I wake to the sight of the sun breaking gently through the fog. Birds chirp in the trees and leaves rustle on the forest floor. The air is cool but not cold. Visibility is low as I set off. I can barely see one hundred meters. It is simultaneously eerie and invigorating to ride like this; cushioned from the world around me by a thin damp white blanket. The path is wide and decorated with these wind flowers in many places. It is a simple but cheerful decoration that makes me smile.
Farming villages come and go as they have this past month. They all look the same but totally different. Houses sprawl around the edges of the farmland, usually against the side of a mountain almost as though the mountain is a protector to those who live here. Blue roofs are common as are the traditional shapes of Korea’s Joseon period architecture. I wonder at the generations of life these villages have seen: lives born and passed, crops succeeding and failing, the destruction or war and hope of rebuilding.
It’s in one such village that I find the Pak-jin memorial. This was a critical battle in the Korean War and possibly saved South Korea from obliteration. When all seemed lost and the capital had been moved first from Seoul to Daegu and then to Busan, South Korean and US forces took a stand here at Pak-jin. Outnumbered and outgunned they refused to give in, eventually routing the North Korean army and beginning the push to reclaim what had been lost.
A small museum marks the battle and tells the story of the Korean War. While the War Memorial Museum in Seoul was informative this museum touches me deeply. I am standing at a place of battle. Outside there are old men and women working their farms who are old enough to have been personally touched by the war, whether as soldiers, civilians or children. And it strikes me just how much the people of this country have achieved. Over the past few weeks I have spoken with a few men who were soldiers in the war. I have seen barbed wire, young soldiers, the captured submarine and monuments to mark significant battles. And now, as I stand here I realise just how resilient the Korean people are. Just 64 years ago their country was flattened by war. Their army was pushed all the way back to this point just 80km north of Busan. Farms would have been destroyed and people killed or maimed. Yet this country is so advanced and the people so welcoming. And yet, the country is still at war with their northern brothers; something many of us in the west might not know.
I continue along the cycleway, taking in the wide expansive river views. Green treed mountains drop into the water, reflecting golden in the afternoon sun. The leaves here in the south are not changing as dramatically as further north. It’s noticeably warmer here and perhaps winter will come a week or two later than in the north. This country might be small but it is so diverse and cycling makes this so obvious.
I reach a riverside town where families are enjoying the sunshine. Small boats are anchored along the shore. And men stand fishing. Couples walk along the path holding hands. Age seems no barrier to couples culture here with older couples holding hands or wearing matching clothing as frequently as younger ones.