With another watery soup and rice breakfast in our tummies we head off with our most important motivation for the day: “Today we ride all the way home”. Unfortunately the only thing between us and Busan, except for 140km of cycling track, were some of the worst hills of the whole trip.
Just about half an hour into the morning we encountered an unending incline, winding up and around and up all the way to the top of a mountain. We zig zagged the breadth of the road, back and forth like ants in our attempt to reach the top as going straight up was futile. When I finally did reach the crest of the hill, my legs would not listen to my commands to clip my feet out of the cleats on my pedals. There was nothing for it but to topple over sideways connected to my pedals, feeling and looking like a fool. Nursing my bruises we basked in the feeling of accomplishment at the top and spurred other riders on with “fighting!” while they struggled up the last few meters.
We decided to take the suggested detour in our guidebook, as the next mountain range and uphill cycling track were apparently worse than the one we just conquered.
After a long morning of cycling we reached one of the certification centres by lunch time, hoping to find something to fill our stomachs and fuel our legs. However even after some discussion with locals and other cyclists it seemed there were almost no restaurants or shops around.
Me and my friend decided to try to find some kind of civilization and veered off the track down a local road. We did not have to go far and found a tiny ramshackle town. There were a few run down building looking like restaurants. We picked one and went inside, unaware that we have found a gemstone in the wilderness. There was only one menu and it included delicious cooked pork in a spicy sauce, three bowls of hot steaming rice for the two of us, a range of delicious side dishes and a tasty soybean soup filled with all kinds of vegetables and goodness. We were encouraged to eat as much as we wanted as the plates could all be refilled. We were also told to take as many cold water bottles from the fridge as we wanted. My friend Dong Jin was especially happy, he said we were eating real countryside food, like he haven’t had since he was young, fresh, delicious and rivaling his mom’s own cooking.
One ice cream later and some energy bars from the small local store in our bags, we headed off with new energy for the next 80 km.
The last leg of our trip included meeting up with some previous cycling partners, helping out others with some punctures along the way and giving directions to some lost foreigners. As the sun set on our third day I could feel my home getting closer and closer with every turn of our wheels. Soon we were cycling familiar tracks near Yangsan and stamped our second last stamp.
With darkness chasing us we entered Busan with the middle aged couple from the day before and another couple of men following our lead. Some of the navigation became difficult as the signs were hard to read in the dark and some parts of the road were under construction, but me and Dong Jin knew our way blindfolded and so the rest followed us.
The last sign, “Certification 2km further” spurred my tired legs on and made my wheels sing all the way to the last red stamp box. Our original plan was to cycle down to Daedaepo’s beach, but with time and darkness catching up on us, we decided to leave that for another day.
Late on this Saturday night, cyclists mingled around the stamp box, imprinting their accomplishment and smiling for a picture, the moment too big to talk about. After a rest and victory beer we helped our new cycling friends to buy some bus tickets online for going home and then we lead the way to the nearest subway, Hadan station. We filled up the train with bicycles, bags, tired legs, sweaty bodies, closed eyes and huge smiles.
382km, 3 days, 2 nights, no punctures, a botched back brake, lots of energy bars, one huge hill, interesting people and conversations, mountains, rivers, insects, animals, stamps, smiles, pictures, bruises, lots of sweat, detours, getting lost, napping between rice patties, parks, strange buildings, a few too many cups of makoli, hills at night, a spooky temple, liters and liters of water and so much more. As one foreigner put it who I met during the trip, “Why go abroad to travel during Chuseok when you can do such a trip like this?”.
Our tired bodies and the soft hotel beds worked against our plan to head out early, so we started at 9am, picking up the path again from Gumi.
Slowly working our way alongside the now familiar Nakdong river scenery we pass many cyclists and red stamp boxes. Near lunch time we reached a big park on the outskirts of Daegu with a building looking something between an olympic stadium and an alien space ship. We ventured inside and found a coffeeshop with soft chairs, a delicious sandwich and some cold yogurt smoothies. A quick nap and a look around the art gallery and strange swimming pool- like pond on the roof, then we left the families to troll about and enjoy the afternoon sun, we still had far to go.
Our next stop brought us to our stamp box, a golden sunset over the sparkling water and an ice cream-less CU mart. We debated about going on and if we would find a place to sleep, in the end deciding to take the gamble. Luckily an accidental shortcut and our GPS phones helped us to save some time, but the darkness crept up on us as we cycled a deserted path among thick trees next to the river.
Around each turn the inclines and declines seemed to increase along with the darkness and an eerie feeling of being in a horror movie. By this time my bike’s light’s battery had decided to fail me. I rode past two statues on either side of the track, increasing the strangeness of the night and then with all my might I rode up the next hill rising from the darkness, only to find the outline of Korean roof tiles, lantern lights and rhythmic dull sound of prayer. Here at night in the middle of somewhere next to the Nakdong river happens to be a Buddhist temple.
Just at the turn of the hill I stopped, unable to win the hill as it turned and kept rising up into the darkness alongside the temple. While taking a sip of water some other cyclists emerge from the gloom below pushing their bikes up. A quick talk together and we learn that from here the road continues going up and most of it gravel. We thought about maybe staying at the temple for the night, but with the next Certification centre only a few kilometers away, we decide to head into the night up the hills of gravel. (and me with no light).
With some pushing, riding, walking and guessing we finally reached the end of the climb and flew down to the little red stamp box next to a deserted road, no sign of any settlement or sleeping options. None the less we stamp our passports, smile for the camera and felt relieved that our hill riding in the darkness was over.
Inside the stamp box there were some business cards of motels. Me, my friend Dong Jin, a married couple and one more cyclist bond together and give them a call. A few minutes later a van with a bike rack arrives. Bikes are loaded, we are loaded and before we know it 20 minutes later we arrived at accommodation for the night. We also find many other cyclists there, some of whom we’ve cycled with the previous day.
At this time our stomachs were growling, so we visited the one and only restaurant to eat some rice, a soup with a bit of everything and a few side dishes. Eating together with the older married couple we were obliged to join them for some rice wine. While trying to keep each other’s cups full in came two young guys, one with blood all over his leg, they were not so lucky with their road bikes on the hilly gravel roads in the darkness.
After one too many cups of rice wine we all go off to bed, day 2 done.
A quick cycle early on Thanksgiving morning reveals Andong dam emerging from the mist, our starting point and the first Certification centre along the Nakdong river cycling path, the longest river and longest cycling path in Korea. With childish glee I open my cycling passport and pose for a photograph as I stand inside a red telephone-booth-like box to stamp the Andong Dam stamp. This would become my ritual, cycling towards the next certification centre and taking a snapshot of my stamp at it’s red box.
Promoting cycling, health and local tourism has never been so practical and so fun. Resting in the shade of a brand new wooden traditional structure build for tired cyclists, we encountered a middle aged couple. They told us they started cycling at 2am that morning and the wife proudly shows us her cycling passport filled up with stamps. She only has the end of the Nakdong river path left before they’ve cycled all the 4 river cycling routes in Korea.
Our first day of cycling takes us through the countryside along the great Nakdong river, bees, butterflies, snakes, frogs, all kinds of birds and the constant hum of dragonflies keep us company under the clear blue skies. As the cycling path follows the river instead of highways, it does not often go through cities or towns, so we pass mostly farms, green-golden rice fields, old historical buildings, campsites, tree covered hills, cliffs next to the water and some local farmers.
The clear consistent signs on and next to the road make it hard to get lost, but just to make sure the KTO (Korean Tourism Organisation) recently published free detailed English map booklets with sections for each part of the cycling route, hotels, restaurants, certification centres, tourist attractions, distances, time and elevation charts indicated on each page. Together with the help of our smart phones and GPS, navigation was a dream.
One of the only challenges we faced along the 3 days were when and where to find food and accommodation. Sometimes you can plan it, sometimes you are lucky. The first day just as we gave up trying to find some kind of food or town in the countryside for lunch, we happened upon a farmer’s makeshift building for selling their rice and noodles to the locals. Luckily they also sold some instant noodles and basic side dishes. Cycling the whole morning makes any food taste like a banquet and cold water like wine. With full stomachs we rode to the next shady platform rest spot to enjoy a quick 30 minute power nap among the rice fields and the drone of insects.
As with any sport or activity with many participants, there is a certain camaraderie between cyclists on the paths. While waiting at the red box to imprint your next stamp, it is common to inspect all the other species of bikes and the variety of gear. Chatting with any cyclist on the river paths usually starts with “Where did you start from?” and “Where are you going?”, and most often the answer is Incheon or Seoul as a departure point. The 5 day Chuseok weekend gave people a chance to complete the paths all the way to Busan. Late afternoon on our first day we joined up with a group of 4 cyclists, a father and son pair and another pair of friends. We decided to cycle together till we reach the city of Gumi, as it will ensure accommodation for the night and also bring our total for the day to +/- 130km.
That night I remember the golden sunset accross the Nakdong’s clear surface, the red and white blinking lights of other cyclists in the dark and my tires singing under the light of the Chuseok full moon.
It is Wednesday, the day before Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and I’m busy dodging the crowds in Emart in search of some energy bars. As a foreigner without historical and cultural ties to the Chuseok holiday, usually the few free days from work are used to relax, take a trip overseas or maybe see a bit of the country (if you can somehow deal with the migration traffic.)
For me the 5 day weekend and the warm but not humid summer weather only means one thing. The perfect chance for a long distance trip along the dedicated cycling paths created alongside the 4 biggest rivers in Korea.
And so with my friend Dong Jin, an avid cyclist and bike handyman we set off to Nopodong bus terminal in Busan, with our bikes and gear in the last subway car. At the bus terminal we load our bikes into the luggage compartment at the bottom of the bus. Within 3 hours we arrive in the city of Andong, known for it’s traditional village and the famous mask dance. But we have no time to explore and be tourists, the next morning we would be heading out at 7am on a 382km cycling trip, our destination, back to Busan, my home..
Any information about cycling in South Korea.