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  • Writer's pictureClotaire Mandel

A Korean loop

I found very little information before coming to South Korea.

Often the stories are limited to the 4 rivers cycle track, and often there is no story at all. It must also be said that this is not the most exciting adventure.


We have done a bit of our own route, and here you will find impressions and some information.

Note:

The narrative here is not necessarily exceptional. Instead, I concentrate a bit more on the information that I think is useful, at the bottom of the article.

Moreover, the map below gives the points of the places where I slept, that gives you a pretty precise idea of where to camp ;)



 

The country Capital : Seoul Currency : Wong Population : 51.74 millions (2021). 1/5 of the population live in Seoul ! Population density: 516 hab/km2 Average annual incomes : 29.686 € Official language : Coréen

 

First part : Dmz and back to Seoul We had in mind to go and have a look at the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas (DMZ), and why not have a look at North Korea if there was a chance to see it.

Following the COVID, organised visits to the DMZ are suspended. So the best we could do was to get close, see some barbed wire and find it too sad and grey to follow that line from the west to the east coast.

We saw some North Korean trees, they were obviously the same as the ones that surrounded us on the other side of the border.



The weather is grey, but the first contact with the Koreans gives us a glimpse of the kindness that will follow us all along the road.

Still, we felt like something else. So we turned around, not happy with the road, and finally decided to go down to the south west. Three days after leaving Incheon, we found ourselves sleeping under a bridge in Seoul to protect ourselves from the rain.

The fact that we could camp anywhere was invaluable, and some lovely locals even dropped off food and drink under our bridge!




Chumcheon


We headed to Chumcheon, and found an extremely pleasant bike path that we didn't even realise existed.

This is the part of the bike path that we liked best! Not in a straight line, with a scenery that changes often and proves to be really pleasant, we ride without asking ourselves too many questions.


Once in Chumcheon, we push eastwards towards the mountains to camp and see where to go the next day. True to our traditions, we completely change our plan and decide to join the famous four rivers trail.

From there we will head down towards Busan.


Towards Busan We cruise along the bike path, following the shapes of the river. The track sometimes moves away from the road and the houses to follow beautiful wooden structures that follow intermediate valleys.

Peaceful nights, and evenings by the river, under a small traditional shelter, drinking a cold beer and making up for lost time.

Every day people approach us, encourage us, offer us something.

The country is not huge and we are not pressed for time, so we move slowly, taking the time to choose the bivouac carefully and to have enough time to read and cook. We even met Olivier, a French cyclist, with whom we had a little bivouac by the river.

But after a few days on the bike path, we both tend to get bored and try to go on a tangent.

Once we end up at Mook and Aghie's place in a small village. We take the opportunity to rest and plan what to do next. One evening, after a few beers, we say fuck it, we need some adventure. So we trace a mountain bike itinerary on Komoot and the next day we go with our hearts high.

However, our itinerary soon turns out to be complicated to follow and the small hiking trails turn out to be unthinkable on a bike, and the other small trails are only paths that lead from one road to another over a small pass. Nothing very encouraging then.


So we end up on the cycle track. Again and again. We always manage to branch off and catch up with that damn bike path. But it already makes us smile, because we have the same way of apprehending the organization, but moreover because it is almost a love and hate story with this track. We miss it when we leave it, and it bores us when we follow it.


So we decide to follow it a little bit more, until the north of Busan, and to turn off towards the east coast via Gyeongju.

 

Second part : East coast Gyeongju to the coast

What happened was that we ended up in the south of Korea with the impression that we hadn't seen anything special. We had fun cycling because it was simple and the bivouacs were really nice. Apart from that, it was far from being fabulous.

Anyway, we found ourselves doing an internet search like "What to do in South Korea".


It turns out that it's not the most touristic country in the world, and for good reason, there's not much to see. Well, that's a bad word. Let's just say that there is not much that interests us greatly.

However, we were told about Gyeongju, so we decide to go there before catching up with the coast via Pohang.

Bikepacking taiwan camping sur l'ile de taiwan voyage vélo

There again, if it's rather nice to see, we found ourselves in front of stories and monuments that are really foreign to our culture and we have to admit that we didn't understand much.

And this indelible impression too, that the country has been modernised in a way that doesn't make me dream, and that we come to visit the vestiges of an identity and an architecture of the past.

Still, we visit without really understanding, and we leave, too obsessed with the idea of finding the beach.



This, however, is the beginning of a love story. For several days, we will follow the coast, going up north, in a setting worthy of some people's dreams.


bikepacking taiwan voyage vélo taiwan

Pohang to Daeghu

We go from beach to beach, where we almost always find more or less official camping areas where the locals settle and we take great pleasure in imitating them.

The beaches are almost deserted and nobody swims, which we do by way of a shower.

Although it's not the adventure that crossing mountain ranges can bring, and having a different aesthetic, I think we took great pleasure in wandering from beach to beach, pitching the tent and reading under the maritime pines.

I didn't imagine the Korean coast like this, but it's always nice to be surprised like this.

So we start cruising up north, with an Austro-Brazilian couple of cyclists that we meet on a beach. It's always nice to share these moments in a group, cooking together and rediscovering the world at night.


 

Third part : Seoul and Incheon Bad weather stops us, and instead of going as far north as possible, we stop in Daegu, and take a bus to Seoul. I put some information below about public transport.

We spend two days in Seoul and one day in Incheon visiting, packing bikes, cooking vegetables.

We made the most of Seoul in the time we had available, and on a budget too. It seems that there are a lot of nice areas, where you want to hang out, drink cold beers and eat left and right.

But it's far from being a cheap country and you have to restrict yourself (if you are on a budget...). It's a choice, to travel longer and further while living cheaply.

With the bike in the box, we head for the airport for further adventures.

 

Numbers of my Korean journey : Days : 27

Kilometres : 1125km

Total spent : 316€

Average/day : 11.7€/j

Puncture : 0

Days cycled : 21

Days rested : 6

Tent nights : 19

Hosted nights : 7

Paid accomodation : 1 (Jjimjilbang) Infos - Cycle route

There are multiple cycle routes that cross the country in several directions. The best known is the 4 rivers, which goes from Busan to Incheon via Seoul. It's hard to complain. It's beautiful, it's clean, it's neat.

It's even impressive, because part of the track doesn't follow the road but has its own dedicated route, with small shelters, toilets and grocery shops.

I have no idea what the tracks are like in the west, however, in the east, it is often on the road but it is a secondary road along the highway, so almost no traffic.

You don't die of hunger or thirst, you often come across people and various infrastructures everywhere like waterfront cafes or small supermarkets perfectly stocked.


- Security

Here too, probably one of the safest countries in the world, so no need to worry about that. You will not be bothered in any way, in the city or in the country.

I didn't tie up my bike or feel unsafe at any time.

One of the reasons why this country is perfect for starting out in the world of bicycle travel, whether you are a beginner or not, solo or with a woman!


- Cost of living

It's clear that it's not the cheapest country in the world, but it's not as bad as you'd think.

First of all, it's very easy to camp, so you don't have to pay for hotels or campsites. Then for food, I think you have to understand how things work and target the places you go to.

I managed to live on about 11 euros a day, with a few small luxuries included like coffee and a few beers.


On a bike and camping, there's little left but food expenses. This can go up very quickly too, but if you're a bit careful, you can still stick on a decent daily budget. I had in mind to be around 10 euros, and I think that without too much effort, I was not far from it.

However, it's clear that this budget gets blown up when you go to restaurants and take a few hotels.

- Language

Korean is not very difficult to read, it just requires a bit of work beforehand but nothing that cant be overcome, it's a fairly logical alphabet.

However, I find the language quite complex, far from the languages I speak or mumble. Occasionally you find someone who speaks a few words of English, but it's clearly far from the norm. You'll probably be much more successful if you speak Japanese!


So a little effort to learn a few basic words, and a translator on the side to make yourself understood will do the trick. We had hosts too, who had travelled and spoke English, but that was about the only real contact we had due to the language barrier.



- Supermarkets

With a few exceptions, there are supermarkets everywhere. CU, Emart 24 and GS25 are the most numerous, followed by a few others that are a little less friendly and less well stocked.

Wifi is often available in supermarkets, and definitely in Emart24.


Prices are pretty much the same everywhere. Whether in a small grocery shop or in a large supermarket.

The larger stores offer fresh products and a wider choice in general.


In these small supermarkets, you can eat there. It's not great food, but they heat up the food for you. There is hot water, microwaves...


- Wifi

I chose not to take a sim card, so I was able to experiment the wifi offer of the country.

Some shops have free wifi. Some cities and tourist spots have an easy, free and unlimited connection.si. And finally everywhere, a little bit randomly, we always manage to find internet.

Finally, it was quite easy, and I don't regret not taking a sim card.


- Sim card

For one month, it's the equivalent of 30 euros, with an unlimited connection. If you're not within 30 euros, it's pretty handy. To be able to translate, read menus, look for information, keep in touch with the outside world.


- Sleeping

There are hotels and hostels everywhere. Count 15-20 euros for a night in a dormitory, and most likely triple for a double room. There are enough of these throughout the country to even imagine riding without a tent.

All over the country you can find small traditional shelters under which you can take refuge, no one will ever tell you anything! It's handy when it rains, and nice in any weather anyway!


There are also a lot of campsites, especially along the footpaths and cycle paths. From time to time we managed to sneak in to take a shower and get water for free, as the campsites were open to the four winds.


For wilderness camping, it's pretty much paradise, since it's legal. Around the four rivers trail we found absolutely perfect places and just about everywhere. On the coast, it was paradise, since the beaches are deserted, and you can find small more or less official campsites where the locals go camping, with very often drinking water and toilets.

And in general, don't worry, it's the easiest country I've been through as far as camping is concerned, there's ALWAYS a spot.


Note that you can also sleep in town, and that bridges are very practical when it rains or when you have no other solution. The latter are sometimes equipped with some fitness machines, you will not be alone but you will surely be able to find water and toilets, in addition to being sheltered for the night!



- Jjimjilbang

A funny name for a funny place. It's actually the public baths that are open 24/7. So you can arrive at any time, go and enjoy the sauna and the baths, and spend the night there!

The baths are not mixed and you can only go in naked. Then there is a common room with either dormitories or mattresses, and people go about their business.

There is a restaurant, wifi and plugs everywhere. You can go back and forth between the baths and the common room from morning to night.

Every Jjimjilbang is different, but the concept remains the same. Not all public baths allow you to stay overnight and do not offer such a wide range of opening hours.

Prices range from about 10,000 to 17,000 won (7-12€), which is a good option on rainy days and for a little cultural experience.

On the other hand, once you enter you can't get out, and it's quite noisy and uncomfortable. So it's not ideal for visiting a city because you're not very free. On the other hand, these public baths are a real part of the Korean culture, and it's not very expensive for an evening in the sauna and a night in the shelter.


Note that you can bring your bag in the common room. You can often drink a beer and eat your food there, as well as bring your own air mattress for extra comfort.


- Plastic

Be prepared, because everything is wrapped or about to be wrapped in plastic. This is not the only country, and apparently Japan is much worse. Still, it's heartbreaking.

Ideally you should have a container so you don't have to use a takeaway box, chopsticks to reuse, and then good luck.


- Vegetarian/vegan diet

Some people will tell you it's easy, but after a month and with two sets of eyes, I don't think it's that easy. There are indeed a few tricks, but it quickly goes round in circles, and cyclists who stay more than 10 days in the country we met end up cooking themselves.

So yes, a bibimbap from time to time, a kimbap. But apart from that?


And if in some countries you can find some solutions in supermarkets with ready-made meals, it is not so easy here because what you find depends on the goodwill of each shop. Especially since, funnily enough, there is often only one of each product. Which means that if one of us found something, there was a good chance that he took the only option!

Anyway, we ate a lot of noodles, and it's best to laugh about it.

However, it did affect our trip, as we were happy to be going to places where we knew we could easily eat vegetables!

- Traffic

The cycle paths solve most of the problem if you follow them.

However, the rest of the roads are not bike friendly. Secondary roads are often very narrow and it becomes a nightmare if you come across a busy road.

Major roads can be anything but. Some are not used too much and/or offer a bit of space on the side, and some are perfectly hateful, with heavy truck traffic going very fast.

So, I found it relaxing on the bike lanes, and then it's quite dependent on the size of the roads and the cities they connect.

Otherwise, I find the drivers relatively respectful. Much more than the average I've seen so far.


- Coffee

Nothing special, I would say it's pretty standard. The cities offer access to quality coffee shops and roasters, which is rarely the case between these cities.

You can find everything from automatic coffee machines to Geisha cups in an impeccable setting.

For prices, I feel like it's somewhere between France and Australia. Allow 13€ for 200g of good quality coffee beans, and 3€ for an Americano.


That said, you can find it everywhere, if you're not too fussy about quality. Supermarkets serve large cups of coffee for about 1€, which is a good way to tide you over, and sometimes the quality is even better than in a serious coffee shop which will cost you 3x as much.


- Weather

I went there from April 14th to May 10th. It was rather cool at the beginning, and humid, from north to south, and the temperatures were slowly rising from the first week of May.

Which means everything and nothing, the seasons change and the weather is difficult to predict. But it seems to me that early May is a reasonable time to arrive if you want warmer temperatures.

It's a windy country from what I've seen. Every day the wind changed during the day. If you are lucky you will fly away, if not, good luck.


Note that on the cycle path and on what I saw of the coast, the attractions, campsites and cafes were often closed as they were probably too early in the season. So the route we took will probably be a bit more populated and will probably offer more services as soon as the summer starts.


- People

South Korea is a great experience! People are curious and friendly, they don't hesitate to approach you and even often we were offered little things (cereal bar, coffee, cakes...)

The language barrier doesn't help to go further in the discussions, we often stayed on the surface, with our 3 Korean words.

However, the smiles and the humble interactions make this place really pleasant to ride. In any case, you can ask for water or a place to camp without looking like a UFO.


As a small note, it occurred to us at the end that only one woman came to talk to us in a month. We only had spontaneous discussions with men. For what it's worth, that's our experience.


- Other activities

The country is quite well known for hiking all over the country. The highest peak is below 2000 metres, but there are plenty of opportunities.

Lots of diving spots too, and some places to surf. I also saw a few paragliders and some ski slopes on the map.


- Public transport

The network is wide between bus and train, and covers most of the country. So it's easy to travel this way. Regarding bicycles, it seems that few trains take bicycles, and even less unmounted. However, the intercity buses are absolutely perfect. You won't be asked any questions or charged extra, as long as there's room in the hold, you're free to go and put it in as normal luggage.

These intercity buses leave from many cities in the country and you are free to book in advance or not.

I took a bus from Donghae to Seoul for 27,000 won (18€). It was neither the most expensive nor the cheapest, but it was absolutely perfect. Wide comfortable seats, a break despite the short distance.


- Getting to the airport

There are two airports to Seoul: Gimpo and Incheon. I'll mainly talk about Incheon here as it's the only one I've seen.

Incheon airport is located on a small island which is not accessible by bike. You have to get out by bus, taxi or train. I only used the train, there and back. Whole bikes are only allowed on the train at weekends, but I went on the train with a bicycle in a box on the way there and back.

No one told me or anyone else I know who got to Incheon airport the same way.

So no panic, and no taxi to take.


Regarding the boxes, I found two places in Incheon, within walking distance of the train stations, to pack your bike. The two bike shops around Geomam station had them when I passed by, and they gave them away for free.

A good solution if your timing allows it is to go by bike to Geolam, find a box, pack there, and jump on the train that goes directly to the airport from there


Note: if you take off on a weekend, whole bikes are accepted in the transport, and a company takes care of packing at the airport. It seems that for 20€ you can have it packed directly there, which is a good solution! To be explored.

You can also leave your bike there as a deposit, I just know that two days costs the equivalent of 20€.


 

My little conclusion

I think I would have been bored stiff if I had gone alone. We had a lot of fun together, but otherwise the country is far from funky.

The most famous bike path that crosses the country from north to south is really nice, but there is little to see on the road. And I find very little in the country.

Some will say that there are hiking trails. Well, if you want to hike at 1500m in the forest, you don't need to cross the planet for that.

I found the people adorable, and that's a big plus. But I was not very happy with the food. The general situation improved as we caught up with the east coast as the scenery was really nice and there is a certain poetry to wandering the coast.

To be able to camp anywhere, to be able to ride with a free mind and literally choose where to sleep at night is a big plus.


So it was cool once, and I really wanted to discover Korea, but it was probably the last time, because it's not at all what I aspire to. Dare I say it? Sometimes I thought I should have saved this destination for my old age.



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