We are cycling on a bike path by a river, half a mile away from any traffic. The sun is warm, trees are in blossom and the birds are singing. Lycra-clad roadies fly past giggling schoolgirls as they wobble along on rented tand
Where is this rural paradise, you might ask?
This is Seoul, one of the largest megacities in the world. Just a few hundred yards away, life in the metropolis hurtles along at break neck speed as ten million people carry on their daily lives. Mirrored skyscrapers dominate the skyline and huge flyovers carry traffic across the city.
The juxtaposition between the hyper-modern city and the bucolic riverside cycle path is stark, but typical in South Korea, which has become something of a mecca for cycle touring. As yet, few westerners make it over here, but if you’re looking for a novel destination for a holiday on wheels, it is a cyclists’ paradise.
The South Korean water company, K-Water, have spent a fortune redeveloping the country’s river network, with hundreds of miles of dedicated bike lanes making up the Four Rivers Bike Path as part of its investment. These paths wind through the rural heartland of the country, giving a different perspective on a place which is more usually associated with futuristic technology and repetitive pop music.
My husband and I visited Korea in April 2014 and were blown away by the cycling. Starting in Seoul, we followed the Four Rivers path to Busan. This route crosses the entire country, from northwest to southeast, and is 633 kilometres of easy riding, hardly touching a road at all.
There are three main sections of the cross-country path, the catchily named Namhangang River Trail, Saejae Mountain Path and the Nakdonggang River Trail – or the Northern Bit, the Middle Bit and the Southern Bit.
The Northern Bit (aka the Namhangang)
Starting at the Ara sea lock, the first seventy kilometres or so pass through Incheon and Seoul. This was an important area during the Korean War (Incheon was the site where General MacArthur landed in 1950, leading the United Nation’s troops) and we spent an afternoon at the excellent War Memorial of Korea museum in the centre of Seoul, to learn some background to the conflict.
The bike path itself sticks close to the Han River, and passes through several parks which are thronging with families at weekends. Setting up a tent for the day as shelter from the sun is the thing to do in Seoul and it led to some confusion, as we assumed that wild camping must be a national pastime. Sadly not: the tents were all packed away by sunset, leaving just us and our bivvy bags, tucked into a hidden corner beneath the skyscrapers.
Eventually the river led us out of the city, past the Olympic Park, into rural Korea. Although Korea itself is very mountainous, following the rivers means that – for this northern section at least – it is fairly flat. Where mountains are encountered, the Koreans simply blast through them and cyclists even have their own dedicated tunnels through the rock. There can be few countries in the world where the authorities go to this kind of trouble to keep those on two wheels happy.
We rode along the river through the rice paddies and agricultural heartlands of Korea. Rural it may be, but there are still convenience stores every few miles (good old Seven Eleven). Instant noodles and gimbap – seaweed-wrapped sticky rice – meant we could refuel for just a couple of pounds. As we were ultra-skint, we found the free hot water to be an additional bonus: we took a mug each and a jar of instant coffee (widely available in-country) for that caffeine fix on the road.
On the odd occasion that convenience stores couldn’t satisfy our hunger, we headed away from the bike trail to search out a restaurant. It is an unfortunate fact that large parts of Korea smell like cabbage, as a result of the national obsession with kimchi: pickled vegetables (usually cabbage) with chilli. It accompanies every meal and was a taste we eventually learned to love, despite the school dinner smell.
The Middle Bit (aka the Saejae Mountain Path)
After a couple of hundred kilometres of river, we left the Namhangang and started climbing up into the mountains. The Baekdudaegan mountain chain spans the whole length of the Korean peninsula, and acts as the watershed between the two river systems, so there is no way round it: the only way is up.
Happily for us, the mountains also harbour a large number of hot springs. We had heard rumours about a couple of spa towns and found one of these places on our first night in the hills. Arriving as it got dark, we asked the first person we saw for a cheap place to stay. We were directed to a large building which looked like a multi-storey car park, adorned with a symbol we had seen everywhere in Korea: what looked like a bowl with a couple of wavy lines above it. This was one of the legendary jjimjilbangs, a uniquely Korean institution.
Jjimjilbangs are Korean bathhouses, but they also offer a very unusual (and cheap) place to stay for the night. We were greeted at reception with a couple of towels, a uniform and, for some inexplicable reason, three boiled eggs each. Once in the gender-separated bathrooms (littered with boiled egg shells), I followed the local women by showering and then soaking in the various hot pools. One old woman took me under her wing, encouraging me to sit down in front of a row of taps while she scrubbed my back raw. Eventually, I escaped to the sauna, only to be disturbed a few minutes later by a newcomer. She stepped in, looked me up and down for a few minutes, then left, apparently satisfied that we weren’t so different after all. The spectacle of naked white flesh caused quite a stir that day.
After the bath, and reunited with my husband, we settled down in the big communal room which every jjimjilbang has. Wearing the uniforms we had been provided with, we ate our eggs, lay down on the straw mats and fell asleep, confused by the whole experience but deeply relaxed after the hot bath.
Jjimjilbangs can be found all over Korea: in the cities they are often full of locals sleeping the booze off before heading home. However, most nights we simply camped wild along the bike path. With plentiful pagodas to shelter under, it was the easiest place for wild camping we have ever been, and we enjoyed night after night under the stars without disturbance. We even found a pagoda to sleep under at the very top of the mountain path – although in this case we were disturbed by a party of drunk Korean hikers at 1am. The Koreans are known as the Irish of Asia for a very good reason.
The Southern Bit (aka the Nakdonggang)
The mountains crossed, all that was left to do was to follow the river south to Busan. We expected this to be an easy ride, but were in for a shock. This section of the path is surprisingly hilly and there were several steep ascents. One particular day, we were struggling up a horribly rough and arduous climb when we found a huge temple. We knew there was a national festival happening in celebration of Buddha’s birthday, and a group of other cyclists pointed us at the door of the temple, saying the magic words, ‘free cake’. The traditional stodgy rice cake provided excellent fuel for the hills ahead, and it was lovely to see the temple bedecked in colourful flags for the celebration.
Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday, which meant that as we got closer to Busan, more and more cyclists appeared on the trail. Talking to a few of them, it transpired that many had used the holiday as an opportunity to complete the entire bike path, in just four or five days. This work hard, play hard attitude is typical of the national psyche and when we passed people, they often raised an arm and shouted ‘Fighting!’ in recognition of our shared effort – despite the fact we were going at a snail’s pace and completing the route over two weeks.
Finally, we rolled into Busan. This is Korea’s playground, and we celebrated the end of the path with a few beers on the beach front – and a final call of ‘Fighting!’.
Side bar: why is South Korea a cycling mecca?
1) The Four Rivers ‘Cycling Passport’
Passports are stamped at certification centres along the bike trail. Complete a route, collect the requisite stamps as evidence and claim a certificate. Completion of the full Seoul-Busan, cross-country route entitles you to a personalised medal, as does completing the Grand Slam – all the paths covered by the network. An ingenious way to encourage more people to get on their bikes.
2) Cycling infrastructure
Hundreds of kilometres of traffic-free cycle routes, cycling tunnels blasted through mountains, wooden gangways over water to avoid steep cliffs…the amount of effort and thought that has gone into these bike trails beats anything we have seen elsewhere in the world, and it was a joy to feel so welcomed as a cyclist.
3) Bikes on public transport
Most trains have special areas for carrying bikes and are absolutely happy to have you on board. Although the official rule is that bikes are only allowed at weekends, outside rush hour on weekdays, station staff are likely to turn a blind eye. It is also possible to take a bicycle on certain buses, especially those that service the areas around the Four Rivers bike path.
4) Hot springs
As well as hot baths in the jjimjilbangs, there are numerous hot springs throughout the country which are perfect for soaking tired muscles. In one town, there is even a public hot foot bath in the central square, where you can sit around and let your calves recover while eating your picnic lunch.
5) National obsession with cycling
Korean people love cycling. Bikes are everywhere and all along the trail, enterprising souls have set up small bike shops, just in case you urgently need to buy a new cycling jersey. Should anything go wrong with your bikes, help would never be far away.
6) The food
Kimchi might not be to everyone’s taste, but there are plenty of alternatives to try. Carnivores are well catered for with plentiful barbecue restaurants: a gas hob in the centre of the table is topped by a grill and you cook your own meat, caveman style.