We are not foodies. We don’t seek out the ‘of the moment’ restaurants or cooking trends. But we do love to eat, and to find small mom and pop places to spend our money. When we’re in travel mode, or bicycle touring, we eat out just about every night. And afternoon. Mornings too, if the hotel doesn’t have breakfast available. So that’s a lot of searching for and sitting down to meals.
Tteokbokki is chewy rice cakes cooked in a red, spicy broth. This version at a place called Hang Out in the charming Ikeseon-dong area, a maze of little streets with so many different shops and restaurants, was more of a beer snack meal than the smaller street vendor versions we saw later on. This version had Sundae sausage and cheese as well as the rice cakes.
After a visit to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the amazing museum complex designed by architect Zaha Hadid, which is well worth a visit, we went over to the Gwangjang Market to walk around and ogle the food on offer.
You know how people like to talk about getting out of your comfort zone? Food is a fast and easy way to do that. I don’t consider myself an adventurous eater, Rich is willing to try anything but I’m a lot more picky, or cautious. And, I don’t like seafood all that much. I’ll happily have sushi or sashimi, but most cooked seafood gets a pass when I’m choosing my meal. However, once we got bicycling on our trip from Seoul to Busan, I really did have to eat what we could get. Whether it be from the ubiquitous convenience stores, or at a restaurant.
Bike touring lets us see a country in detail, and forces us to figure out how to feed ourselves. Korean convenience stores are easy to find, and although I prefer Japanese convenience stores, we did well finding things that appealed to us.
So, how about when the food finding is not so easy. Or not so successful? Or you get to town kind of late and not much is open? Then it’s chicken and beer places. We had to resort to chicken and beer places twice, on long days. They are known as Chimaek. From chikin ‘fried chicken’, and maekju ‘beer’.
There was an evening when we pulled into town on our bikes, in Gumi, and planned on eating at the food court of a large grocery store chain, E-Mart. Food courts in Korea are good. We were looking forward to it. We checked in to our nice hotel, unpacked, showered, and strolled over with plenty of time for dinner. It was closed. There was a mysterious local holiday that no one but the management of the E-Mart seemed to know about, or care about. So, grumbling and hangry, we headed back to our hotel, and then spotted the sports team from the hotel lobby at a small place down the block and went in.
Once we reached Busan and were off the bikes and in a city it was easier to search out restaurants and plan ahead. While cycle touring you are often at the mercy of how far you were able to ride, and what time you get to town, and how much energy you have to find and walk to a restaurant. But with a few days to explore you can find what you actually want. Rich was happy to find that Korea has had a renaissance of craft beer brewing in the past decade or so.
Korean food is quite varied. Most people know Korean BBQ and bibimbap, but there is a lot more to discover.
We took the train from Busan to Seoul and stayed for a week in an apartment which meant we could cook our own meals. As much as we enjoy eating new foods, it gets stressful and tiring to find restaurants, translate menus, and constantly try to figure out what goes with what – does this go in here or do you dump this into there? Our first lunch in our apartment after a visit to the big E-Mart grocery store was grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our apartment in Seoul for our last week in Korea was out in a neighborhood. While at first glance during the walk from the Jungnang metro station it appeared to be a lot of tire shops, new apartment buildings, and little clothing stores, the small back streets proved to be full of restaurants and places to buy groceries. It was easy to wander around and pick a place a for dinner.
Seoul was fantastic for hiking, as we covered in the previous post, and it was also fantastic for simply walking into a restaurant and getting a delicious meal with very low stress or awkwardness. The owners were always nice and welcoming. They would help us out when we were obviously confused about how to proceed with our meal, and payment was always easy – just get up and walk to the cash register and tap your credit card. No tipping, and taxes already included. Another nice thing about walking up to pay is that you don’t feel guilty having left some of the little plates of pickled things. Our clean your plate mentality is hard to break.
Korea is famous for its barbecue. That’s the one thing most travelers might know about Korean food – barbecue. And the many barbecue restaurants are super popular with locals. It’s a fun thing to do with a group of family or friends. The ubiquitous restaurants are easy to spot with the ventilation hoods over the table grill. We decided on our last night eating out in Seoul to finally try a barbecue place. We’re not really big meat eaters, but thankfully as with any meal in Korea there’s no worry about getting plenty of veggies.
We had a great time in Korea. The people, the food, the biking, all of it exceeded our expectations. We are in San Francisco now, after a lovely family visit in Colorado, and we head back to France soon to pick up new touring bikes in Germany and then out for cycle touring!
We knew that Koreans love to hike. Even if we hadn’t known that before coming to Seoul the sheer quantity of hikers using the metro would have tipped us off. Boots, backpacks, hiking poles, sun hats, we felt right at home with these transit enabled hikers. We hadn’t planned on turning our time in Seoul into a multi day hiking expedition, but that’s the joy of travel. Sometimes you just never know what’s going to happen and what you’ll find in a new place.
You may be realizing that what these views have in common is that we are looking down at the city. Down as in ‘we climbed a lot of darn steps to get up here’.
Rich found the first hike for us by seeing the mountain park from our 12th floor window and navigating us there hoping there would be a trail. There was. And there was an amazing accessible boardwalk style trail all the way up to a temple and a cafe. Maps.me was helpful, showing some trails, and Alltrails had some as well, but lacking a great mapping site we relied on Rich’s wonderful navigation skills.
Since hikers are getting to and from their hikes on the metro, there are also signs to get you to the trails from the neighborhoods.
The signage and maps varied in detail, and confusingly played fast and loose with having north be at the top, but on the whole you were well taken care of, signage wise.
Not only was the number of trail opportunities great, the amenities along the trails, and the construction of the trails were impressive. Very nicely maintained steps, benches and picnic spots, restrooms, and my new favorite thing – carpeted trails. It looks like jute, or coir, and for stretches that are steep up or down, or could get quite muddy, it’s super helpful. It also stops the usual trail ruts from forming, or the footsteps turning into hardened mud. And dang, carpeted trails – what’s not to love about that?
It’s not unusual for us to come to a city and skip the A list sights. Doing things we love to do, like hiking or biking, or even just walking city streets, gives us more insight into what life is really like in a place like Seoul. Seeing the neighborhoods far from the tourist friendly zones. Going into restaurants with basically zero idea what kind of food they serve. And hiking trails like these, full of locals. I tell Rich he’s never happier then when there are zero other western tourists. I developed a rating scale for him of tourist bombs – a high of five is a lot of tourists and not going to result in a happy Rich, and a low of one is good, but zero is better. After the tourist bomb rating is the wide eyed locals rating – which shows how surprised the locals seem to be to spot two big foreigners on their trail or in their small neighborhood restaurant. Our best hike was zero tourist bombs, and five wide eyed locals, the highest rating possible in my new rating scale.
In addition to good trail signs, there are informational signs about archaeological sites, and signs asking folks to please not collect acorns and chestnuts as the wildlife depend on them.
You might be thinking, ok, so that’s all impressive and interesting, but lots of places have trails, and signs, and views. Well hold on to your sun hats, there’s more.
The unexpected pleasure of hiking in Seoul was highlighted by all the amazing views. As you climbed up, wrapped around, or climbed down a mountain park, you got new views of a different part of this mega city.
I want to include some tips for hiking in Seoul: Keep your metro card charged up, all the hikes we did are transit friendly. Bring snacks or lunch, the smaller neighborhood parks might have a cafe, but the longer trails that we hiked didn’t. Bring water, we were able to refill on all of our hikes eventually, but bring enough water to last for most of your hike just in case. Now, how to find hikes. You can assume that every mountain you see has trails, but finding a trailhead might be a little tricky. Rich used a combination of google maps, maps.me and All Trails. You can find information about the Seoul Trail at English.Seoul.go.kr and on our links page. If you find yourself confused, ask a local or follow someone in hiking gear.
We’re at Incheon Airport now, slightly dreading the 12 hour fight to the US. I will definitely do a post about the food we ate while in Korea. The good, the not my favorite, and the mysterious that Google translate failed to help us understand. See you soon San Francisco.
South Korea’s rapid industrialization in the past 40 years has been astounding. It’s an economic success story and now the 15th largest economy in the World. In addition to technology and manufactured goods, it now exports its pop culture, with K-pop and K-culture huge global influencers, especially in other Asian countries. Taiwan was visibly crazy for all things Korean when we visited in January.
We are really enjoying Korea, but for different reasons than Japan. There is an somewhat frenetic energy here combined with a refreshing lassiez faire attitude towards many aspects of life. And again I’ve been awestruck by the differences in cultures just a few hundred miles across the Sea of Japan. Completely distinct cultures. Queues and formalities matter a bit less. And we’ve enjoyed exploring a vast array of Korean foods that we’ve never encountered in our limited Korean food dining in the U.S. There is so much more than Bibimbap and BBQ.
We haven’t found as much of the coziness and singular intensity of Japan here yet. It’s certainly here, but not as prevalent. And the young folks seem to have a very different outlook than their parents, and they are visibly two worlds away from the Korea their grandparents grew up in.
They’ve also built some amazing infrastructure, including a massive national flood control program to tame the four largest rivers and make life in their paths more predictable. Part of this dam and flood control program included building long distance bike routes. The complete Cross Country Route is the most famous and runs about 650km from Incheon to Busan. We’ve wanted to check it out for a long time and luckily, there is a bike shop in Seoul that rents touring bikes and panniers, which was perfect as our beloved touring bicycles are half a world away now in France.
The challenge for us was the fact that, short of about four days on bike shares in Japan and one speed clunker rentals in Sri Lanka, we’ve been off the bikes for 4 months, and 7 months since last touring! So, after a few days exploring a bit of Seoul, we set out by subway to the bike shop, and traded one consolidated piece of luggage for bikes and panniers. We had the bikes for 8 days, but well over 600km to cycle. Yikes.
We had both brought along one pair of good fitting Lycra bike shorts from SF, as well as a long sleeved Jersey that served Cheryl hiking, and outer shorts that have served me for workouts and hiking in our travels. But that’s it for touring gear, as we didn’t want to lug a bunch off extra items for 4 months, just for a week of touring. So we bought gloves (can always use another pair) a few water bottles, and I picked up a new touring jersey with back pockets (a must touring IMO).
So fitness was one challenge, lack of kit another, and third, and most importantly, the fit of the bikes. My Giant aluminum bike fit me ok as the XL frame generally worked for reach and height, but Cheryl’s bike had too long a reach and low handlebars. Of course, both bike seats were new to our rear ends, which can always have unpredictable results…
But the bikes were otherwise decent, with good disc breaks, tires, a decent gear range, and a rear rack. We missed our Ortlieb front handle bar bag and fenders, but bought a some cheap top bar bags at a Decathlon.
The cycling was about 75% on separated pathway and the route was beautiful and varied. Bridges, tunnels, dams, viaducts, and boardwalks were everywhere, making the route really fun to ride. It’s an impressive network and we felt like we saw so much of the untouristed interior that most people miss, especially once beyond massive Seoul.
It was mostly pleasant, but a few stretches were very industrial, including many of the larger cities with lodging along the way. You really get a taste for the vast mountains of Korea, and the vast industrialization that has powered their unprecedented rise to the first world.
There were also some surprising challenges with finding lodging, as we were booking on the fly to allow for weather and other variations on daily mileage in an unknown world. But without a Korean Credit Card, only Agoda worked for booking. Other sites exist but have few listings. And we could do a whole post on Korean Love Motels (often called Hotels) but let’s just say they are a staple of lodging outside the biggest cities and vary from unsurprisingly cheesy to a more streamlined business feel. If you cycle tour, you will likely stay at one (or three as we did). They are generally clean and safe, and many rooms resemble super hi-tech man caves more than a honeymoon suite in the Poconos. One of our rooms was pretty nice, including amazing 65” UHD smart TV!
But we soon got into the groove and really enjoyed 5 days of challenging riding. On Day 6 though, we decided to look at bus options to get us closer to Busan as we were both a bit tired and didn’t want to risk longer long term effects of tendinitis in my knees or Cheryl’s wrist (our weak points). We had figured out that we wouldn’t make it comfortably to Busan in time to return our bikes, and wanted to avoid the last day of heavy rain predicted. So we rode to the main bus depot in Gumi and caught a bus to the outskirts of Busan, saving us 150-200km of the trail.
A great thing about cycling in Korea is that almost all long distance buses take bikes without charge or hassle. You just throw your bikes in the luggage compartments underneath. You’re usually no more than 20 or 30k from a bus depot, although they can be off the trail a few km or 30 depending on the segment. There is lots of info online about buses and routes, and I found KoreabyBike.com useful for an overview and general info related to the long distance trails.
Another great thing is that water, bathrooms, and convenience stores are frequent. The surfaces are generally smooth and road grit and glass was not a big issue (No flats or mechanicals for us -:). This all makes it less stressful, and makes up for the challenges of language barriers, quirky lodging, and unfamiliar food in small cities and towns.
But we are so glad we did the ride and are happy that we were able to get back a bit into our favorite touring groove. Nothing beats rolling down a winding path through unfamiliar terrain, never knowing who or what is around the bend.
By the way, navigating in Korea is not always easy as Google Maps does not really work due to strict server data hosting laws. Google maps won’t give you cycling or walking navigation. And the two most popular Korean Apps, Naver and Kakao, only take a bit of English, so you need to try to constantly cross reference names and Hangul script. Or, pick something near where you want to go on the Korean apps that is identifiable. And note we found the cycling routes suggested by Komoot in the cities to be better than Kakao, as Kakao often routes bikes on arterial sidewalks.
To be honest, at first brush, Korea felt a little harsh to us after Japan and Sri Lanka. We also have been disappointed to see Korea’s embrace of long distance paths, but not urban and everyday cycling as a culture or significant solution to transport in cities, even small ones.
It was often a bit hairy off the paths, especially in Busan, as there is very little accommodation for cyclists in most places. And consequently very few urban or suburban cyclists riding for transport. This a huge difference from Japan, where cycling in small cities was a staple, albeit on somewhat substandard shared sidewalk paths. They have some shared sidewalk paths in Korea, but most are too narrow and too pedestrianized to be practical.
But the country and its people have really grown on us. Cheryl will share more about our other experiences, including our 10 days in Seoul, a city that has way more to offer than it first presents. We are also pleased to see that President Yoon and his wife visited the Bidens recently in Washington DC and that the two countries have strengthened a strategic partnership and resolve to protect democracy.
South Korea is a great friend to keep close, and not just because they are so much fun to hang out with.