After three weeks back in England, drinking, feasting and generally making merry, it was time to get back on the bicycle. Following a long flight from London to Beijing and a lengthy layover in Kiev, André and I were reunited at Beijing airport and then took a flight to Seoul, South Korea. When we arrived into Seoul it felt like I had been travelling for days, which is unsurprising as I had. I was feeling pretty exhausted and a little sick. Things were made worse when we realized the new tyres I had bought in England were the wrong size for my wheels – who knew that a size 26 and 3/4 even existed! Having sent back my old tyres to Canada with André’s sister we were now stuck at the airport with a bicycle that couldn’t be ridden! Eventually André cycled off and returned with a couple of new tyres this time in the correct size. Turns out you can still make rookie mistakes even after touring for well over a year!
Our host Dan, an American teaching in Seoul, put us up for a few days in his apartment whilst I recuperated. We didn’t really get to see a whole lot of the city as for most of the time I was sick and not feeling up to leaving the apartment. We ate a lot of dumplings and finally on our last full day in the city we ventured out to see the sights. It was Chuseouk (or Korean Thanksgiving) a public holiday during our stay and this was great for us as the city was much quieter than usual and there was free entrance to many of the city’s major sites.
It is very popular to give the gift of Spam at Chuseouk, and I don’t mean junk emails. People in South Korea give and receive Spam gift sets at this time of year in particular. This canned, pre-cooked meat has fallen out of favour in the West, largely associated with post-war rations and not very nutritious sandwiches. But here it is a luxury item and really expensive! Crazy, I was gobsmacked when I saw people carrying around Spam gift sets that they received from their employers as a holiday treat.
We decided to head north from Seoul and cycle along the DMZ, we were intrigued by this border area and by being so close to a country shrouded in so much secrecy. As you can imagine the whole area was chock-a-block with military personnel, armed vehicles, cameras, and barbed wire. It was kind of crazy and felt very strange going from a developed, peaceful and thriving city into what felt like a war zone, and I guess is kind of a war zone. We were told numerous times that we were not allowed on certain roads and just had to stick to the main ones that run more or less along the length of the DMZ. We stayed with a young guy called Tae Yoo and his parents very close to the border with North Korea. They are a lovely family who looked after us really well. We asked them how they felt living so close to the border and if it affected them, they replied that is used to be more stressful but now they were just kind of used to living in the shadow of North Korea and it no longer fazed them. Tae Yoo took us to an observation deck on the border between the two countries and it was strange to look out and see North Korea in the distance. There were a lot of rules to obey including ‘no photos’ but we managed to take a sneaky couple anyway. There wasn’t a whole lot to see mainly just the North Korean DMZ and countryside.
North and South Korea – the great divide
Despite the people on either side of the border speaking the same language and having the same ancestors, the peninsula has been split since World War II. Before the war, Japan occupied the whole of Korea, however after the war America and the Soviet Union decided to split it and each administer half. In 1950 the North backed by communist Russia and China invaded the South. The Americans supported the South in their resistance and the Korean War began. Despite millions losing their lives, neither side won and the border remained in the same place. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created as a buffer between the two nations. It is 250 kilometres long and 4 kms wide. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world. As a peace treaty as never been signed, the two nations are still technically at war with skirmishes breaking out on a regular basis. The most recent was in August 2015.
Before reaching the Sea of Japan we had to cross a small mountain range and this was the first challenging climb in Korea, however it felt easy compared to the mountains of China. We were cycling through a national park and we got our first real view of the spectacular autumnal leaf colours, bright yellow, burnt orange and crimson red.
Reaching the sea was initially a bit of a disappointment for me, I love being by the coast but this was not what I expected. The cycle path was just a pavement running next to the road and the entire coastline was fenced off with large barbed wire fences interspersed at regular intervals with watch towers. I felt pretty sad that the people here can’t walk along the coastal cliffs or enjoy a picnic on the beach all to ensure that no North Koreans manage to make it to South Korea via the sea. This barbed wire fence continued down the coastline for many hundreds of kms. Although often a beach would be unfenced for the public to enjoy, but it was still pretty heavily fortified and under intense surveillance, so no topless sunbathing I guess. The disappointment I felt gradually disappeared when we got further from the border and more of the coastline opened up, we also got to sleep at lovely, empty campsites right on the beach as we travelled south which was great. Nothing better than falling asleep to the sound of the waves and then a swim in the sea to wake you up the next morning. Bliss.
South Korea has a pretty impressive network of cycle paths around the country, they are known as the Four River cycle paths, not surprisingly because they have been built along four of the Korea’s major rivers. The most popular runs all the way from Seoul to Busan. There is also a route being built around Jeju island and one running down the East Coast. The money spent on cycling infrastructure is incredible and puts both our countries to shame. The cycle paths are smooth, wide, well sign posted, have regular rest stops with toilet facilities, places to camp in wooden gazebos and the best bit, stamp booths. Sporadically along the cycle routes (roughly every 20 – 30 kms) there is a stamp booth which looks like the old red phone boxes in England. Inside is a unique stamp on a chain with the name of stop and you can stamp your cycle passport. The cycle passports are sold in Seoul and at offices around the country, however we never managed to get one as we were cycling off season and all the offices were closed. They are pretty cool and if you collect all the stamps for each cycle route you can send your passport off and you are sent a medal. Many of our warm showers hosts had these cycle touring medals proudly displayed in their home. Although we didn’t have the cycle passport we still collected the stamps and came across many other cyclists using the booths too. We think this is a great idea, the booths are nice meeting places and rest stops and the stamps get people interested in cycling around the country and collecting all them all, they make a great memento of your trip too. You can find out more about the cycle network, cycle passport and the stamps here.
The East Coast cycle path had just been completed and it was our first encounter with the stamp booths. Cycling this route was great, we regularly swam in the sea, which was warm and crystal clear and we also got to glimpse life in the small fishing villages along the coast. For hundreds of kms as we cycled south down the coast our constant companion was rows and rows of drying squids. We must have seen thousands of squids pegged onto lines running along the roadside and outside every house. We sadly missed the penis theme park which we were disappointed about, but we will have to save it for next time.
After a few days riding the coast we headed inland and picked up the Four Rivers Bike path at Andong. Apart from the very strong headwind, and the occasional incredibly steep but short climbs we encountered on the cycle path, the cycling was fairly easy. Along our route was Hahoe village – a UNESCO heritage site. The traditional Korean village has a mixture of straw and tiled roof houses. It was a pretty place and architecturally really interesting. However, the nicest thing was that the village wasn’t a tacky tourist destination and locals still live there. The fact the place wasn’t a preserved and dusty monument but a functioning, busy village was nice to see.
We continued to follow the river for a few days and had our first jjimjilbang experience. A jjimjilbang is a public, gender segregated bathhouse with hot tubs, showers, traditional kiln sauna and massage areas. For 9,000 won (£6-7) you can stay for 12 hours and can even sleep there. When you enter the bathing area you have to be completely naked, both of us felt slightly anxious about this and wondered if we would struggle feeling uncomfortable and shy. This worry was completely unfounded and both of us felt fine almost immediately, no one else in the baths care or find it strange so it all just feels very normal. It was kind of nice seeing so many women of different sizes, shapes and ages just feeling comfortable wandering around naked. Made me feel a little sad that we are so prudish in the West. Before you enter the baths you have to have a complete scrub down, and you need to do it properly else you will incur the wrath of some naked, old Korean ladies! Inside the baths there are a few t.v. screens showing what looked like Korean soap operas which was funny, there was even a t.v. in the sauna! There were many different baths of various temperatures, two saunas and a steam room. After soaking in the hot tubs you need to scrub down again to get rid of the dead skin and it is like a giant communal bathroom, women brushing their teeth in the shower, moisturizing, lathering up – it was really interesting. Outside the the bathing area there is a mixed gender room where youare given penitentiary inmate style pyjamas. You can chat, watch t.v., read, eat and there is plenty of smaller rooms too of different temperatures including an ice room! We stayed the night but it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, it was a bit too warm, too bright and there were lots of people coming and going constantly. Despite feeling tired in the morning it was a great experience for us!
After soaking in the jjimjilbang we had to cut away from the river and start climbing into the mountains in order to visit Haeinsa temple. Haeinsa temple is another UNESCO heritage site and it is situated in a national park at the top of a mountain. The ride up was beautiful especially at this time of year with all the autumnal leaves, but it was also a little brutal at times with some steep climbs. The temple is roughly 1200 years old and is a very peaceful place with only a small number of tourists milling about when we were there. Although the temples are very beautiful with ornate floor tiles, painted murals and elegant rooftops, the main point of interest is the Tripitaka Koreana. Three collections of Buddhist Scriptures, Precepts and Discourses in which all the Buddha’s words were compiled. The collections are all carved into wooden blocks and this task began in 1011 and took 240 years to complete. The number of blocks amount to 81,350 with 84,000 buddhist writings, and the blocks are pretty big – 68cm wide, 24.5 long and they each weigh 3.2kg. Unfortunately you cannot see the blocks up close as they are housed in some impressive buildings. The four buildings don’t look particularly special but they were built as scientifically as possible for optimal preservation of the blocks and the design was pretty progressive for 1481. One technique they used was embedding the floor with salt, charcoal, powdered lime and sand for the best humidity and to prevent insect infestations.
After a couple of nights back following the river with some great scenery and fantastic camping spots we made it to the outskirts of Busan. Our stay in Busan was a fantastic one largely down to two amazing host families that we stayed with. The first was Kwon Tae-woong, his lovely wife and his adorable and very energetic son. It was fun staying with a young family and we enjoyed hanging out and chatting into the evenings. They were so kind and welcoming to us, cooked us tasty meals, took us to restaurants and even a tea house . They made us feel at home in their house – we were sad to leave. However, our second host ‘John’ and his very sweet wife were just as kind and welcoming. They took us to see some sights around the city including a beautiful large Buddhist temple that was hosting a traditional tea ceremony festival. We left Busan having enjoyed spending time and chatting to such kind and generous people, and feeling incredibly spoilt and well fed! Korean hospitality really is something amazing.
Things Koreans love (other than Spam)…
• Kimchi: It is not just a stereotype, they eat it every day if not with every meal! They even have second giant fridge/freezers dedicated solely to storing the stuff. It is also what they say instead of cheese when someone is taking their photo! Smile…say Kimchi!
• Active wear: Everyone in Korea (especially those over the age of 50) look like they are just about to go hiking or hit up an aerobics class. Always prepared for any activity sporting colourful lightweight active jackets, trainers, tracksuit bottoms and the visor – it is pretty funny.
• Cycling: They love leisure cycling here, but not so much for commuting. The amount of money spent on cycle paths across the country is insane but fantastic.
• Camping: Tents all over the place even in autumn and wild camping is legal. It was so easy for us, we could stick up our tent anywhere even in a park in the middle of a city and no one batted an eyelid.
• Rules：Real sticklers, would definitely give the Germans a run for their money. If it says it in the rules then you have to abide by it no matter how stupid the rule is.
• BBQ: There is not only BBQ shops everywhere, BBQing inside your house is also commonplace!
• Coffee: Fancy coffee shops are two a penny here even in the middle of nowhere. Also after every meal in a restaurant you are welcome to enjoy a complimentary small, sweet coffee from a little machine – we loved these.
• Fried chicken: Have’t seen so many fried chicken shops since I was last in South East London.
• Matching your outfit with your other half (same, same): We saw this often couples wearing matching clothes and shoes and it always made us chuckle. Something that in the West you avoid at all costs!
Our stay in Korea couldn’t have been better, we met such a large number of people who shared their homes and food with us and gave us an insight into life in Korea. The weather was great every day but one, and the cycle network was bliss. What a great country!
Our next country is the final one of our trip and one we have been excited about visiting for a very, very long time – finally we reach Japan!
For more photos from our time in South Korea click – HERE