I looked through the fogged up window on the Boeing 767 and all I could see was drizzle and blotches of green. Ohh sweet sweet green, how I’ve missed you. The last time I saw green fields like this was eight months ago when I left Yorkshire. I could feel that I was going to like South Korea.
As I made my way off the aircraft, I saw somebody I recognised still sat in his seat on the plane. Back in October, I stayed with John, an American Warmshowers host who lives in Hua Hin in Thailand. “John?” I said, not all that confidently as I couldn’t quite believe that it was him. John was about as shocked as I was. John’s plan was to cycle from Seoul to Busan along the four rivers route. This famous route is supposed to be a mecca for cyclists. Over 600km of traffic free, fairly flat cycle paths along river banks and valleys through the middle of South Korea. He had flown with his road bike and was planning to cycle the whole way in six days. Cycling 100km a day was not on my agenda for the next week so as much as I would have loved to cycle with John, it wasn’t to be. This wouldn’t be the last time I would see John though. Just as I was cycling through Seoul, I stopped at a cafe to “steal” some wifi without purchasing anything and John happened to cycle past with his group of riders. I joined him and his team for lunch and spent my whole days budget on a sandwich and pretended that I wasn’t gutted that a sandwich could cost £7! Meeting John again was an absolute pleasure and the £7 sandwich was an investment I would make again in an instant.
Once I had followed an automated robot to the oversized checking area (landing in South Korea is like arriving in the future) I collected my bike and belongings and made my way to the subway. Incheon Airport is on Island and apparently, its impossible to cycle off the airport island legally so I decided to drag my bike, still in the box, to the subway, get off at the first station on the South Korean mainland proper and assemble my bike there.
Cycling through South Korea for the first time was strange. Not since landing in Singapore have I had to deal with the sudden culture shift that you feel when you travel by plane. Korea couldn’t be any more different to the land I left (Thailand) only a few hours before. Entering South Korea is almost liking entering into some strange alternate universe where technology rules supreme. Ok, maybe that’s a little too far but compared to Thailand, Seoul feels extremely advanced.
Through the slight drizzle and fresh morning breeze, I made my way to the place I would stay for the next couple of days. I had arranged to stay at a Warmshowers host about 25km away from Seoul. JuHee is an absolute legend of a host. She lives with her parents in a lovely apartment and like many Warmshowers hosts, she too has been on a long distance bike journey. JuHee had cycled from S Korea, through China, Central Asia, Europe and Africa. She has even written a book about it which is very impressive indeed.
I only intended to stay with JeHee for two nights but I ended up staying for three. Her parents made me feel extremely welcome in their home. Even though I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me, I felt like I really got to know them over these few days. JuHee did a fantastic job of translating between us which really helped. JuHee’s mother made breakfast for me each day which was beyond anything I would have expected.
We went for walks in the park and we visited the nearby DMZ (demilitarized zone – the area between North and South Korea). Visiting the DMZ is something I’ve always wanted to do. Due to its isolation from the rest of the world, North Korea fascinates me. Being so close to the country that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past decades is another surreal experience. I visited the town of Imjingang which is the closest border town where the public can freely visit the edge of the DMZ. I happened to be there on the day of a huge unified Korea festival. Hundreds of Koreans were waving the white and blue unified Korea flag that I recognised from the recent Olympic games. So many Koreans hope for unification. The war between the two halves of Korea officially never ended and seeing one of the most militarised borders in the world up close makes that very clear. Experiencing the development in South Korea first hand, the prosperity and simple lives that people live makes me hope that the North of the country could one day enjoy the same freedoms that their southern brother’s experience. If it happens during my lifetime, it will be a memorable day for sure.
When I left JuHee’s and I made way towards the Capital of South Korea, Seoul. I had no idea what to expect in this city. I usually do my best to avoid big cities as they are often crowded and expensive but Seoul felt different. Sure, it’s expensive so I wouldn’t be able to afford to stay here but it wasn’t as crowded as the other Asian cities I’ve cycled into such as Bangkok or Hanoi. Seoul feels like a modern metropolis. High-rise buildings, efficient traffic systems and bike lanes running throughout the city. Wonderful bike lanes.
As I made my way into the centre of Seoul I stopped to check my phone for navigation. Just as I had my head down, staring intently at my screen, a Korean woman came up to me and asked if I needed any help. She spoke extremely good English, looked about my age and was riding an expensive looking road bike. I told her that I was looking for a camera shop as I needed to buy a small metal plate to attach my tripod to my camera. She asked me about my journey and she told me about her own travels. She then invited me back to her apartment to have a coffee. I’m at a point in this journey where being asked into strangers homes when you’re riding is now a normal occurrence. Especially when they invite you in to drink tea or coffee. Yousung lived high up in an apartment that was just like JuHee’s. The views from the apartment were fantastic! I made sure to get a time-lapse of all the traffic passing over the bridges and highways from her balcony. After about an hour of talking about our hopes and dreams, I went on my way.
This was my first real day of cycling alone since Lucia and I had broken up. Korea felt like a new start and a world of opportunities lay ahead. It felt strange to be invited into a woman’s house alone but this has happened to me and Lucia on countless occasions. It was nice to know that even as a solo male on the road, people will offer kindness and friendship. I wholeheartedly believe that 99% of people in this world are out there to be friendly and kind. We only hear about that bad 1% on the news which skews our perception of the world.
As I made my way out of the urban cluster that is Seoul, I came across another cycle touring couple on a tandem bike. Clarisse and Alex were from France and had cycled from France, through Central Asia and China to this point in Korea. They had flown into Japan and were now on the last few days of a long journey which would finish in Seoul. We stopped and talked for over two hours. We talked about our adventures, they gave me tips for Japan and I opened up to them about my recent break up with Lucia. There’s something comforting about being able to open up to a complete stranger that is different from being able to be open with those that know you best. They understood both sides of our situation and I felt we quickly became friends with just a short meeting together.
Just as we were getting ready to go our separate ways, two other cyclists appeared. Clarisse and Alex already knew these guys and the five of us continued talking for another hour. Kim and Craig were from Australia and they were cycling through Korea for a few weeks. It’s always an absolute pleasure to meet like-minded people on the road. I say like-minded as we all have a love for travel and adventure but deep down, we all have different motivations and reasons for our travel. The bikes bond us in a way that I’ve not experienced before.
That evening, I made my way east following the northern bank of the Hangang River. The cycling was as pleasant and simple as you could imagine. I was making my way down towards the start of the four rivers cross-country cycle route. This route is famous for its 600km+ traffic free route alongside some beautiful valleys and rivers from Incheon to Busan. I wasn’t sure if I would take this route or follow the East coast down to Busan. Either way, I was in for a simple and easy ride. It’s probably just what I needed after the emotional week that had just proceeded me.
Cycling solo is a completely different experience to cycling with somebody else. When you riding are with another person, you come to rely on that person for a great deal. Not just the practical tasks such as cooking food, fixing the bikes when needed and putting up the tent but you come to rely on that person for emotional and moral support. Now I was alone, every responsibility sat on my shoulders. Practically this wasn’t a problem as I am pretty content with being able to cycle hard for a day, feed myself and then find shelter for the night. What is difficult to prepare for is only being in your own head and having minimal opportunities to express these thoughts to the world. My camera helps in this case. It almost becomes a “Wilson” type figure (think Castaway with Tom Hanks). I feel that my videos will become more honest and open as a result of me travelling alone. They will also be harder to make as there is often only one person to film (which is me) and I can be pretty boring to watch at times. As difficult as it is initially to continue alone, I feel I need to push through this feeling of separation and isolation. After all, this is what I wanted, isn’t it?
I enjoyed my short cycle through Seoul. It feels like a modern city but with the calming elements that history provides around every corner. Temples, palaces, parks and ancient monuments are easy to find. As are Starbucks and McDonalds. A highlight was watching the changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace. I enjoyed it much more than the London equivalent, even if the moustaches and beards the guards wear are fake stick on ones. The guards march out to traditional Korean music with one of the big chested guards banging a humongous drum. Pushing my bike through the busy market streets wasn’t the impossible task it would be in a SE Asian city. The people were friendly and nobody paid any attention to me as a foreigner on this circus of a bicycle. That’s one thing I instantly notice in Korea compared to SE Asia or China. The people are more reserved and they leave you alone in your space. Facemasks are worn by a high percentage of people which makes reading emotions and connecting to strangers more difficult. I think one of the reasons they wear the masks is so they can be in their own space and not have to talk to some stinky cycle tourist from England.
Over the next couple of days, I had to decide which route I would take. After much deliberation, I decided to stick to the four rivers route and enjoy the cycle paths for a change. There are not many countries that provide cycling infrastructure like South Korea does so it only made sense to make the most of it. I hoped that by following this route, I would also meet other cycle tourists along the way. As difficult as it was leaving Bangkok solo, the people I have made friends within my first few days in South Korea made me feel positive for the weeks and months ahead. The road ahead will be long and will be with its challenges but I’ve got to tackle them head-on now. I couldn’t have wished for a better start to life in South Korea.
Food in Korea
The food in Korea is fairly expensive so I try to cook two meals for myself and eat one cheap restaurant style meal a day. As I’m often in small villages and towns, street food is hard to find. Convenience stores are usually every 20-30km which provide me with cheap instant noodles and other unhealthy bits of food such as biscuits and cakes. The instant noodles in Korea are not like the “super noodles” or “pot noodles” you find in the UK. They often have sachets of Kimchi (pickled vegetables) and they feel more substantial as a meal than the UK noodles. Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive in Korea which is a far change to life in SE Asia. Even bananas are expensive and they are annoyingly always wrapped in plastic cling film. I saw a watermelon for sale in a supermarket for $16USD which is crazy but people must pay it for them to justify selling it.
One good thing about the food prices in Korea is the ice-creams. Korea has these small stores that just sell ice-cream and they are super tasty and perfect after a long day on the bike. An ice-cream costs between ₩500-1000 (£0.32-£0.65).
South Korea is a heavily militarised country. There are over 23,000 US soldiers stationed in Korea and the South Korean Army is 464,000 strong. To put that into perspective, the British Army has 81,000 soldiers and it is a country with a larger landmass than South Korea. Conscription for young men is still in place which one of the reasons that number is so high. You rarely go a few hours without being reminded that this is a country that is still technically at war. Be it murals, tank squadrons exercising down the river valleys or fast jets and attack helicopters buzzing overhead. That said, it also feels like the most peaceful country I’ve been to that is technically at war. What a strange world we live in.
Farewell long hair
I’ve been growing my hair ever since I left the Britsh Army in July 2018. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been able to grow my hair long and have a beard. As much as I enjoyed watching my appearance change from that of a smart military type character to that of a homeless man, it got to a point where my hair was becoming untamable. I was camping every night in South Korea and my hair was like a wild mane that could not be controlled. The temperature was rising during the day so I wanted to wear a cap to keep the sun off my face but I couldn’t fit my cap on due to my heavy mop of hair. I finally broke and decided to lob it off. First, I decided to shave the beard that I’d been growing for the past five months. I purchased a cheap disposable razor from a convenience store, found a public toilet and took control of the sink. 30 minutes later, my baby smooth skin was revealed once more. Without a beard, my long hair looks ridiculous so I went on the search for a Korean barber. It wasn’t too hard to find but getting the point across that I no longer wanted to look homeless was slightly challenging. I showed the barber hairdresser a picture of myself with short hair from many moons ago and the barber burst out laughing. He couldn’t believe I was the same person. He took great pleasure in lopping my locks off. As the first few strands fell to the ground, I felt instant regret. My hair had grown just as I had throughout this journey. It’s only hair and it will grow back. It felt strange to see my new face in the mirror after the haircut. I feel like a different person. I hope that by cutting my hair, I will have more of a connection with locals as I cycle through. No Koreans have long hair and beards and maybe some of them feel scared to talk to me because of my different looks.
Continuing Down the Four Rivers
The four rivers route was enjoyable but it did get a little boring by the fifth day. In Thailand, they would say it is “same-same”. The Korean cyclists I met were mainly quite shy and they are always covered from head to toe in the latest and most fancy branded cycling gear on the market. Not an inch of skin is ever on display. I did meet one friendly Korean cyclist on my way down the river. I was catching a quick nap on a bench (classic homeless look) when I was awoken by this Korean guy. He offered me some nuts and red bean snacks. He told me his name was JK and then he continued on his way. Later that same day, I was heading up a short, steep hill my chain snapped. Whilst I was fixing it, JK popped up again and gave me a hand to fix the chain as well as offering me wet wipes to clean my filthy hands.
I met more cyclists along the four rivers route. Sam and Sheena were from the UK and Ireland and had been on a huge bike tour themselves. They now live in Budapest in Hungary and were in Korea on a short bike tour before returning back to Hungary. Again, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to these guys. They kindly offered me some strawberry dessert they were given by a Korean which was really tasty.
I made my way into Daegu on my sixth day of cycling the four rivers. I had arranged a Warmshowers host for a couple of days in the city which was a welcome break from camping every day. Erik and Ivy are in the US Army and are dentists. They have a beautiful apartment with stunning views over the city. I’m currently writing this post from their place and my two days here have now turned into four days.
I am looking forward to the next week in South Korea. I have booked a ferry to Japan for the 15 May and I plan to cycle along the east coast for a short while. I’ve just met up with another cycle tourist from France called Arthur. We plan to cycle together for a while. Our plans are fairly similar for the next few months as he also plans to head to Alaska, Canada, the US and Mexico.