The rain is bucketing down as I load my bike outside the hostel. It’s almost as if my resolve is being tested to make sure that I actually do want to leave the comforts and new-found familiarity of Seoul. But I know there is so much to be seen here in Korea and I am excited to get out of the routine of hostel life to see more of this amazing country.
One of the things that has struck me about Korea is the force with which the modern and old worlds are colliding. This is a country where you can find free wifi almost anywhere if you work hard enough and if there’s nothing free you can buy a 24 hour wifi pass online. Modern cars dominate the streets and buses around Seoul run on electricity with recharging stations a common sight. But then, in the middle of all this modernity there are still signs that development has come quickly to this country. It’s the little things like men carrying heavy loads on their bikes and roadside food stalls that give this away.
It takes about 30km (20 miles) to leave the city behind. It’s not a bad ride along the river watching men and women take exercise in the many outdoor gyms or shelter in the many bridge-covered parks. I myself enjoy the sections of the trail that sit under the vast array of bridges and fly-overs because it gives me shelter from the incessant downpour. At least it’s a warm rain and I struggle to decide whether it is worth wearing my wet-weather gear because I am sweating under the Goretex. I think that if it weren’t raining the path outside the city would be beautiful as it is lined by mountains. Even through the mist and clouds they are majestic.
Small coffee shops and 7-Elevens dot the path. Each has at least one, if not more, bike racks out the front. These range from simple bars from which you can hang your bike by the seat to stands in which you place your front or rear wheel. I wonder why the coffee shops in Australian cities don’t install similar racks so that bicycles don’t have to be leaned against every available tree, sign or planter box.
I stop at a little stall just past Sinwon. It’s mid-afternoon and I can feel myself starting to struggle for lack of nutrition. The signs are all in Korean but there are some pictures that show that some sort of steamed bun costs KRW3,500 ($US/AU3.50). I think it’s expensive for just one bun but I am hungry. I am pleasantly surprised when the lady serves me five buns. I sit to eat in the garden, which is typical of where Koreans eat when cycling the path, and the lady brings me a plastic cup of ice cold water. This is one of the many things I love about Korea: the friendly hospitality.
The further I travel the more rural the landscape becomes. Rice paddies and vegetable gardens are now a common sight. They seem to take up every available bit of land between the houses and small towns. I recognise some plants as sweet potato, lettuce and silverbeet but others are a complete mystery to me.
A mystery too are some of the things I pass like these totem poles. With the signs being written in Korean I just have to accept what my eyes tell me without explanation.
The cycle path itself is world class. The surface is almost always flawless with clearly marked lanes to remind us all that we must cycle on the right (something I keep forgetting because we Australians drive and cycle on the left). In many places trees have been planted to provide shade or colour and it is obvious that asthetics are important to Koreans. They even have some signs to show what the trees and flowers are that are planted but, again, they are in Korean so I can’t tell you what was planted.
The Four River cycle paths are well signed and you can’t really get lost on them unless you are not paying attention. All you do is follow the arrows and the Four River symbol. Cycleways lead away from the main path towards signed destinations with English text under the Korean text.
Tunnels make easy work of the bigger mountains where there was previously a railway line passing along the same route. I get an “only in Korea” feeling when I notice the longer tunnels have lights and music where the lights change colour or pattern in time to the music. It’s quite amusing and energises me through my fatigue.
Eventually I reach Ipobo where I know there is a campground. Two Russians are stopped there with their bicycles because there are showers. They speak a little English and I speak absolutely no Russian so we have a conversation that includes much pointing and “umming”. It’s all smiles and the shared experience of being cycle tourers breaks down any communications barriers. The Russians are the real deal having caught a ship from their home in Vladivostock to the east coast of Korea. They cycled along the coast to Busan and are heading to Seoul along the cycle path because they have no map and the cycle path is easy to navigate. They wild camp everywhere and bathe in rivers and creeks. Each has only KRW 200,000 ($US/AU 200) for their three week adventure. It seems they have also cycled China and Russia extensively on similarly small budgets. I feel inspired by their go anywhere and do anything spirit. They continue cycling north as I set up camp.
The campground at Ipobo is a wonderful experience. It’s free and has hot showers, clean toilets, place to wash dishes, picnic tables and exercise equipment. There is plenty of grass but you must pitch your tent on the rounded river rocks. At first I am dubious but I sleep well and don’t notice the rocks at all through my matt. Koreans relax in small camping chairs and make Korean BBQ on small coal BBQs that they have at their sites. It looks very sociable. I am tired so, after an early dinner and a couple of hours work I lay with my eyes closed in the tent listening to the hubbub of sound around me. I hear insects humming in the warm humid air (it has finally stopped raining), a television show is playing at the camp next to me where I saw the solo man setting up his laptop, children laugh in the distance as I hear adults talking in tones that are muffled by the time they reach my ears. I can’t believe I am actually here camping in Korea.
(Total distance 83km)