I wake to the sound of rain beating down on the roof of the pagoda. I roll over and go back to sleep because I know it’s my final night in the comfort of my tent. Besides, the pagoda is doing a good job keeping everything dry so I won’t have to worry about everything being wet when I pack. When I finally wake I watch another episode of Arrow as the grey light of dawn breaks.
Out on the cyclepath all is soaked. The wind is blowing and puddles have formed. I am glad my Ortliebs and Bike Bag Dude kit are waterproof so nothing should get wet during the ride.
A sign tells me it’s only 60km to the end of the cycleway in Busan. This is the last time that I’ll pass a distance sign to Busan because I am about to make a silly navigational error. The kind of error an adventure racer and rogainer should know not to make. I am about to force the ground to match the map when it clearly doesn’t. Every navigator has done it at least once. And it never ends well.
But I don’t know my mistake yet. I am just enjoying the sights, including these delicious looking fruits growing on path-side trees.
And this cute frog that was sitting on the road.
I ride up a beautiful misty hill still trying to make the ground match my map. I know I need to climb a mountain but this is nowhere near as steep as the one I am meant to be climbing. It is also twisting in the wrong direction; I should be heading back towards the river not circling around that mountain to my east. But I am too stubborn or stupid to go back.
At the top I realise my brake pads have finally worn through and have become totally ineffective so I walk the kilometre down the other side of the hill. It’s a beautiful walk but I can hear heavy industry below me. I shouldn’t be able to hear it; the guide book for the ride says I will come to a small village and some bridges over the river. But I can tell from the lay of the land that the river is nowhere near here. I have definitely done something wrong. But there’s no way I’m riding back over the mountain. I have a few near misses with the trucks that own the road here, including one that backs out of a driveway without looking. The driver of that truck apologises profusely and I smile acknowledgeing it wasn’t intentional.
I check Google maps and discover that I have three options: (1) follow the cycleway signs back to the Nakdonggang, (2) follow the main road to Busan or (3) follow a smaller road to Gimhae and then on to Busan. I set off on option one but the road becomes steep and my body refuses to take me there. I realise that this will be the longest route so I turn back. Option two will put me on a busy road with many trucks. So I take option three. It starts out okay but then I start to climb. And climb and climb. It takes no time before I get off the bike to push. I know from experience that I’ve created a huge calorie deficit over the past couple of weeks and it’s caught up with me. The road is narrow but I have no choice but to walk. My body won’t allow me to do anything else.
There’s a long descent on the other side of the mountain and I decide not to walk. So I give my front disc brake cable one final adjustment knowing that I’m rubbing metal on metal and I turn the rear rim brake pad upside down because that’s the only way I can get rubber on rim. It’s not ideal but it will do. And it helps me keep the speed down.
I reach Gimhae where I hit the CVS and eat a microwave hamburger, two Kit Kats, a fried chicken leg, a can of Gatorade and a pineapple Fanta. It’s just what I need. I navigate the city traffic past the airport and across Nakdonggang where a some rowers are training. It’s a delight to watch. I don’t row but I love watching rowers do their thing. It’s that balance of raw power, balance and timing that combines perfectly to make the boat move poetically across the water.
If I thought Seoul was big then Busan is ginormous. It took me 33km to get from my pagoda to Busan and then another 30km to get from Gupo to my hostel. And I didn’t even make it all the way to Haundae Beach. The traffic was manic but I fought my way through it, stopping ocassionally for more food when my body bonked.
I find a hostel online and make a beeline there. I find the alley in which the hostel is supposed to be located and suddenly feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. A man calls out, “hey are you looking for the hostel?”. I wouldn’t have found the place if I’d been left to my own devices. The guy leads me up the lift to the fourth floor of the building where I can park my bike. For just 13,000 won ($AU/US13) I get a bed in a dorm for most of the week. I can’t stay Saturday night because there is a festival but I can leave my bike and luggage at this hostel while I stay elsewhere for the night. All this is organised while I drink an ice cold glass of water, have access to an English language newspaper and wifi. It’s relaxed and friendly, just what I need.
The dorm is comfortable too. It’s located nearby in a separate building where a Korean home has been turned into shared guest accommodation. There’s bread in the fridge to make unlimited amounts of toast, butter and jam in the welcome pack, Busan city tourist maps and plenty of towels. This will be home for almost all my final week here in Korea. The cycling is over so now it’s time to relax, find a box in which to take my bicycle home and check out this one last city.
I have decided to have a change of pace to my travels here in Korea. After a couple of weeks spent riding the north-eastern mountains and coasts it’s time to slow down and take in city life in Daegu and then Busan. I still have another 11 full days before I fly home and I intend to spend them chilling out, finalising two university papers that are due and generally eating a lot of food that is probably not good for me. So here is my first day in Daegu: a city I could easily get used to.
It started well on Monday night after I arrived when I caught the subway halfway across town to meet a local Korean guy to learn more about the local way of life. He is a similar age as me, works in the civil service and speaks excellent English. The subway here doesn’t issue tickets for single trips, rather it issues these tokens that look like they would be more comfortable in a casino. But, as always in tourist-friendly Korea the ticket machine had an English language option. It was refreshing to spend time with a local and be able to hold a conversation without needing sign language. And maybe I have made another new friend on this adventure in the land of the morning mist.
Yesterday morning I woke early despite wanting to sleep in. I was still tired after staying up well past midnight the night before and having ridden so far over the previous two days so I had a leisurely breakfast, wrote another few hundred words about ethics in education and set off to wander Daegu’s downtown. The outdoor shops were fun to walk through and it took much restraint not to buy a pair of brightly coloured hiking boots. I also visited the modern history museum, which gave me some insight into this city’s more recent history and role in Korea’s current democratic governance.
I am finally starting to feel more confident about buying food and have let my usual desire to be somewhat healthy drop in favour of enjoying some naughty foods. This deep fried delight of squid, sweet potato and zucchini with soup set me back just 2,500 won ($AU/US2.50). Not the sort of meal you show to your doctor but hey, my doctor is safely far away in Australia and I will deal with her later 😉 . I was only out for about three hours before fatigue won over and I made my way back to the hostel where I rented a couple of movies from iTunes and lazed in my bunk for four hours watching them.
The rest was just what I needed and I was ready to explore the streets again after 7.30pm. I have to admit that I love Asia’s neon nights. There’s something joyful about bright colours. Sure, it’s probably terrible for the environment and I know that it’s currently much more cool to disparage cities in favour of a night under the stars. But I can quite happily enjoy either and right now it’s the neon that is calling.
As I wandered I took photos of random things I saw like this cool scooter (as a motorcyclist I never thought I’d call any scooter cool but the paint job on this one is worthy of praise).
And these teddy bears that seem to have got lost at a coffee shop while on their way to the picnic. Or perhaps this is where teddy bears go after the picnic is over and they need a shot of caffeine before they turn into party animals. Coffee shops are plentiful in Korea and people seem genuinely surprised if you say that you do not drink the bitter black liquid.
Fortune tellers are also common here in Korea. I have seen their tents and tables set up in parks and city streets all over the country. Often they have young couples as clients. Here in Daegu the fortune tellers have brightly coloured shops and anyone with such interest could probably easily spend a whole week going to each different one and still not see them all.
A street near the hostel is lined with shops selling creatively displayed Korean seafood. I am not quite sure what the significance of the shapes are or what one gets here. Do you actually buy the displayed decoration? Or a meal based on the display? Or just some fish? Whatever it is, the displays are eye catching.
Don’t tell my doctor but my diet didn’t improve on my nighttime wander. If anything it was worse because there wasn’t even any vegetable or soup involved in this 3,000 won ($AU/US3) street meal. I think it is fried chicken in a honey chili sauce. The pieces of meat were tiny but the flavour fantastic. Naturally I chased it down with an ice cream from Baskin Robbins, which is alive and thriving here in Korean cities (Baskins is my favourite ice cream but it seems to be almost gone in Brisbane).
I ended the day with a lengthy conversation with an American Korean lady living and working here at the hostel in Daegu. The hostel (Empathy House) is a non-profit that offers support to North Korean defectors seeking to setttle in the Daegu region. It is a wonderful social project that fits well with my personal values of everyone having equal opportunity in life regardless of what card we drew in the lottery of birth. Twenty percent of the hostel’s profits are returned to the project, which provides housing, education, medical, emotional and social support to it’s clients.
Today is a day of rest. I have slept in, watched movies on my laptop, cooked lunch and bought groceries for the next leg of my ride. This evening I intend to continue to do more of the same. I haven’t even started my assignment despite taking the day off riding to do so. I can report that my bunk at Aark House hostel is very comfortable. Tomorrow I might go sightseeing here in town and do some of the work I was going to do today. But every now and then a day in your dorm room bunk is exactly what the doctor orders.
The only news I have to report is that the supermarket is that I am clearly becoming more comfortable here in Korea because my trip to the supermarket was not as mysterious as it was a week ago. I found some much more appropriate foods like dried seaweed and vegetables (the greens I bought in Seoul rotted in the heat and I suspect the sniffer dogs at Brisbane airport will make a bee line straight to my luggage when I return to Brisbane at the end of the month).
Fueled by a hearty hostel breakfast of jam on toast, cereal and fruit juice I set off on foot to explore Seoul. My goal for the day: Namsan Park and Namdaemun Market. According to my map this will be a long walk but I am feeling fit and ready for the challenge. Besides, the views from Namsan Park should help me orient myself in Seoul.
I found an entry to Namsen Park about 2km from my hostel by following the roads around in the general direction of the Seoul North Tower, which seems to be visible from almost everywhere in Seoul. Koreans dressed in what I have started to call their “working clothes” were walking in and out of the park taking their morning exercise. Health seems to be very important here, particularly amongst the older generation who I presume are free to walk and cycle during the day because they are retired. They wear stylish exercise clothes that are difficult to describe other than to say that most outdoor clothing manufacturers would probably be proud to have these outfits on their racks.
Partway up the climb I came to a “photo island”. It was a viewing platform from where I could take in the sprawl of Seoul. Despite the haze the view was stunning and gave me a better feel for the city than I could ever get at street level. I could see that, while the city is large, it is certainly not as vast and impenetrable as it seemed when I first arrived a day earlier. Despite the massive population that needs to be housed here, there is so much green space surrounding and criss-crossing the city; not to mention having Namsan Park right in the centre. It’s almost like the city is a large donut that is wedged between mountains in the centre and circling it’s edges.
As I neared the Seoul North Tower I came to the Old Fortress Wall. The wall has been destroyed by many years of conflict and war but is now being excavated and rebuilt in places. It is a magnificent sight adds juxtaposition to the modernity of the tower. You can tell that it is a reconstruction but that in itself is seems to be an important part in the story that is Seoul.
As I came to the top of the hill I also reached my first pagoda of my time in this country. Again, it seems to be a reconstruction that doesn’t quite have the character of some pagodas I saw in China but then the places I visited in China weren’t battered by the kind of wars that Seoul has seen throughout her history (something I didn’t appreciate until later in the day but I am getting ahead of myself). The pagoda still brought a whoop of “oh wow! I am actually here and seeing a pagoda” from me.
Near the pagoda there was a sign that heralded the possibility of wearing a traditional costume for 2-3 minutes for free. Well, I didn’t need a second invitation. I wrote my name on the list and milled around for a few minutes waiting my turn. There was much touristy cooperation as I took photos of couples in their costumes and they photographed me in return. Two Korean women asked whether they could have a photo with me … hey why not so I am now part of someone else’s holiday story. By the time I walked down the mountain towards the Jung-Gu district my cheeks were sore from smiling.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from tne Namaemun Markets. I had heard they were really big and that you can buy almost anything there. Well, that is true: you can. This is where live eel sales people mingle with gingseng shop keepers. Have girls, well there are so many beautiful pink items to dress them in and costumes for boys. Unfortunately, I am currently cash poor or I could have gone nuts buying my nephews, nieces and grandchildren gifts. That will have to wait for another day.
The markets were also a great place to buy lunch. I started with a shrimp croquette, which was very tasty.
I then opted for the safety of a donut before buying this random dough thing that ended up being filled with honey.
After the markets I walked to nearby Naemdamun (Sungnyemun), which is a reconstructed gate and wall. I love the way that Seoul is restoring these traditional icons amidst such functionalism and modernity. There’s just something magnificent about it.
This is a city where modernity and tradition sit side-by-side. It’s East meets West in the most fluid way I have experienced to date. Starbucks and Taco Bell coexist with street vendors. Modern shopping malls and side-walk vendors share the same space. And yet there are no touts. It hits me that this is what’s different here: I am not an ATM machine. The sight of businessmen and women in their fashionable suits and well-cut hair shows why this is the case. In fact, the Korean Won must be relatively strong because the cost of travel here is not that much cheaper than in Australia. Once you take out the taxation component of costs at home then the two countries are probably on par (with the exception of beer … beer here is cheap but perhaps that can be attributed to taxation in Australia too).
I follow my map back towards Itaewon using the Seoul North Tower to triangulate my actual location. Street names are not common here so my map doesn’t list them. Rather small districts are marked and you can identify these from street signs too. I am doing well and congratulating myself on putting my rogaining skills to test in this urban jungle. And then it happens: I run into the American military base that takes up a huge area between Yongsan and Itaewon. It is not marked on any maps but is totally impassable. So I retreat about a kilometer and walk around it.
The detour turns into a blessing in disguise as I now have to walk past the War Memorial of Korea, which turns out to the be the single greatest museum I have visited in my life to date. Like the rest of Seoul there is here in this museum a perfect blending of traditional and contemporary story telling. There are physical relics of various periods of Korea’s military history on display ranging from ancient carts to twentieth century weaponry and a futuristic vision of what soldiers will look like. Between all this there are two 4D and one 3D cineatic experiences to give the visitor a sense of what it would have been like to be caught up in the horrors of the Korean War or to fly in a fighter jet.
And then there are the ultimate interactive experiences of being able to fire a model rifle on an indoor shooting range and clambering over real military vehicles in the outdoor display that is freely open and accessible to the public from the street. On a serious note though, the War Memorial of Korea is incredibly powerful and moving. As an Australian for whom war is something that soldiers go away to fight, I cannot imagine the terror that innocent people on either side of the conflict for the peninsula must have experienced. And I was moved almost to tears when I walked through the tunnel of stars and into the solar-water room. The men and women of Korea’s armed forces literally fought to save their country and, to make it more heartbreaking, they were fighting against their fellow countrymen. The desire for reunification is so obvious throughout the memorial and is something that I never appreciated. If you only see one thing in Seoul, this is the place to go because it gives such deep insight into the city and what it has experrienced. I’m no history buff and military history is not something I usually go out of my way to explore (I am not even going to the DMZ while I am here) but this is one museum that you must not skip.
On returning to G. Guesthouse where I am staying I discovered Shrek and Fiona (the hostel owners) about to sit down to lunch in the common room and I, along with other guests in the common room, was invited to join them. This is one aspect of Korean culture that I could truly get used to: sharing meals. The food was delicious and included home made kim chee and home made pickles. I will always remember this experience for its simplicity and organic nature.
But the day didn’t end there. It was after 3pm when we finished lunch so I did a couple of hours work before settling in for conversation with a group of guy who are also staying here. They hail from all over the world: Australia, America, Germany and Switzerland. Most were my age and it was nice not to be the old man in the hostel for once. Together we hit the streets of Itaewon sometime around 10pm to drink beer. This is something that is definitely a popular passtime in Korea and beer is cheaper than soft drinks. Now, I should caveat this with a disclosure that I don’t usually drink alcohol and, when I do, it is usually one glass of sweet cider about once a month. But cheap beer and the desire to let go and experience the local and backpacker culture resulted in me joining in for one half-litre “mug” of local amber. It went down well and is definitely something I will drink again while here. I can’t see myself drinking more than one on a given day but, to paraphrase the famous saying, “When in Seoul”.
At about 3am there were no cool bars to go to anymore so we stopped to buy Taco Bell (cheap and open 24 hours) and more beer (well, the boys bought beer, I didn’t) before having a final drink in the rooftop cgarden at the hostel watching the lights of Seoul as the rain started to drizzle lightly on us. The rooftop garden is really cool as you can see form the photo I took during the daylight. It was 4am by the time I retired to my bunk happy, exhausted and still in love with Korea.
Youth hostels: an interesting mix of cultures, goals, experiences, ages and personalities. When you first check in, there’s no way of knowing what the strangers you are about to live with will be like. But within a short time, you’ll work out which of the following four categories they fall into.
1. The wide eyed traveler
This person is usually under 25 years old and on the trip of their life. They have worked hard in school and saved as much as they could to travel. They stay for 1-3 nights before continuing on a bus or train to the next place. They are fantastic company because they are always smiling and laughing and want to talk with as many people from all over the world as they can. Last night I had two such room mates and it was midnight before we finally turned out the lights on our conversations and stories.
2. The working holidayer
These are the long term travelers. They are often on their trip for one year or more and have been in your country almost long enough to seem like a resident. They often stay in the hostel for one month or more, going to work during the day and partying at night. They know all the cheap places to eat and the best places to drink. Their food shelf is overflowing with half full jars and their meals are often big enough to feed the small crowd they eat with every night. They have a routine going. I have found these to be the most common guests in Australian hostels over the years. They tend to be less social with those who are passing through because they see so many of us. But they always seem to have great fun with their new working holiday friends.
3. The local looking for cheap accommodation
At more established hostels, this group is increasingly common (and is the group I have most fallen into over the years). They love the vibe of young people traveling who tell stories in the kitchen. These guests are usually incredibly social and fun. Often aged 35-60 they like to share stories of their previous travels but mostly like to give hints and tips about the best places to go in their home towns. They travel light, attend business meetings or conferences during the day and hang out in communal area at night.
4. The permanent hostel resident
This small group are often pensioners or people down on their luck who are using the hostel as cheap accommodation. The less I say about my experiences with this group the better because they have rarely been positive.
So last night I checked into the youth hostel for a night before today’s travel to the snow. I started by offending an older lady who is in the fourth group who reacted poorly to my attempt at being friendly. She then proceeded to muscle in on everything anyone said. She had done it all bigger, better and badder than anyone else (apparently she cycle toured fully loaded at 48 years old covering 80km every morning before lunch and implying that she did more in the afternoon). When I didn’t react in competition (I said that I was probably a bit soft) she turned the television up so loud no one could talk and settled in. Not a great start to my stay.
Fortunately, things got much better. My room mates turned out to be cool guys from Germany, Italy and Canada. In the second kitchen was a group of friendly nurses who fell into the third group. They were enjoying a wonderful meal engaging everyone in conversation making the kitchen feel like a home away from home. I spent the night chatting in my room and in the kitchen. I laughed until midnight and I got some great tips on things to do next week when I return to Melbourne. It’s been a long time since I stayed in a proper travelers’ hostel and it was a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing like the pure joy of someone raving about the fantastic meal they just ate or seeing someone’s eyes light up when they hear they can see penguins. And it’s lovely when there are others around who create an atmosphere of respect and friendly conversation.
Personally I think it will be a sad day when hostels become impersonal cheap accommodation for long term residents. The coming and going, mixing and matching, swapping and sharing is what makes them a joy. They run on laughter and exploration for all no matter their age. And as I make my way to the youth hostel at the snow, I am left to wonder what my next experience will be like.