Straight and narrow cycling in Korea 

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY TOM DEMARCO
  • Photo by Tom DeMarco

Just arrived from Shanghai, I'm standing at the luggage carousel amongst maybe 150 other passengers ... waiting.

As I watch the conveyer belt of luggage snake around, an unfamiliar and smiling Korean Air attendant approaches me to hand-deliver my bicycle! I have travelled with bicycles about 100 times over the past 37 years, but this is the first time that I enjoy such personal service.

It is a rare day over the course of this 31-day, 3,100-kilometre, three-nation, Asian bicycle odyssey that I'm not wearing any lycra, yet she knew the bike belonged to me. I conclude that Korea is my kind of place.

Besides cyclist-friendly airport attendants, this country has another big asset: one of the world's longest paved bike paths. The Four Rivers Route traverses Korea diagonally, from the Yellow Sea in the northwest to the Sea of Japan in the southeast. Though never out of sight of mountains, there's only one substantial climb along the way, over the divide between the two seas, topping out at 540 metres above sea level. Otherwise the path follows the Han and Naktong rivers and their tributaries.  

But not all of the country is bike-friendly, I soon learned. On my first ride from the Millennium Hilton in Seoul, a city whose population has hit 20 million, I immediately come upon a street 22 lanes wide—four for buses, 18 for cars but none for bikes!

Luckily, the Four Rivers path is only a 15-minute ride downhill—what a radical contrast from the urban jungle all around. Wide, silky smooth paths line both banks of the Han River for dozens of kilometres, east and west. Road cycling nirvana! 

My first evening in Seoul, I treat my former Whistler tenants to dinner in exchange for two pages of English-Korean translations, a valuable asset in a country that is largely uni-lingual. I quickly discover that Korean cuisine is far too spicy for me. There will be no more restaurant meals this trip, except for the Hilton's spectacular breakfasts. En route, I'll derive sustenance from McDonald's, from Paris Baguette Cafes, and from convenience stores, where I seek Calbee Honey Butter Crisps and Cass Beer.

Now accompanied by my riding partner Hisano Motohashi, we load up our bikes (only five kilograms each in the bar bags and saddle bags, as we never camp!) and head down to the Han River. With a few photo-op interruptions, we otherwise ride a steady pace, yet it still takes two hours to get out of gargantuan Seoul, packed with high-rise residential towers as far as we can see—no low-density sprawl here. Though Korea has a population density more than 100 times greater than Canada's, the rest of the journey will be mostly rural. Just as well, because the few towns along the way are invariably much bigger than anticipated, and never pretty. They look like a Squamish on the map, but invariably end up being a North Vancouver in size, fraught with navigational risk. Luckily I have at my disposal the Korean translation for "where is the bike route?" 

As in China the week prior, bridges are a highlight of the trip: Not historic wooden ones, but rather a steady stream of modern bike bridges, zigzagging over the rivers, each one artistically designed, and in stark contrast to the otherwise unappealing architecture that prevails in this country.

We enjoy several tunnels, too, sometimes featuring psychedelic light shows! Though we are always within sight of forested slopes, the route rarely enters wooded habitat, so I only pick up one new species for my life bird watching list.

Instead of bird watching, I devote myself to bike-watching. I keep a mental tally of road-bike brands. I end up with 37 "species." Most are familiar, but on the other hand, the local cyclists look like aliens, generally covered up like mummies, including masks or scarves over their faces.

Most of the riders are on mountain bikes, using sections of the national route to access local trails. We also see many rice farmers. Like the mountain bikers, they spend a lot of time in the mud.

The complete absence of cars not only makes ideal conditions for cyclists, but also for amateur herpetologists like myself. We see several snakes, and they are all alive, as bike paths rarely produce roadkill!

At Daesim, Hisano is not jealous when I suddenly drop her to chase a fellow cyclist. She knows it is for a noble cause, as I pursue a photo-op of an older woman riding a bike loaded with her garden tools.

On Day 3, we happen to come upon the Sangju Bicycle Museum, the only type of museum that ever lures me off my bike when I'm travelling. But we don't linger long, as I prefer riding a bicycle to looking at one.

As usual, we have made no hotel reservations along the way, but we always seem to find the right place at the right time, for the right price. Accommodation costs half as much here as in other civilized countries.

On the fifth day, we arrive at the terminus of the Four Rivers Route, at Busan. Once again, we are startled by the immensity of the city, bigger than any in Canada, with a metro system more extensive than New York City's. But Busan is not an enjoyable place to bike, so we sneak onto the subway, head straight to the train station, where we quickly disassemble the bikes and board the high-speed rail north, to Ulsan, where we embark on a ride up the east coast that finds us primarily on roads.

We run out of time before reaching PyeongChang, so I fail to add it to my list of Olympic Host Cities cycled, which hit 29 in Seoul. But No. 30 is coming up soon, however, on Part III of this Asian Bike Odyssey as I head to Japan.

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