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Saturday December 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday December 21, 2013 MYT 8:20:40 AM
by peter choong
Part of the extensive 600km network of cycling lanes in Korea are built along old railway tracks. - Photos PETER CHOONG
With extensive bike lanes, support stations, camping grounds and helpful locals, the land of kimchi and K-pop is great for cycling.
THE idea to tour South Korea on bicycles was first mooted sometime last year by FC Yong, a veteran of the Pedalholics Cycling Club (PCC) after he and a bunch of 14 other riders had a successful tour of Taiwan.
Hitherto, most of us had only done touring within Malaysia on trips no longer than three days. Now the plan was to fly to Seoul and ride to the southern city of Busan in two weeks over an estimated distance of 650km! Camping would be the preferred mode of accommodation unless there happened to be affordable motels along the way. Once we reached Busan, we would catch the bullet train back to Seoul.
Daunting as it sounded, 10 of us committed to go on the tour; three of us including myself would be doing an overseas tour for the first time. An airline had an offer some months earlier and we quickly booked our air tickets. There was no looking back then.
Since I am on my bike every weekend, riding the distance wasn’t exactly my main worry. Rather, as a newbie to long-distance touring, what was on top of my mind was how to pack and lug around two weeks’ worth of luggage, including camping gear, which weighed almost 30kg. And this was on top of the bike itself which weighed another 12kg.
Our tour leader wasn’t planning on sticking to the dedicated cycling tracks that Korea has carved along the banks of major rivers and along disused railway tracks. Believe it or not, in recent years, this forward-looking nation has built more than 600km of such cycling tracks. In fact, one can practically ride on dedicated cycling paths from Seoul to all corners of the country!
Through a stroke of good luck, when Yong communicated with some expat riders in Seoul for advice on route planning, he was referred to the Korean Tourism Organisation (KTO) which happened to have an on-going programme to promote green tourism, which included touring Korea on bicycles!
Hence when we landed in Seoul in autumn, we not only had transit vans waiting to ferry us to our hotel (which KTO had graciously paid for), we were also treated to a sumptuous welcome dinner of Korean BBQ beef and taken on a Seoul city tour the next day. What a great start to our trip!
When we started our actual biking, the 10 of us were led by three expat riders to the scenic cycling tracks along the banks of the Han River that runs almost the entire length of Korea from north to south.
Being a Sunday, the tracks were full of cyclists of all ages, including whole families. What is amazing is to see exercise equipment at many points along the tracks, all in tip top condition. There is a speed limit of 20kph and there are stations at 15km to 20km intervals where one can stop for food and toilet breaks.
It’s also very interesting that one can buy a “ride passport” for 5,000 won (RM15) with which to collect stamps at such stations to signify that you have actually been on the various routes. To further exemplify how much thought the Korean authorities have put into the planning of all these bicycle routes, there are even pumps provided at these stops to inflate your tyres should you need to.
For the first three days, we stuck to the cycling paths along the Han River, covering a total distance of 215km to the town of Suanbo from where exited the manicured cycling paths to take on a mountainous detour to the east coast town of Uljin, which we erroneously thought was just another 110km away.
As it turned out, we were not only totally wrong on distance, but also on the terrain. Rather than easy flat ground, we had to cross a couple of hilly ranges, namely, the Worak San and Sobaek San. This was also when a couple of our riders were hit badly by diarrhoea. All this, plus the inclement weather, conspired to slow our progress to a crawl.
So Day Four saw us covering a distance of only 48km and we ended up camping at the back of an eatery in a highland farming community somewhat akin to Cameron Highlands.
We continued our quest for the east coast over the next three days and reached the small town of Socheon when one of our riders received the tragic news that his mother had passed away. Fortunately, there was a train station nearby. The very friendly locals not only guided us to the station, but also offered us shelter from the rain, plus coffee and grapes, and we managed to get tickets for the next train to Busan so that our friend could catch a flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
We decided to skip the coastal town of Uljin and arrived in Busan two days ahead of our planned schedule. Instead of ending our trip here, we rode back up north along the coastal road for the next couple of days, visiting a number of famous beach resorts along the way, until we reached the resort town of Jinha. There, we had our final night of camping before turning around and heading back to Busan.
Ten days after we began cycling, we parted ways with three riders who would continue their tour to Japan, whilst two others would fly back to KL directly from Busan.
The remaining four of us caught the bullet train back to Seoul and still had a good day to clear before our scheduled flight back to KL. So, being pedalholics, we hit the cycling tracks of the Han River again, this time heading for the coast to the west of Seoul which involved a return trip of almost 100km. But it was well worth it as we can now claim to have covered Korea from coast to coast!
All in all, it was a great tour made all the better by the generosity of KTO and the friendliness of the locals, language problems notwithstanding. We rode a total distance of 620km and spent five nights at proper campsites – on the grounds of an eatery, on the banks of a beautiful river in Socheon, at a beach and even in a public park (where we were awakened by the rubbish collector at 4.30am when he came by with loud music a la an ice cream vendor from a player strapped to his waist).
South Korea is truly a wonderful destination for bike touring. It’s very safe, clean and bicycle-friendly. Its people are very friendly, including the police who actually guided us to a campsite by a beautiful river in Socheon.
Tips for first time overseas bicycle tourers:
· Box up your bike for check in and keep the box at the hotel for re-use (on the way back).
· Pack light – bring only quick-dry and lightweight clothing.
· A rain jacket is indispensable.
· Bring along a bike bag for the unavoidable trips on public transport.
· Install front and rear lights on your bike for night riding.
· Get waterproof pannier bags (or else your clothes will be soaked).
· For tours of this duration, a pair of rear panniers, a rack pack and a handlebar bag are more than adequate.
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Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Cycling, Korea, Bicycle
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