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Trip Report: Seoul to Busan Korea

Ideal Circumstances

After attempting to control my anticipation on the 13 hour flight, and watching 4 whole movies, my plane was coming to touch down in Incheon. I was slightly shocked to finally see the air pollution I had read about, a yellowish gray haze hung over the horizon blurring out countless skyscrapers in the distant skyline of Seoul. It was roughly 1500h but the airport seemed pretty empty. I was generously helped by some staff to locate my bike box and I went off to customs. I was promptly rejected because I had no address to put down on the immigration form. The guard told me to go back and copy the example address from a billboard at the back of the line. A few moments later I was admitted into the country along with my fake address declaration.

Static map image

First thing on the todo list was to get a local SIM card for my phone. There were mobile provider booths everywhere but I ended up going to a convenience store and picked one up for 34k KRW. Next step was getting out of the airport which is actually separated from the mainland of the country via water. There is no possibility of biking since all the routes are large highway bridges. Thankfully I did some research and I knew I could lug my bicycle on a train since it was the the weekend. I managed to find my way to the A'REX train by following signs. Getting off at the first stop once reaching the main peninsula I was a few kilometres away from the start of the cross country bicycle path.

Waterway between Incheon island and the mainland
Dried up section between Incheon International Airport and mainland Korea

As the train sped along away from the airport I was surprised to not see much water, instead bare rock of the river bed was exposed. Once I arrived at Cheongna International City Station I found a corner and began hastily ripping everything out of my bike box. As I assembled the bike I got a few stares from locals and lots of grins from other cyclists, which there seemed to be quite few. One was brave enough to come over as I'm pumping my tires and greet me with an 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo), which means hello in Korean. I return the greeting and continued pumping. Once everything was set I left the box behind and headed outside. Getting on the bike I heard a high pitched squealing noise and I took another 15 minutes tracking it down and adjusting my brake pads. Finally I set off to the start of the cycle path at Ara Waterway.

Before I started the journey I wanted to pick up one of bike passports that I had heard about that lets you literally mark your progress across the country. I saw a building labelled Tourist Information so I tried asking inside. I may have been a little presumptuous but I'm taken aback when the employees inside cannot speak any English. I have little expectation from normal citizens but from a tourist information centre which was labelled in English I expected a little more, oh well. They were able to understand what I was asking for and pointed me in the right direction. Buying the passport itself was also an interesting lesson in language barriers. The lady had told me 500 WON, so I handed her that amount. I was met with a blank stare, 500 WON she said again, and I nodded back pointing at the money. She grabbed a piece of paper, wrote something down and said again 500 WON. On the paper was inscribed 5000. I chuckled wondering if she thought I was a jokester or trying to rip her off. I gave her the 5000 and told her in English that was she was really asking for was five THOUSAND won. In any case I received my passport!

The official start of the cross country cycle path
The start of the cross country bicycle path in Korea, Ara West Sealock

Back tracking 200 metres to the first certification centre, I get my first stamp in the passport. A quick look at my gps and then I'm off!

The cycle pathway immediately blew me away and I hadn't even gone more than a dozen kilometres! It follows right along the large rivers that bisect cities and was packed with tons of locals zipping back and forth. Coming from the puny pathways that I have back home in Toronto it was amazing to see continuous high quality cycling infrastructure.

Cycling monument along bike path in Incheon
Showing off the path via reclaimed public recreation space

Night fell as I continued forward slowly passing through the core of Seoul. Thousands of young couples were out by the riverside setting up tents, eating food on picnic blankets or riding bikes from rental shops all along the trail system. Again I was giddy watching the activity and liveliness along the water after the sun had set. What I'm used to is an abandoned and quiet waterfront back home. I had to pedal with care as the pathway was clogged with young kids enjoying their rides, swerving back and forth.

Lit up bridge at night in Seoul
One of many lit bridges along the river in Seoul

I stopped at an outdoor canopy along the path which was actually a pop-up convenience store. I bought 라면 (ramyeon) and some 김치 (kimchi) flavoured chips. There was even hot water available for me to use to cook the noodles. The air was alive with sounds of people drinking, eating and echoes of live music from off in the distance. Further down along the path I even came across drive-in movie theatres beside the river, nestled between huge bridge underpasses wedged in the middle of the sprawling metropolis that is Seoul.

As I continued cycling later into the night I came to realize the path was well lit within city. Even as I left the outer limits of Seoul, and the buildings lingered behind me, the path continued to be lined with streetlights. I had no reason to stop so I kept going. I ended up taking a break on a bench as I tried to spend some time to setup my SIM card. Suddenly exactly at 2300h all the lights turned off and I was thrown into pitch blackness. I guess it was too good to be true.

The next 20 minutes involved me setting up my tent in the darkness. This was the first time I have ever pitched this tent and I got caught up a few times along the way. It was a bit frustrating to work under the torch light from my phone. Eventually I managed to get it erect and I promptly crawled in and went to sleep.

The cycle path wedged between the river and a cliff side
I slept my first night in the flat section on the right

I was slowly roused to consciousness around 0600h when a rooster started crowing about 15 metres away from where I had setup my tent. It didn't give up after several minutes so I was forced to start the day. The temperature went quite low during the night and my tent was covered in some light condensate. As I packed my gear I was passed by a cyclist who decided to hit the path early as well. It happened to be the same guy who greeted me the day before as I assembled my bicycle. I decided to give him a nickname in my head. Blue shirt ... because he was wearing a blue cycling jacket, how clever of me.

The air was brisk as I started cycling. The sun hung in the sky like a reddish golden disc ablaze. Continuing along the path I wound through hills and automatically lit tunnels until I hit a bike path certification centre. The sun quickly got stronger and the quality of the air was not so good. My throat became irritated, affecting my breathing ever so slightly. Every time I checked my phone it was covered in a fine yellow powder, I would brush it off and the next time it was covered again. A visible reminder that I was being exposed to the thick particulate matter of Asian Dust.

Bridge spanning large river, built as part of Korea wide water revitalization initiative
One of many bridges that you see while following the bicycle path. Built as part of the KWater initiative and partly responsible for why the path exists in the first place. Usually a certification booth is located at one end of such bridges.

As midday approached my stomach began to growl since I hadn't had anything to eat since last evening. I decided to make a detour into a small town alongside the path. I found a 711 and grabbed a bunch of junk food. As I ate I tried again to setup my SIM card. I was able to find free WiFi but I had absolutely no cell service, despite my Canadian provider saying they support roaming in South Korea. I ended up having to take a picture of my passport and sending it to the telecom provider as part of the activation process which could take up to an hour.

As I finished eating, an elderly shopkeeper came over to me for some conversation. He spoke some broken English and it felt nice being able to converse with someone. He was throughly impressed by my plans to cycle across the country and wished me luck. As I left the town to get back on to the trail I witnessed a strike or protest happening in front of what I assumed was a government building. The national elections for the country were a few days away following the recent impeachment of their president!

KWater bridge with inset bicycle symbols
KWater bridge

The pathway continued being well paved and took me over long stretches of flat routes passing by endless farms in between never ending mountain ranges. I passed quite a few other local cyclists along the route taking advantage of the path.

Going through another small city I came across more election propaganda. I could hear it for about 5 minutes before I see it. A loop of music about 30 seconds long continuously chanting a verse in Korean. At a main intersection there was a large LCD screen on the back of a specially built truck playing what I supposed was the theme song for one of the candidates. Dwarfed by the 200 inch screen was a man dressed in the colours of the candidate (green) waving and bowing to all the passing cars. I definitely have never seen any such display back home. I rode right by him and gave him a weak smile.

Stone poles holding up a bell
Totems poles(?) alongside the river

A little further on just after another certification centre I ran across the first foreigner cycle tourist. He was a Russian named Vlad, here with 3 others friends doing the cross country cycle path. He admitted that he had only just begun cycling a few hours before and that they had gotten transportation to this point of the path. We chatted about our different cycling adventures and bonded over our shared language barrier with the locals. I left him behind as we caught up to one of his companions and they stopped for a break. I ended up passing many more groups of 2 to 6 cyclists consisting of young riders. Eventually I lapped Vlad's other companions, a couple. The guy explained that the only way he was able to convince his wife to join him in cycling across Korea was to give her an electric bike. It has an impressive output of 100km per charge! He surprised me by revealing that this was his 4th time doing the Seoul to Busan cycle route. I asked him why, and he just said he loves it and why not! Touché!

For dinner I took a detour into another small city and tried 김밥 (gimbap). For a lack of creativity on my part I will describe it essentially as Korean sushi, aka a seaweed roll. I ordered some 김밥 (gimbap) with an unknown filling since I could't understand the characters. With some determined pointing I was able to order the food and pay without much hassle. It tasted very good and was a quite decent portion of food for only 3500 KRW. The rest of day passed without too much excitement. As the sun set I stopped, at what seemed to be a campsite, to use a toilet. I attempted to use my translation app in order to ask for directions. The man I showed it too laughed and just responded, You foreigner?. I nodded and wondered exactly how much the app butchered what I tried to convey. He understood enough of it to point me to the restrooms though.

Rock formation imposed against a clear blue sky
The view after leaving the restroom

Leaving the campsite behind I needed to find a place to crash for night, preferably stealth camping. I was briefly stopped by a pair of local cyclists who themselves were asking for directions but I could only just shout back, Sorry, no hangul. After a short climb there was a little pit stop alongside the road with a parkette. I stopped and took a nap on a bench for about half an hour. When I awoke the sun was about an hour away from setting so I decided to camp out. With dogs in the distance barking I soon fell asleep quite early.

Waking up to a dry rain rain fly started my day off well. I made an effort to open more vents in my tent as well as leaving one of the doors rolled up to increase airflow at night. I had some snacks left over from the day before to prevent a repeat of yesterday where I was starving in the morning. I decided that my throat condition had become worse so I began wearing my buff as a mask for the rest of my trip to cut down on the yellow dust that I inhaled. I packed up and starting cycling around 0700h.

Tunnel pass atop of a mountain
Spying on the mountain tunnel pass that I'd go through

I quickly found myself tailing the two guys who asked me for directions yesterday evening. I followed them as the path that day started out with extended climbing sections. We went up a false summit and then the real ascent. It wasn't too bad considering it was the first thing I did after waking up. The top was stunning. There was naught anyone expect myself, the two guys and blue shirt again! I bought a few cold caffeinated drinks from a conveniently placed vending machine while I took a break and enjoyed the view. The descent down the other side of the mountain was exhilarating. I ended up passing blue shirt on the way, flashing him a thumbs up and a big smile which he returned.

Road snaking through mountain valley
Descent side from the mountain pass

Continuing along past submerged farmland and small towns the sun once again rose and burned down upon me. I stopped at a roadside gas station that had a little grocery store and a restaurant inside. I stocked up on junk food to carry along with me as well as took a chance to purchase some 소주 (soju). It's an alcoholic drink synonymous with Korean drinking culture. Extremely cheap (1000 to 4000 KRW per bottle), high percentage (16-19%), and found everywhere, it is the go to drink. It is very common to see the older population sitting outside drinking this stuff wherever you look. I'm not too fond of the flavour which is like sweetened vodka, but when in Korea do as the Koreans do! I also took the opportunity to try some more Korean dishes at the restaurant. I ordered two entrees, 순대 (soondae) and 자장면 (jajangmyeon). It is served, like all Korean food, with side dishes known as 반찬 (banchan). In this case some 김치 (kimchi), sweet radish and soup. The first entree is what westerners would know as blood sausage. The second dish, I enjoyed a lot, is a noodle dish with pork and a thick black bean sauce, yum!

Traditional Korean architecture pagoda
These pagodas are found all along the bicycle path. Great for taking a break from cycling.

As I was eating, a pack of Germans come in and I saw them wearing bike shorts and carrying helmets. Cycle tourists! I chatted them up and continued eating along with them. They were two couples both working and living in Seoul. They had come to work in the automotive sector for American companies rather than Korean. We each retell tales of our other bicycle adventures in Europe and abroad.

I ended up meeting and passing the Germans a few more times that day as we took breaks from the ever oppressive sun. As the day neared it's end I found a nice stretch of pasture right along the mighty river that I had been following all day. After a brief encounter with a friendly stray dog and a successful first attempt at using a squat toilet, I settled in for the day.

Sunset behind a mountain range
Sunset

I watched the sunset from the inside of my tent and fell asleep again with one of my doors fully open towards the river.

At about 0100h I was roused awake by someone singing very loudly. I was still in a state of delirium trying to figure out what is going on. There appeared to be a local who decided to come out late at night by the river to belt out some rehearsed verse. He went on and on repeating the same string of words, stopping whenever he felt he had made a mistake. This went on for about half an hour until he seemed to give up and the peace of night fell again. Completely confused at whole situation I just passed out again until morning.

Once again the morning started off very chilly and thankfully my tent was bone dry for the second time. As I packed up at 0600h I was passed by an elderly couple out for a very early morning stroll. I tried to make sense of the events from the recent night and the only good explanation I could think of was that he was rehearsing for a election candidate rally!

Typical small Korean town surrounded by farmland
Pretty common sight. Small towns, farms and mountains.

My morning ride was quiet as I zipped through small cities. The path through towns and cities were always lined with lots of public recreation spaces as well as exercise machines. The elderly folk seem to flock to these in particular even at the absurdly early times of the morning. I passed quite a few Korean grandmas on crunch and sit-up machines. I was impressed by their stamina as most of them seemed to have more core strength than I've ever possessed!

I fell into a similar routine where I again caught up to the pair of cyclists that I tailed for the mountain climbs the day prior. Following them until a certification centre, I had an early lunch at 1000h. The lunch was a mishmash of junk food including some prepackaged 김밥 (gimbap), some unknown spicy meat, a squid bar and some overly sweet banana milk.

Detailed painting of temple roof struts
Eye popping colours

From there the day became tortuous. I seemed to hit seemingly never ending ascents and descents. At one point most of the ascents required my feet on the pavement for last section, pushing my bike. The sun beat me down and I consumed lots of water. I began to worry when I was pushing up a very long climb since my bottles were near to empty and the sun was only getting higher in the sky. Thankfully at the top of one hill there was a temple and it had a water fountain! I refilled my bottles and bladder and then took a tour of the temple grounds. It was about 1300h and I had no desire to pedal anymore with the sun at it's peak. I chose instead to take an hour and half break napping underneath a pagoda. When I awoke my back was covered in yellow dust which I had picked up off the floor of the shelter. Another reminder of the ever present particles clogging the Korean air.

Korean temple ground entrance
Temple at the top of massive climb

When I decided to get cycling again the climbs kept coming. More pushing and more straining continued as the day dragged forward. My only break was at another certification centre where I stocked up on some quick carbs and refilled my liquids. From there the biggest climb of the day happened. At this point I was exhausted. I climbed a couple hundred metres in the saddle then pushed my bike for what seems to be half an hour to the top. There were two cyclist ahead of me while I'm pushing, who were also pushing, and a handful of others behind me as well. As I summit and begin my descent I saw about 15 cyclists on the other side of the hill in a similar situation, with looks of death on their face, pushing their bikes up to the top!

With my body sore and my legs weak I resigned to spending the night in comfort in the next town ahead. That town ended up being behind more short and steeps climbs to my delight. My only motivation was a group of 4 young cyclists who were keeping a good pace. I forced myself to make sure not to lose sight of them and they unknowingly pulled me through to my destination.

Sunset over the river
Looking back as the sun sets for the day

The sun had set and I found my self in the small village of Namji. Winding my way through tight alleyways I try to find a sauna to spend the night. I was able to locate a 찜질방 (jjimjilbang) but the owner turned me away saying repeating the word motel, motel, motel. He lead me outside and pointed down the street indicating where I should look. I was a little uncertain that I wouldn't be able to find what he was gesturing at but I was proven dead wrong. As I turned a corner I was suddenly face to face with a tacky and extravagant displays of neon signs and colours for a row of about 10 motels each looking like a mini casino. These were prime examples of the famous Korean love motels. As I biked around trying to decide which one to try, an owner walked out and waved me down to come into her establishment. After paying 40k KRW for a night, I lugged my bike upstairs in anticipation. There were pairs of slippers, bathrobes, toothbrush, condoms and plenty of frilly bed coverings waiting for me in the room! I snapped a few pictures to share with my friends and then went to sleep comfortably in the bed.

I woke up and after a shower I felt determined to finish the cross country path today! I stopped at a nearby 711, bought a bunch of caffeinated drinks and a danish. With sugar coursing through my veins I began booking it quickly off towards Busan.

Street sign with a Pokemon on it
Dragonite Haunted Area

The path got more crowded as I began to approach the populated southern coast. There were many families out enjoying the perfect weather at the countless parks along the river. I stopped at an ice-cream truck setup along the path that also provided some shade with a stretched out tarp. Cooling down with some soft serve in the blistering heat I made a half assed attempt to put on some sun lotion. I was already too late though as the early morning sun in the cloudless sky had already toasted me.

Along the pristinely paved and nearly flat trail I made good progress. At a bridge underpass I stopped to listen to a drum circle of middle-aged Korean women. There was another cyclist tourist resting here too, from Malaysia. We chatted and I'm surprised to hear about his struggles to eat Halal food. I imagine there aren't many options in this country. We biked together for a little while but I end up going ahead by myself because I'm anxious to reach the end.

Apartment blocks of northern Busan
Urban sprawl as I approach Busan

Finally entering Busan proper, the sights and sounds of the the metropolis wash over me. Endless blocks of cookie cutter apartment blocks, a thin shimmer of yellow dust in the air and the blaring noise of car engines follow me as I wove along. The path became congested with pedestrians walking and exercising outside. I managed to tail some local cyclists who were much braver at speeding along through the mass of people.

Single minded in my purpose I continued on until I finally reached the path's end at around midday! I was shocked by the sudden end of the trip. I stamped the final stamp into my certification passport, took a few pictures and then relaxed on a bench slowly going over the last few days in my mind. I really had no idea what to do next. The path ended on the outskirts of Busan's west side, so I decided that I would wait for the Malaysian cyclist so I could have a buddy to tackle the city with.

Last certification booth End of the bicycle path at Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center
End of the bicycle path at Nakdong Estuary Eco-Center

He arrived an hour later with a Korean cycling companion. Just our luck, the Korean cyclist spoke decent English and was willing to help us navigate! We grabbed some food then made our way onto the crowded subway system. We were stopped by security since bicycles are not allowed on weekdays, but thankfully our Korean friend was able to get us through. We witnessed a huge congregation of elderly locals watching a live saxophone concert in the underground amidst the action of the subway. Under the recommendation of our friend, the Malaysian and myself decided to spend the rest of the day and night near the famous Gwangalli Beach. After some navigation struggles from the subway exit we managed to find ourselves at the beach. The first order of business was to find the cheapest accommodation that we could. Nestled away two streets from the main beach strip, in between fish vendors and ancient seafood restaurants we found a motel. I experienced another unfortunate mistake of translation as the owner told me that the room was only 10K KRW per night. That seemed like a great deal, until she corrected herself with the fact that it is actually 100K KRW... I decided to stay but the Malaysian cyclist wanted to try his luck somewhere else so we parted ways.

Tacky motel
100k WON love motel near Gwangalli Beach...

Upon entering the room I was extremely disappointed. Not only was this the most expensive room I paid for in my entire trip but it was also the worst quality. The walls were lined with tacky cartoonish depiction of teenage(?) girls dressed for a night out and drinking cocktails. I convinced myself that it was worth it for one day being so close to the beautiful beach. With that in mind I left the room and went to explore the vibrant beach strip for the rest of the night.

That ended my cycling trip from Seoul to Busan. Over the next week I would spend time in Busan with a local friend of mine: exploring the food, the mountains and the tourist traps of the city. After lots of booze and indecisiveness I decide to forgo my excursion to Jeju island and bus instead to Gyeonju village. From there I continued my cycling trip along the east coast of Korea which you can read here.

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