Given the two key destinations Seoul and Busan, and perhaps Jeju, a brief look at the map reveals that there’s a great deal inbetween: Korea. When I heard of the possibility of cycling from Seoul to Busan in five days, an adventure was born. By chance I found a cycle shop that sold me a Sumcholy bike (made in Korea), with all the trimmings, for 240,000 Won (c.$240), or about two week’s rental price. For that, it’s mine!
On a Saturday afternoon, I’d finally packed my belonging and condensed what I needed, or thought I needed, into a smallish backpack ready to be strapped onto the back of the bike. Not knowing how awesome the destination might be, I decided to pack a few extra t-shirts and undergarments, plus of course an ipad, a GoPro gymbal (?!), a keyboard, a largish battery, cables, magnesium supplements (these are in fact helpful), B complex, no Vitamin D but instead suntan lotion (organic), flip-flops (thongs), jeans and a large bag of Brazil nuts (Selenium!) and walnuts – an attempt at an unfeasible ketogenic diet. The whole thing weighs about six kilograms and I don’t know how that happened – I started on the assumption that I could wash my cycling clothes every night and find it dry the next morning (doesn’t always work), yet somehow the essentials ballooned. After the first hour, I’d come to regret that.
Procrastinating with a beer in the sunshine, a final meal and an ice-cream before embarking on this health trip, it was almost 4pm by the time I left Hongdae for my first destination, a mild 70km eastwards – Yangpyeong. This proved ambitious. Not least because the sun would begin to set around 7.30, with bugs emerging around that time and visibility dropping substantially (especially as I’d have to wear sunglasses in the dark to keep the insects out of my eyes). After riding along the river in Seoul for an hour, I found I still had not left the city; I even succumbed to the temptation to use one of the public outdoor gym exercise areas to do some bench presses – my enthusiasm knew no bounds. Checking on Naver (google doesn’t really work in South Korea), I had progressed around 10km, which was an upsetting average speed. This could be a challenge. As I followed the river further, the saturday evening mood became visibly more relaxed; there are paddle boarders and windsurfers on the river, and BBQ’ing families on the banks. I started to look up alternative places to stay – all of which involved cycling back, which would be too depressing. So I continued.
The first fifteen kilometres are all about adjusting. Here, we realise that this is an endurance game. It’s the journey, not the destination. We’re stuck with the equipment. Any inefficiencies (like too much luggage) will harden the resolve and get us closer to achieving those dreams, like crossing the Pamir mountain range by bike, self-sufficiently (that’s at a constant incline, 10,000 – 15,000 ft above sea-level).
I‘ve just about left the city, it’s 5.30pm and I’ve got another three hours until last light, with 50km to go – I could just about make it. The bike shops and cafes on the cycle path indicate that there are people who do this for fun, real enthusiasts. It’s getting late and I feel like I’ve missed the party. Should I have started earlier? Would this have been a fun Saturday afternoon? Keep going.
Somehow the next 30km go by much more smoothly. There must be a biochemical explanation for this perception issue, but for some reason it’s now 7.30pm, there’s a beautiful sunset about to happen over the wide river Han, and I’m looking forward to getting a meal in a not-too-distant town that’s visible from here. I’ve found a motel online and a bus that can take me the final 15km there, while my conscience is appeased by the fact that I’ve actually cycled 50km on day one. This would make a 100km average, starting in the mornings, totally possible.
The meal consists of a Lotteria burger combo, and the Coca-Cola is the most enjoyable part – such is my glutamate deficiency. The bus driver doesn’t like the idea of taking me onboard with the bike, yet he succumbs, and drops me off at my motel.
The ride along the river in the midday sun is lovely and liberating. Water-skiers, fellow cyclists in pelotons, the odd hill but otherwise dedicated cycle path make this quite enjoyable. My goal is to reach ChungJu, a 100km slug, while my first stop is Yeoju, with 34km a third of the way. I reach this at 1pm, already quite worn. A church-goer shows me a restaurant – cold noodles
– and becomes my new facebook friend. He’s a social worker and has a YouTube song channel.
YeoJu is the city where King Sejol is buried. This 15th century monarch promoted education and came up with the hang’ul writing that’s the Korean alphabet – slightly reminiscent of Kanji, it’s actually a phonetic rendition of syllables (2-3 letters) in each character, easy to read for the masses for whom Chinese characters were out of reach. I decide to visit his monument, which adds a two hour detour and a 5km footmarch through the grounds, a welcome distraction. I was in need of inspiration.
I’d learned that coffee is not an ideal performance beverage as the initial boost is quickly followed by a slump that coincides with a low mood – not ideal at the bottom of a hill when the chain decides to come off, a very hands-on job to fix.
Freshly motivated, it’s now 5pm and I’ve 44km to go to a hotel outside of ChungJu. I make good progress, and as it’s 7pm with only 20km to go, I luckily find a hotel near the river in a small town – rural Korea! The ride so far took me through a nature reserve and even more peaceful landscape along the river, plus a thirty minute break in a bus shelter as the only cloud in the sky erupted above me. Some small-talk ensued, and my motivation to learn more of the language began.