I wasn’t sure what to expect of South Korea. What I wasn’t expecting was the organization, the transportation system, the cleanliness, the infrastructure, the industry, the agriculture, the density of the cities and the beauty of the countryside. Basically I had no idea about this country.
South Korea has a population of 51 million people with a land mass of 97,235 square kms (37,543 sq. miles), 2.5 times smaller than the U.K. The average age is 41.
We cycled from the north (Incheon) to the south (Busan) on a dedicated 633 kms cycle route. This is called the cross-country route, which comprises of the Ara bicycle path (21 kms), Namhangang bicycle path (136 kms), Saejae Bicycle Path (100 kms), (Nakdonggang Bicycle Path (389 kms),
If the route wasn’t separated from traffic with a dedicated cycle path, it was on rural routes, with signs painted on the road and/or a dedicated lane for cyclists. This is not the only cycle route in South Korea the Ocheon Bike Path (105 kms), the Geumgang bicycle path (146 kms), the Yeongsangang bicycle path (133 kms), Seomjingang Bicycle Path (149 kms), the East Coast route (242 kms), and the Jeju Island route (234 kms).
There is also a few out and backs, Bukhangang Bicycle Path (70 kms).
Some of the population complained about the money that was spent creating and maintaining cycle routes. The government initiative started in 1993. I found this information on-line about the cycling infrastructure. Of course this in not just about the long routes, also the infrastructure when new towns were being built to ensure there were cycle routes and bicycle parking within new communities.
The routes are well used by long distance and local cyclists and hikers and walkers.
As a cyclist or a hiker, you can walk or ride from your city and take a bus or train back to your city or town. If you wanted to complete the Cross-Country path in sections for example, it is very easy to do that. You cycle one section and hop on a train or bus home, the next section you hop on a train and cycle, then hop on a train home. An amazing network of buses and trains run throughout the country that are inexpensive. We travelled from Busan to Seoul a distance of about 401 kms for $25.00 each. The bus had extra wide seats, and lots of leg room. The trains only accept bikes on the week-ends, although we were allowed to get our bikes on the train from Incheon during the week but outside of the rush-hour period.
We only saw six other non-Koreans cycling the whole route, two other Canadians, two Russians, a Kuwaiti and a Chinese man. This is South Korea’s best kept secret.
The only disadvantage for non-Koreans is most of the signage was in Korean and there was opportunity to get misplaced or take one of the side routes when you didn’t want to. There were days when we got very frustrated at the signage, because we had taken the city route instead of the river route, or taken the out and back or got to an intersection and didn’t know which way to go.
Another problem for us, was that google maps did not work, we could not estimate the distances each day or find hotels. Google maps only showed us the transportation routes and no distance. Apparently google and the government had a falling out. Maps.me worked reasonably well in a city to find us a hotel, but often we were cycling and had no clue where we were going for the day or where we would be spending the night. Fortunately, there were lots of love motels and small guesthouses. Again, if you know the characters of motel, guesthouse or hotel that helps.
Food was readily available and later in the season smaller food stands are open along the route for additional food options.
The density of the cities and Towns is unbelievable. Most people live in high-rise apartments that are the size of small Towns. Within a short distance of their apartments are exercise parks, parkland, bike paths, anything to keep the population active. The population is active, every day we saw women walking in small groups, people using the exercise parks and cyclists and not many chubby people. The population spend a lot of money on their clothes and gear, top of the line bikes and gear, matching jackets for the walking groups.
As you come into a city, the first thing you see are the apartment blocks. Most of the industry is located within a few kilometres of these blocks.
They were very interested in our bikes and panniers, why were we carrying so much? We often asked ourselves the same question, especially as we didn’t have any camping or cooking gear, on this trip. I know I carried one full pannier of gear that I never used. The people are very friendly. If only we spoke Korean, we would have had a lot of interesting conversations. Even though we spoke no Korean, we were able to communicate with hand gestures and we often guessed at what people were asking us. Most of the questions are the same, where did you come from, where are you going, what country do you come from and surprisingly how old are you. I was expecting a very reserved people and although they were a little reserved due to the language barrier, I found them to be very nice and helpful, if I asked for directions.
Most people know that education is highly thought of in Korea. Unfortunately the pressure on young people to get into the best universities and perform well is very hard on them. We saw a documentary on the school system, the kids go to school from 8:00 until 4:00 and then often will go to private tutors until 9.00 p.m. The parents work harder to be able to afford the extra tuition, which in turn puts more pressure on the child. Unfortunately, there is also a high suicide rate among teens.
Ralf and I are used to giving a wave to other cyclists, most of the time you get a wave back. In South Korea it is a nod or a bow, I perfected bowing on my bike. You stop pedaling, raise your bum of your seat, and bow from the waist down, then sit back down on your seat.
The cleanliness of this country is amazing, there was some garbage as we went further south, but nothing compared to other countries we have cycled through (including Canada). Of course that could be due to the fact that there is very few fast food restaurants like McDonalds etc. There is a comprehensive recycling system throughout the country. In Seoul the recycling is highly regulated, fines are laid if you do not recycle properly.
South Korea has two mountain ranges running through the centre of the country, with the River running through the valley. The scenery is beautiful. The country was waking up from its winter grey drab colour to its spring colour of bright green leaves, yellow forsythia and of course cherry blossoms. After the cherry blossoms, the azaleas brighten the roads and the cities. Within the cities and towns, the parks departments were out beautifying the spaces with stunning flower arrangements.
Koreans are very orderly, they line-up at attractions, train stations, bus stations and even at cross-walks where they stand on their side of the street to make the mad dash across the road.
Within cities on city roads, the cars, taxis and buses do not expect cyclists to be there and tend to squeeze you a little bit. Taxis and buses will make a bee-line for their passengers without taking note of cyclists.
In closing South Korea is now my favorite country to cycle in, (Ralf still favours New Zealand). I hope that we will be able to come back and that Trump and the North behave themselves to allow us to come and cycle in this great country again.
Next time I will definitely learn the alphabet and learn to speak a little Korean.