Korea. A land about which I knew nothing but the television show M*A*S*H and a vague memory of Seoul hosting the 1988 Olympic Games. I came on a whim because a friend had told me that there were cycling paths along some rivers. I opened the guide book on the flight to Seoul and marked a heap of places I might like to see. In the end I visited almost none but discovered so much more than the authors of Lonely Planet even wrote about.
It started with a week in Seoul where I met a group of guys who would become my friends. There was Rene the Swiss cyclist with whom I would share many beers and meals across the country. Dean the Vegemite loving Australian who introduced me to the joys of eating out and drinking beer when we met up again in Busan. But mostly Dean taught me a lot about mateship when he woke at 6am today to carry my 25kg bicycle box on the subway all the way to the airport; a trip of 1 hour in each direction because I couldn’t get it there myself and he thought it silly for me to pay up to $30 when the subway would only cost $3 and be much simpler than trying to communicate with a taxi driver and cram my bulky luggage into the taxi car. There was Julian the German soccer fan who introduced me to the pleasures of attending live sports events in foreign countries when we went together to the Asian Games. Without that inspiration I doubt I would have gone to the Samsung Lions game in Daegu. I have invited Julian to join my family for Christmas when he is in Australia. And how could I forget Ted, Martin and Mark with whom I shared stories and laughs, including that night out when I became drunk for the first time in over a decade. Shrek and Fiona were the perfect hosts at G Guesthouse in Itaewon where they went over and above the call of duty. I particularly enjoyed a conversation or two with Fiona about how they came to run the hostel and their desire to travel. If you are ever in Brisbane do look me up because it would be my pleasure to show you around and give you some travel tips. I made even more new friends around the country who I hope to meet again on our respective travels. But there is a serendipidy about meeting the same people time and again in hostels, cities and bars across the country. (I should mention that before Korea I wasn’t much of a drinker and I will return to my near tea-totalling ways when I return home again … but when in Korea … ).
My time cycling Korea was amazing. And I certainly need to thank Mark who took me hiking at Gwanak-san for his friendship and help with that. He helped map out an amazing route through the mountains and came to the rescue more than a few times when I found myself stuck on busy roads, unable to find an ATM that would accept my card, and when I had little homesick and fatigued meltdowns. We’ve exchanged copious Facebook Messenger correspondence and I look forward to continuing our friendship over fried chicken and beer when I am next in Korea and maybe a hiking adventure somewhere along the way. As a cyclist I rode mountain passes that I thought would surely be too long, high and steep for my flat country experience. I camped in pagodas surrounded by golden fields of rice. I communicated with sign language and a few rudimentary Korean words with locals and shop keepers in rural towns that would rarely see tourists. I got burned by the sun, blown by the wind and soaked by the rain. I joined the cycling masses of Korea. And while I never quite played music out loud like the locals do (actually, I don’t even have an iPod so I didn’t play any music while riding) nor wear the full fancy cycling outfits, I was there on the roads and cycle paths immersed in this cultural experience receiving thumbs up and cheers from those who saw my heavily loaded bike.
I hiked the mountains of Seoul and Busan. Their rocky landscape the thing of my dreams and their flora so exotic. Autumn leaves turned the forests yellow and red. Often I watched the leaves tumble from the trees in gusts of wind like yellow and red rain.
Five years ago I spent nine weeks on a motorcycle touring the southern Australian states. It was a life changing and affirming experience that had a profound effect on me. As I sit on the plane home from Busan I know that this five weeks in Korea has helped me take another giant leap in my journey through this incarnation. I learned and experienced so much on so many different levels because I was open to change.
As a nation, Korea has captured my heart. The landscapes are stunning and the people are amazing. I want to see it in all four seasons, even the stifling hot summer and bitter cold winter. I love the playfulness that comes out in Korea in the strangest ways. Like the carriages in Yangyang and the brightly lit caves. Couples culture at once amuses and inspires me. It’s funny to see young men and women in matching outfits but adorable to see older couples still holding hands. The museums here are second to none and either free or ridiculously cheap. And it is a country where creativity abounds in statues, scarecrow competitions, festivals and fireworks. In Korea you can get married, ice skate or practice your golf swing in shopping malls. This is the kind of place to which I could easily return to cycle, hike, meet new people and explore the many more things the country and its people have to offer.
Right now I am traveling home. After six months on the move I am ready to settle down in a place that is home. That place is not geographic as much as personal. This blog might be quiet for the next three weeks as I will be focusing on family, friends, work and time out.
I leave for Indonesia for one month from 15 November. So I won’t be quiet or settled for long. That journey will be very different to this. I will be going to the place where my grandmother grew up and the culture from which I derive so much of my character. I hope to hire a motorcycle for the trip, rather than taking on the physical challenges of cycling. And I will know when I leave Australia that I have a home to return to … I am no longer an aimless wanderer but a traveller coming and going to explore options, seek out experiences and enjoy all the world has to offer.
PS: My guilty pleasure in Korea was Baskin Robbins. I think I ate a double junior almost every day. Just saying 😉