I feel like I’ve been in Gangwon-do for months when in reality it’s only been about a week. But now I cross into a new province: Gyeonsangbuk-do and I can’t help but wonder what new experiences it will bring. Once this is for certain, there are definitely still mountains to be cycled over.
A beautiful pagoda marks the top of the pass between the two provinces. The vast expanse of the areas I will be traveling through opens out before me. It’s an exciting feeling to look out upon the mountains and know that I will be delving deep into their heart with only my legs and lungs for power.
A little further down the road I come to a town. Here I refuel my body before setting off again. I don’t get far before I am lying on the road with a graze on my left knee and my left foot stuck in the clip in pedal. I’ve once again hit a crash barrier at slow speed with my front pannier and toppled over. There are two lessons here: (1) remember that when riding on the right side of the road I need to wobble to the left not right when starting / stopping the bike and (2) get rid of my clip in pedals and switch to flats with hiking shoes. The latter will not only prevent me being stuck in my pedals when the cleats on my shoes are too worn (trust me, mine are a disgrace) but it will also make life more comfortable when I stop to do short hikes. My Ortlieb panniers have a nice little hole in the front where I fell that I’m going to patch with marine tape when I return home. But for now, bright green cloth tape will do.
I take my stack right outside a bus shelter and it’s fortunate that I have been forced to stop because I can see on the shelter that there is a lovely road (number 817) turning right at this junction. I decide to leave the coast and follow it inland in a big loop towards Uljin where I need to be to take road 36 to the west. The road runs along many rice paddies with their grains bursting to be processed. In some fields it looks like farmers have been cutting the rice by hand, judging by the small patches that have been cut and bundled. It’s a lovely sight but probably not such a lovely job.
The road climbs and drops and climbs and drops. In the middle is a massive Spa World complex. I consider checking it out but the climb up the hill is steep and I know that I won’t feel comfortable stripping off in the communal showers or baths that are bound to be part of the spa experience. Not because I am ashamed of my body or have some western issue with nudity but for reasons that I prefer to keep off this blog. It’s out here in the hills on road 817 that the meltdown that’s been looming for a few days finally breaks. I’m not going to bore you with a vent because I know I’m on a fantastic adventure that many people would give their right arm to be on. But no one can be up all the time and when you are tired, hungry and unable to communicate effectively with people around you at some point it’s normal to lose the plot. I find myself sitting on the side of yet another climb questioning what I am doing here. I can’t help but feel helpless in a country where I can’t seem to grasp the language, where I can’t seem to make patterns out of the writing, where finding a place to eat and sleep has been a constant struggle for me. I miss the person I met a couple of months ago before I started this adventure and want to feel him near me rather than just talking by Skype whenever I happen to have wifi. I feel like a fraud because I am finding this adventure a challenge. And being unable to attend the spa was the icing on the cake at a time when I already feel so far from home. So I sit on the side of the road and do what I always do when I am overwhelmed. I have a bit of a tantrum and a cry. Then I dig into my panniers and find a bag of beef jerkey, a packet of biscuits and one of the bananas I just bought. I eat it all because I realise that lack of calories is one of my biggest problems.
An hour later I come to this beautiful pagoda in the middle of a rice field. I have started to feel more positive since my outburst and now I just have to stop. I sit in the pagoda and slowly cook up a batch of banana pancakes. They are delicious and the setting is magical. It reminds me why I am here and is a turning point in my ride.
Not far from the pagoda I turn off on road 36 heading west. I am happy to be away from the hustle and bustle of the coast and to be heading towards more rural landscapes. My first stop is this 350 year old tree. 350 years! That’s amazing. It even has it’s own monument to mark it’s location and history.
And then the most wonderful thing happens. I come to the Buryeonsa Valley. I wasn’t expecting this at all and here I am on what might be one of the most beautiful roads in the world on a perfect autumn day when the changing colours of the leaves create such drama.
The road follows a steep sided valley that has been cut by a river. Everywhere I turn there is something to see. From the crystal clear waters in the creek to the rocky cliffs that tumble into it.
Mountains extend forever and I find myself relishing every meter of the long climb. This is cycle touring at its best and I feel so grateful for the opportunity to experience this adventure. Where just a few short hours ago I wanted to be on the first flight home, now I am on an epic high that only Mother Nature’s beauty can create. I climb for hours from the base of the valley, stopping often to take photos and admire the view. Korean drivers slow down and clap as they drive past my slowly grinding progress. A few take photos of me as we both stop at viewing point.
I reach Buryeonsa (temple) itself. The temple is a good half hour hike from the carpark and I join the busload of Korean tourists on the trek. The temple is set in a quiet spot in the mountains. It has a solid calm about it.
I drink water from the spring as the locals do. It is cool and refreshing on this warm sunny day.
The surrounds are magical and I savour the moments while I am there. Even the walk in and out of this place are stunning. Pines rise above me as water bubbles down the rocky creek bed. The mountains envelope everything into their embrace.
Back out on the road I continue to climb ever higher into the mountains. I feel strong on the climb and am amazed at how quickly my body has adjusted to riding in such terrain. Just a few short months ago I’d never actually cycle toured and was still only riding 25-40km on flat roads. But in the mountains when the scenery is amazing it’s nothing to climb all day and then climb some more.
I stop at Lovers Rock to admire the view. The rocks are the embodiement of two spirits: a brother and sister. The brother and sister eked a living selling medicinal herbs they found growing wild in the woods. One day an important man became ill and it was said that the only medicine that would cure him grew high up above a cliff. The brother and sister prayed for three days for safe passage before venturing out into the wild. Not long after they scaled the cliff and found the herbs, the brother fell to his death. The sister mourned his passing for three days before she threw herself off the cliff to be with him. The gods took mercy on the siblings and reunited them as this rock that stands watch over the valley below.
The valley in question was this beautiful terraced land.
Nearby a woman raked rice grains that were drying on the road.
I climbed every higher looking for a place to camp when I saw a sign to the Tonggosan Recreation Park. I asked at the gate whether there was any camping allowed and the guard appologetically told me I would have to pay. I could see from the sign that four people cost KRW35,000 ($AU/US35) because the sign was similar to one I had seen at the campground in Yangyang. The guard spent a long time umming and aahing over a price. Eventually he let me camp for KRW5,000 ($AU/US5). It turned out to be a bargain because I had access to water, bathrooms, showers (all-be-it cold showers) and a platform on which to place my tent. The campground was gorgeous and I shared it with a couple of Korean families. I had ridden about 75km and was exhausted from the day’s events.