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.
Happy travels and happy pedaling!