SOUTH KOREA, 4th – 15th April 2018
The 4th of April was supposed to be the day that we would finally leave China after almost three months in the country, but China wasn’t ready to let us go that easily. The big passenger ferry was delayed by some twelve hours, and we spent most of the day waiting around in the modern ferry terminal building, and I spent most of that time fretting about the boarding process. We had heard from many sources that it was going to be necessary to take a bus from the terminal to the ship, and this I did not like. While my circumnavigation by bicycle and boats was now complete, and taking a bus would not be quite the catastrophe it would have been six months ago, I still didn’t really want to be powered by a combustion engine. Three years and seven months had now passed since I’d last been in a motor vehicle, and I’d cycled some 52,000 kilometres since then, an uninterrupted line of land-based self-propelment that I’m sure would qualify me for some kind of world record if only the people at Guiness would return my phone calls. I didn’t want it to end yet.
Watching the ferry arrive eased my nerves somewhat, for it came in beside the dock right opposite the building. I couldn’t see how anyone could suggest taking a bus such a short distance, yet this was still China, so we weren’t safe yet. All the passengers, mostly a mix of Chinese and Korean tour groups, were called through, and we went on a long march around the building. There was passport control, customs, and a quite unnecessary but compulsory detour through the duty free shop for us all, Dea and I pushing our loaded bikes through it all. We had to take all our bags off to put through an x-ray machine, so we were pretty much the last passengers. With some relief our long walk looked to be ending right where the ship was, and I dared to hope we weren’t going to be forced to take a bus. But we were on the second floor and, oh no, all of the passengers ahead of us were going down an escalator! That was almost as bad as a bus! But, wait, there was an elevator behind the escalators that we could use instead. What a relief that was, at least until the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and we came face to face with a waiting bus.
The purpose of the bus was to load up with passengers at the terminal building and then make a U-turn to the other side of the dock, where everyone would get off again. The ship gangway was not more than fifty metres from where we stood. It was absurd. The two young officials beside the bus insisted that Dea and I must get on it with our loaded bikes. We protested, but they simply wouldn’t let us cycle. It was too dangerous, they said, and all of the passengers had to take the bus, simple as that. It was such a stupid, ridiculous way for my continuous line to come to an end, and I just couldn’t let it happen. Had I thought a bit more about it I would have cried out “You won’t beat me, China!” before I did what I did next, which was to jump on my bike and cycle the fifty metres over to the ship before anyone could stop me. Ironically I almost made things dangerous by timing this daring dash at the same time that the bus moved. Had I been run over by the bus I think it would have in some sense proved both our points. But I didn’t get run over by the bus, I made it over to the ship’s gangway, where a friendly young official told me I had to go back over to the building and get on the bus to arrive at the ship properly, until even he saw the absurdity of that suggestion, and let me onboard. Dea, who wasn’t quite as bothered about combustion engines, arrived a few moments later by bus, falling out of it in a theatrical performance that I think was designed to show everyone how stupid putting a loaded bike on a bus for fifty metres really was.
The ferry took about seventeen hours to get to Korea after it started sailing, which was about five hours after we got onboard. I wanted to stay up to wave goodbye to China, but the ship was first loaded up with hundreds of shipping containers that were also making the journey with us. By the time that was eventually completed it was three thirty in the morning when we set sail. But I was glad I’d stayed up, to watch the lights on the skyscrapers of Qingdao shrinking as we sailed out into the ocean, and to make sure we were really leaving China.
Then I went to bed, and even though we had opted for the economy tickets, it was a surprisingly good ship. We each had our own bunk bed with a curtain for privacy, and the next day we were served food onboard as we made our way towards South Korea. It was foggy for much of the day, but it had lifted by the time we reached land again, though it was dark again by then. First impressions of Korea were not good however, for one of the first things we saw was a bus waiting at the dock to transport us.
This time the distance from the ship to the terminal building was several hundred metres, and to my dismay the shipping containers began to be removed immediately. This meant that the dock really was a dangerous place to cycle, and my hopes of extending my run without using motor vehicles dwindled. Dea and I were the last ones off the boat, and I argued our case the best that I could. “We can just cycle behind the bus,” I insisted to the young official, to little effect. He was stern and insistent, even telling me “You can get on the bus, or you can get back on the boat and go back” which was supposed to be my line, but I guess he knew that no cyclist in their right mind would go back to China.
We held out for a more senior man to come. He was a small, nervous man, who made his case by pointing at the security cameras. “Will you get in trouble?” I asked. He nodded. “Well, we don’t want to get you in trouble.” And with that we gave in and got on the bus, making a big show of how stupid and difficult it was to put our loaded bikes on them as we did so. And then after three years and seven months my record came to an end at 52,000.050 kilometres as the relatively moody yet ever so unattractive Korean man drove the bus a few hundred metres to the terminal building.
We got through customs and then I cycled around the car park a few times to try and make up for what had just happened, before we headed off through the streets of Incheon in light rain. It was late and it was dark, but the neon lights and orderly non-beeping traffic told us we were in a new country. We found our way to a park where we put up the tent, ready to find our bearings better in the morning. And how did I feel lying in my sleeping bag that night about being made to get in a motor vehicle again? Well, first of all surprisingly liberated. The worries that came with waiting in the terminal to see if I would have to get on a bus, constantly having to think about not accidentally stepping on an escalator, the nightmares I frequently had about being in a car, all of that was now off my shoulders, now that I had done it, I’d used other transport and the line was broken, I didn’t need to worry about it any more. But with that I also felt a bit violated. That I could be in a situation where someone could force me to use a motor vehicle felt wrong to me. It felt to me like I should have the right to power myself if I wanted to. But we were now about 35 kilometres from the border to North Korea, and this was not really any place for me to complain about my human rights being breached by a complimentary bus service. We were in South Korea, and we had nothing to complain about.
It was very odd to wake up in a park at 6am in the middle of a city in a new country we hardly knew anything about. Especially after the last three months where China had become a familiar frame for our journey. Now all around us was unknown and different, and to our great relief we soon experienced it was for the better.
First thing, the woman that saw us crawl out of the tent in the park didn’t come over to stare at us, nor did she start talking loudly to us in Chinese or clear her throat and spit at the ground. She simply just turned around and walked the other way, perhaps a bit surprised and nervous about our strange appearance. We had however been told several times that camping in parks generally was not a problem in South Korea.
Second, the morning traffic in Incheon was not aggressive, nor characterised by mad beeping, overtakings and vehicles blindly driving out in front of others. Signs showed us to cycle safely at the foot and cycle paths so that we could take in the appearance of the surroundings. Narrow, winding streets full of restaurants, shops, convenience stores and people out exercising or on their way to work, green parks and waterways, modern architecture and groups of slim, tall apartment blocks like white forests. It was a modern, wealthy and way less chaotic country we had come to.
Then a man approached us in the street speaking to us in English, “Hey guys, what are you up to?” and we stood there speechless, so pleasantly surprised by his strong, native accent. We had spoken to so few westerners the last three months that it took us a few seconds to get our brains and tongues working and the brief conversation was over way too soon as he rushed off to his office, while we stood back desperate for more.
After cycling 15 kilometres through this new and very pleasant country, we reached that which stood in starkest contrast to our experiences in China. The Four Rivers cycle route, a network of cycle routes that criss-crosses the whole of the country on secluded bike paths and quiet roads. We had found out about this route as we were in the midst of the madness of China and it had sounded like a true paradise. Now we were finally here – excited and a little anxious to find out if it really was as good as we dreamed of.
To do things properly we went eight kilometres west, the opposite direction of where we would go, to get to the start line, yes, a proper start line that marks the beginning of the 633 kilometre route from Incheon in north west to Busan in south east. 633 kilometres of signed, traffic free cycling, we could hardly believe it could be true. On top of this a mighty westerly wind blew us cross the startline and along the wide Han river via the wonderful bike paths towards the centre of Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world. Usually cycling through a big, Asian city is a quite demanding task, but this was simply easy and wonderful. The paths ran along the river and were busy, but only with Korean cyclists, all extremely well-equipped on flashy road bikes, mountain bikes or fat tire bikes dressed in lycra, helmets, sunglasses and gloves and to our great wonder covering up their faces completely in scarfs and buffs. They looked a bit like a bunch of cycling Power Rangers. Many of them had loudspeakers installed on their bikes playing Korean pop music and seemed to have a great time. Art installations, decorations, exercising machines and little cafes and convenience stores lined the path. To our great delight and surprise, we had found a cycling paradise that reached the wonders of Holland here.
We reached the central part of Seoul still cycling along the river where the bike route went through Hangang Park. Here the lawns were packed with young people hanging out in the grass and some seemingly day-camping there in rented tents. There was a great leisurely atmosphere and no one seemed to worry about the black clouds that were gathering in the sky. The city went on and on with the river flowing wide and mighty through it. High-rise buildings rose on both sides amongst an endless sea of houses and apartment blocks and the water was crossed again and again by road bridges high up over our heads. But we never felt the hectic rhythm and crowd of the big city, which was quite incredible. We were extremely pleased with the first impressions of this cycle route.
By the end of the day we reached the other side of the big city and found our first South Korean supermarket. It looked amazing, so similar to what we knew from Europe and had missed so dearly throughout Central Asia and China. Excitedly we rushed in, but quickly froze as we realised that the prices were also much higher than not just our most recent destinations, but even Europe. A kilo of apples cost about 5 pounds! And so it went with everything. For some minutes I thought we would just have to simply eat nothing while we were in the country, but that of course was not a solution. Another issue was that we had run out of gas for our stove and due to all the ferries we had scheduled we didn’t want to buy new gas, as we might not be allowed to bring it on. So we came up with a new diet, that ended up following all the way through South Korea and Japan. Salad made of the cheapest vegetables, tofu (which was super cheap), peanuts and dressing. It was healthy, but only just enough to fuel us for the last two countries.
The food prices were the only set back we had experienced on our first day of cycling in South Korea and it was soon redeemed as a soft, warm light from the setting sun burst through the grey clouds and gently lit the low, forested hills and the river. That evening light over the peaceful, natural landscape became one of my favourite things about South Korea.
The following day nothing could force us to hurry. We were generally exhausted and running on our last energy resources. All the deadlines of our Asia crossing and especially the struggle of making it through China had built up a strong desire in me to go slow and do things only in the tempo it pleased me. Unfortunately, we still had a serious deadline ahead, as our cruise ship was departing three weeks later, which meant we had to cycle through Korea in only eight days. But this day not even that could force me to rush. We slept as long as we could and were not awake before 8am (which was late, as it had become our habit to get up before 6am the last many weeks), and while fast cyclists out for a weekend ride whizzed past us we took our time and stopped here and there again and again. Taking pictures, taking breaks, using the clean public toilets and getting clean drinking water from drinking fountains (two other amazing features of the South Korean cycle route), playing volleyball and leaving the bike route to find another supermarket for more salad supplies. The prices where still sky high same.
It was just one of those days where time slipped away while the numbers on my bike computer counted at half-speed. And it was such a long time since we had had such a day.
Of course a lazy day only put more pressure on us the next day, which was also when we were closing in on the challenging middle part of the route. Still following the Four River route we would leave the Han river to go over two, small mountain passes before reaching the next big river that we could follow the rest of the way to Busan.
To fuel ourselves for the mountain climb we went to find a restaurant and try out the local cuisine. We found a little place, but the owners who spoke no English seemed unable to understand our attempts to order a vegetarian meal of rice and eggs. Unfortunately, we had not taken time to learn even one word in Korean. Luckily, a young guy saved us by helping with the translation, and just a few minutes later two big portions of fried rice and eggs and a handful of small plates with little, tasty salads stood in front of us. We ate hungrily as if we hadn’t eaten for days. Two other young guys came in to talk with us, as they had seen our bikes outside the restaurant. They were college students and curious about our journey, and as a generous welcome to their country they insisted to buy us to bottles of ice coffee (which to my great delight seemed to be the most popular drink in the country). Cycling on the bike route we felt a little distanced from the real life and people of Korea, but in little glimpses like this we found that it was a country of gentle, generous people.
On our way up the hills in the afternoon we passed another, western traveller. Antoine from Switzerland was hiking the whole length of the bike route as one of his first challenges of a world journey that was meant to take several years, not only hiking though. He was young, open-minded, patient and optimistic and all his gear new and clean. It reminded me of where I had been myself a year before at the beginning of the journey and where I was now, filthy and worn at the other end of the continent, and I hoped to gain a similar new portion of energy once we reached the end of Asia.
On various blogs we had read about the terribly steep climbs that awaited us on the mountain passes, so it was with slight apprehension we encountered the first one. The sun was finally shining from a clear, blue sky and we climbed up rather easily on a quiet road surrounded by bird song and trees that were just coming in bloom. It had been a while since we had climbed hills, but fueled by the rice and eggs from the day before, I actually enjoyed the physical task in the lovely environment, and before we knew it we had reached the top and whizzed down the other side. And to our great surprise the same thing was repeated on the next, longer climb. The gradient was absolutely fair and the forest and views of the valley below us rewarding, so that we reached the top full of joy. Here we met a few other cyclists, all Korean, doing cross-country trips similar to ours but slightly faster. Some road cyclists were planning to take only three days, and two young guys on city bikes and with little backpacks where aiming to do the whole route in five. We stuck to our slow pace, and were therefore quite surprised to catch up with the latter two later in the afternoon, at one of the many short steep (and these were actually really, really steep) ramps where the path went from one level to another. The guys’ bikes where not made for such steep climbing and thus they had to push, whereas we with our heavy load but low gears could pass them cycling. It was slightly awkward especially since they had proclaimed they would be faster than us. Only more awkward was it when this happened again and again for the rest of the day. They would overtake us at high speed, hardly saying a word to us, only to be caught up and passed by us very slowly at the next climb. We tried to talk friendly with them and make clear that we just had different types of bikes and in no way were trying to humiliate them, but they just seemed to get more upset. To my great relief they went for dinner in a restaurant and after that we didn’t see them again.
The weather had been calm all day, unlike the previous days of our ride through the country, where strong winds, grey skies, occasional showers and even a brief hail storm had brought some drama to our otherwise peaceful cycle. Today the weather had matched the gentle landscape beautifully, and the perfection peaked when the glowing, orange sun set between the low hills on a pink and purple sky all mirrored in the still water of the river as we crossed it on a bridge. We stopped immediately after to camp on the river bank and wash ourselves in the mirror of water, before having our nightly salad and glance up into the night sky full of stars.
I had thought the rest of the ride along the river would be flat and easy, as we had now passed the low mountains that was supposed to be the hardest part of the route. However, more short but much steeper hills awaited us daily, and we had to tackle them in zig-zagging slalom like a skier, but going up instead of down.
Except from these sharp climbs we agreed that this cycle route was like an undiscovered pearl for travelling cyclists, somehow similar to the popular routes along the Rhine and Danube in Europe, but set in this far away country and culture. We met no other foreigners, but luckily the route was far from undiscovered by the Koreans themselves, as we everyday would encounter many cyclists either cycling the length of the country or out for a day ride. Most of them just greeted us friendly and respectfully with a bow, deeper than just a nod, from the saddle, but a few times we got to talk with them. Two ladies were especially excited to talk with us, and looked stunned at the bikes, our bags and our tanned skin. “No sun!” they explained as they covered their faces in scarf before riding on, which finally explained things to us. From behind another cover, we later that day spoke with another cyclist, a man who advised us to take a shorter route over a hill. “It is hard work, but the feeling when you ride down the other side is amazing” he said excitedly. “I always go very fast!”. I smiled at his lively enthusiasm. “Do you have a day off from work?” I asked, assuming that was why he would have time to go and ride his bike, as I knew Koreans are a hard working people. “No, I’m retired. I’m 70 years old, but I ride my bike very often.”
The Koreans really seemed to have adopted the opportunities for outdoor leisure and exercising that the cycle route had brought, being a part of a relatively new governmental program called ‘Green Growth’.
Following the cycle route the entire way through the country meant that we didn’t get to experience much of the ‘real’ life in the towns and cities as the route stayed by the river and bypassed most town centres. To shop we had to abandon the signed route and we would sometimes have troubles getting back on the route or we would simply leave our bikes by the river and walk into the town.
One little town we were led through though surprised us by having planted an abundance of yellow rapeseed as decorating plants in the parks, and we got there just in time for seeing them in their yellow pride. In the town we also went to little Buddhist temple complex. We looked around at the many Buddhas and the colourful decorations of the pavilion housing the enormous bell, that we sometimes heard ringing in the evenings. Many locals seemed to come here to pray and a few nuns lived in the complex. One of them came and offered me a big bottle of cold water and a bag of grapes (that must have cost a fortune), a generous kindness that left a fond impression in me.
But what we may have missed of townlife and culture was made up by the many moments of being in fertile and wild, green nature again, something we had missed so much throughout our journey across China. Along the rivers through the whole of the country rose low hills covered in forest that now stood in fresh, new bloom, the cherry trees’ white flowers a great attraction for all and the patchwork of dark green fur and the brightest, light green on the hillsides capturing me. The evening light always was golden and magical and the mornings were so peaceful that it almost hurt. Along the river there were so many places just left to themselves, not owned and used by anyone, instead they were for everyone to enjoy. Green rest areas with pavilions, benches and facilities or just the natural meadows on the banks of the river made for some wonderful camp spots.
So it was with a real feeling of sadness that I saw the first white forests of tower blocks rise at the edge of Busan and the forested hills disappear behind the last bend of the river, as we cycled the final 40 kilometres of The Four Rivers cycle route. Still the route was well planned leading us parallel with big, busy roads but on a lovely path lined with pink blossoming trees and lively with people walking, cycling and exercising on the outdoor fitness machines. Till the very end the cycle route was absolutely enjoyable, the only disappointment would be that there was not a well designated finish line like the start line that we could cross with our fists in the air. However, there was good wifi at the centre where the route ended and so we went straight onwards planning our next steps in the last country of Asia for us, Japan. Catching a ferry the same night to Japan we should be able to make it with another ferry to the island Shikoku and have a rather short distance to cover over the next 7-8 days before yet another ferry could take us the last bit of way to Yokohama, where we would board our cruise ship. It sounded pleasant to be able to slow down at our last destination, all we had to do was make it across Busan to the ferry terminal.
It was with a slight shock we found ourselves back in reality of Korea navigating an extremely steep pass within the city. No more signs showing us the way through the winding labyrinth of streets, no more escape from the traffic. Yet, excitement rushed through me once again walking my bike past the main road’s fashion shops and modern buildings, while the traditional, bustling street markets could be glimpsed down the side roads. This was still Asia, vibrant and multilayered, old and new, and although I was utterly exhausted and somehow filled up with it all, it still went right under my skin and brought a smile on my face.
A smile that faded abruptly when we at the ferry terminal realised that all ferries to Japan were fully booked over the weekend. We had arrived on a Friday and thought that with three ferrylines sailing to Japan we could easily jump aboard the evening ferry. In these days of cheap flight tickets, who would take a ferry? Well, the Koreans and Japanese. An overnight cruise to Japan seemed to be a very popular weekend activity with them, and so there were no available tickets for us. It was now the third time within a few weeks that we got delayed by relying on ferries, and it made me more and more aware and appreciative of the freedom we have on our bikes to only rely on ourselves.
With this further delay we had to quickly change our plans for Japan as the next available ferry two days later was sailing to Osaka in the middle of the country. From here it made most sense to just cycle the rest of the way from Osaka to Yokohama and not let any more ferries play hazard with our now tight schedule. It was going to be another demanding, and deadline-structured dash through a country, and to make the task even harder, this country didn’t have a signposted cycle route and a lot more, and lot bigger mountains, we had to cross. The thought of all this made me tired, but this was the only way now. A forced rest day in Busan before the Sunday departure of the ferry was therefore very welcome, and so were we, as we rang the door at Pop Guest House where a sweet, young couple helped us upstairs with all our bags and gave us a four-person dorm as a private room so we had space for all our stuff. Rain poured down the whole next day which only made a day in bed more legitimate.
Sunday morning we had one last, impulsive to-do, as Leepyo, a Korean friend of ours from the time we were working as pedicabbers in Surfers Paradise, Australia, was flying into Busan the same morning. With a big hug he was suddenly there again after more than two years apart, and generous as any Korean host insisting to buy us some kind of food or drink. So we sat in a little square with juices from the convenience store and went over the many, sweet and a few sour memories from our glory days together. “Shouldn’t we try and gather the old crew and all go back and work on the pedicabs in Surfers again?” we dreamed together, “maybe just without Tony… “. But it was nothing but fantasy. We had a ferry to Japan to catch and Leepyo a date with his new girlfriend. Life’s rapid drifts constantly moved us onwards, further and further beyond those days, that’s just how life is. As strange as it was to see him again, as strange it was to say goodbye again 1.5 hour later, not knowing whether we would ever meet again.
And with the same brief, but warm experience of South Korea we waved goodbye to its bustling, modern towns and green hills from the deck of our ferry bound for Osaka, Japan, where our last Asian country waited for us.
Incheon – Seoul – Chungju – Busan
637 kilometres cycled