maps of South Korea for offline use.  I didn’t want to take a bike on the plane for a short trip, partly due to the additional cost but also due to my technical incompetence and lack of confidence that I could put the bike back together when I got there.

A few websites talked of significant investment in cycle paths, for example along some of the rivers. I chose to do a short trip along the cycle path which has been built between Seoul and Busan, the geek in me excited that they even have telephone boxes where you can stamp a card to prove you have done the route.  Navigation should be relatively easy as the 500km route broadly followed a pretty big river. I couldn’t get lost (right?).

There were a few maps online but they weren’t brilliant. Certainly not good enough if I came off the route at some point. Fortunately, before leaving I discovered someone called Jan Boonstra who sent me a link to some pretty detailed maps for the whole route.

Finding accommodation along the route was also a challenge, with no hotels at a convenient point. So I decided to risk a nice looking room in a house via Airbnb.

The next challenge was to find somewhere I could get a bike. For short rides there are places along the river where you can hire a bike. But I really struggled to find somewhere I could hire a bike for more than one day. Via Facebook I came across “Korea by Bike” who pointed me towards a bike shop “Bikely” in Seoul where I could hire a bike.

Bikely responded to my message quickly and promised to have a bike available for me. Unfortunately, they weren’t open on Sunday (when I wanted to start my ride) and didn’t open til 11am on the Monday. So my three-day ride became a short two-day ride.

The manager at Bikely was brilliant and twice talked me through the route I had planned, pointing out where I might go wrong. The cycle paths were like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. There were frequent toilets, water stops, air pumps. and even cycle shops/repair businesses along the route. The paths were immaculate and well signed. And despite having chosen a potentially dull route along a river, the views were spectacular. The route heads through valleys and even through tunnels dug out of mountains.

Because I hadn’t left until about 11.30 on the Monday, it was pretty dark by the time I got to where I thought my accommodation for the night was. Whilst Airbnb can be great, when you arrive somewhere in rural South Korea, in the dark, with no sign of the accommodation where it is supposed to be, no mobile signal and no internet, that you really could be in trouble.

I knocked on one door, only to have a very scared couple of Koreans shout me away. I imagine they don’t get many white people knocking on their door of an average evening. I knocked on another house to no answer. I saw a big house on a hill which looked a bit like a deserted restaurant and pulled my bike up 100 steps to the door. A Korean lady came to the door but didn’t speak any English. I managed to get a phone signal so called my Airbnb host and asked the Korean lady to speak to her to explain where I was.

It turned out that the location of the Airbnb accommodation was about 20 miles away and it was in the wrong place on the Airbnb map. I was beginning to panic.

Not entirely sure what I was going to do, a group of customers appeared at the restaurant, including, it turned out, a local dignitary. I stopped one of them who spoke a little English. I don’t really know what happened next except within a couple of minutes, the man said he was sure the owner of the restaurant would let me stay there. He seemed pretty confident given he hadn’t yet asked her. But he was right. They invited me in, cooked me dinner in the restaurant and even gave me a beer. They showed me to an outhouse with a bed in and lots of quilts to keep me warm. They didn’t charge me anything. People are nice.

Despite the 80km ride I didn’t sleep particularly well and got up at first light to head back to Seoul. I decided to head back a slightly different way and experienced a cycle route which just ended and left me on a pretty scary road for a few miles. The guidebook advice was right. Cycling in Korea away from the cycle paths was pretty frightening so I was relieved to get back onto the cycle path and head towards Seoul.

Cycling back, the route was even more enjoyable than on the way. I stopped for a cheap but excellent spicy Korean stew before passing a pretty impressive dam and the Olympic Stadium on the way into Seoul.

Korea is a brilliant place to cycle and definitely not dull. The city seemed pretty polluted (and gridlocked) and I’m not sure I’d risk cycling along most of the roads I saw. But over two days I managed around 160km along some of the best cycle paths I’ve ever been on.

I hope I manage to get over there again and do the route all the way down to Busan.

Jan Boonstra: