Ride: Incheon Airport, South Korea to Seoul, South Korea
Terrain: We didn’t come all this way to cut any corners, so we wanted to start at the very beginning of the Four Rivers Bike Path. If you feel the same, be warned: it’s quite difficult to find. Our map above has coordinates that might save you from getting lost in the industrial hinterland of Seoul. Other than the elusive starting line, it’s 40 of the most enjoyable kilometres you could ever ride anywhere. Flat, scenic, and plenty of facilities. Nothing could possibly go wrong, unless it bucketed down the night before.
What’s the last thing you want to do the day before embarking on a 14 hour long-distance flight?
Spend 5 hours deconstructing everything on your balcony and roof terrace for the builders who will be renovating them during your vacation.
To be fair, we procrastinated big time. The notice from our landlord came through the mailbox a month ago, but we kept saying “Mañana” because even in May, it was already the mother of all summers in Berlin, with 30+ degree sunshine for weeks on end. It’s pretty difficult to do anything to change that when you’ve got this at your fingertips:
But toil we did, and eventually got everything spick and span. The next day, we loaded our bike boxes and panniers into the cab and made it to Tegel bright and early without a hitch, feeling light and relaxed. We even joked about attempting to charm the check-in counter lady into giving us a free upgrade because this trip was our honeymoon, and when else would you have such an excuse. Well, you could forget about that, or any perk, or anything resembling good customer service whatsoever. It was either her first day or she was just having a bad one, as she was completely incomprehensible, and repeatedly made an utter balls of the most basic aspects of her job. It took her three attempts to print out our luggage tags. But she wasn’t the only clueless one – it seemed as if the entire staff had never seen a bike before, staring bemusedly at their computer screens, wondering how to enter it into their system. And this despite ever-efficient Jess getting everything pre-approved days in advance. At one point, they were about to charge us 50 kilos worth of sports equipment - double what it actually was. The conversation went something like this:
“Mumble mumble grumble 50 kilos”, said the befuddled head agent.
“No, it weighs 25kg, split between 2 boxes.”
“25kg? That’s a damn big bike.”
“Yes, it’s a tandem.”
“But it’s so heavy.”
“It’s actually lighter than two single bikes. And anyway, it doesn’t bloody matter, neither box is anywhere near the weight limit. Get on with it.”
And so on. Eventually, it all got sorted, but not before they delivered their coup de grace of idiocy.
“You need to pay a fee of €200.”
“Well, I expected that. Here’s my credit card.”
“ARE YOU WINDING ME UP? DO YOU SERIOUSLY EXPECT ME TO HAVE €200 IN CASH ON ME WHEN I’M ABOUT TO GET ON A PLANE TO EFFING KOREA? WHAT YEAR IS IT?”
“There’s a cash machine over there.” (Gesticulates in the general direction of the far end of the airport)
Cue another delay as Neil went in search of an ATM, while the queue looked on with murder in their eyes.
After a stopover in Paris, we landed in Seoul at 7:20 AM today. Immediately, we marvelled at shiny Incheon Terminal 2, which just opened in January this year. It even smells new, with floors so clean you could eat your dinner off them. Technology plays a huge role in daily operations, as dozens of self-check-in and smart bag-drop machines are included in order to serve passengers. Apparently once this project is completed in 2025, there will also be a fleet of robots on standby to help passengers find their way within the terminal facilities. And after that, they’ll probably build teleportation devices to whisk us from A to B because the sky’s the limit here, it seems. We shall now demonstrate.
Despite the usual fears that pop up when you check luggage into the hold, both bike boxes and our panniers arrived on the other side unscathed. We were actually surprised at how little faff there was on this end compared with our starting point yesterday. Picking up our sim cards at a kiosk (we ordered them from Trazy before we left Berlin, but this one is also a good option) was simple and straightforward. Getting some cash was the next step, and though our jetlagged brains were initially overwhelmed by Korea’s uniquely full-featured ATMs, we were able to procure piles of won without accidentally ordering pizza delivery or cinema tickets. Note that you can only use foreign cards at machines with a “Global Service” sign on them - these are plentiful at the airport, but less so elsewhere, so be prepared for a runaround.
Before too long, we were free to roam the general area outside the main gates to decide our next move. Because it was still only 9 AM or so, the terminal was completely empty and we were able to take our time changing into cycling kit and putting ourselves back together. We also downloaded Naver Maps, which is the equivalent of Google Maps in Korea, to help us for the rest of the trip - little did we know that it, plus Kakao Maps on occasion, would prove to be our best friend.*
So here we are, “fresh” off a gruelling intercontinental flight, sitting in the airport early on a rainy Friday morning. What better way to start the trip than putting the bike together and just riding straight into Seoul?
The way we saw it, we had two options here: build the tandem inside the airport, try to get it onto public transport, and hope we’re not breaking any rules, or keep everything packed up until we’re properly outside, then put it together and ride off. We opted for the latter because we had no idea if we’d be able to manoeuvre our bulky bike and luggage through whatever lay ahead of us.
The Four Rivers Bike Trail starts at the Ara Lock, which is a short distance from the Cheongna International City Station stop on the airport shuttle into Seoul city center. We had read conflicting reports that they only allow bikes on certain carriages on certain days of the week with a corresponding ticket, but there isn’t any official documentation about this. When we were still doing research back at home, the only helpful thing we could find was this guide on how to use the Korail App should you want to travel within the country that way. This article also explains bike etiquette on the underground inside Seoul.
And then the first hurdle came up. Due to the layout of each station, we had to run back and forth, hauling our stuff from one end of the platform to the other. Up elevators and along corridors we went, shuffling our boxes and bags like we were in one of those logic puzzles where you have to get a wolf, a sheep and a cabbage across a river. Several trips later we got everything outside, thanks in part to two incredibly kind people who saw our predicament and rolled their sleeves up to help us. By the end of it, our cargo was in a sad state - the bike boxes were ripped at the seams and our bag carrying the panniers was completely destroyed. Now seemed like a good time as any to strike up the A-Team music and put the tandem back together.
It’s been two years since our last tour, so we were a bit rusty on building the bike, and we were expecting the usual gremlins. Burma was all about the timing chain and creaky frame, and in Northern Ireland, we lost our bottom two gears. This time, we were able to just ride off without a hitch. We were lucky that everything came through transit unscathed, but thanks are also due to our friends at Pedalpower, who gave old Samson a thorough fettling in advance of the trip.
And so we went off in search of the starting point for the Four Rivers Bike Trail. It’s not the easiest thing to find as it’s not clearly marked anywhere on Naver, and we ended up traversing the same roads again and again, wasting half an hour on one particular 2.4 kilometre stretch. Sure, we could have just joined the bits of the path that we first stumbled across and carried on from there, but it was important to us that we do this right from the beginning. You see, a big motivator for this journey was the fact that you could get a “passport” and collect stamps along the way. Jess loves stamps. These booklets can only be collected at specified points (the Ara Lock being one of them), so it was crucial that we find this one. It might seem silly, but we didn’t know when we would ever get to do this again, so we wanted to have the full experience.
Finally, we were on our way. The bike path from here to Seoul is incredibly well laid out. First impressions are that it’s nicely maintained, flat as a pancake, with ample clean toilet facilities and service areas for drinks and snacks. There’s a walking path running directly parallel, where you can find Korea’s older generation out for a brisk walk. Occasional exercise spots should you want to work on cardio, as well as pavilions for picnics or a short nap, dot the landscape. On this particular segment, we even saw an outdoor art installation and a climbing wall.
Since we only had a short distance to do, we thought that the day would be smooth sailing. For 35 out of those 40 kilometres, it was. It was so easy that we couldn’t believe our luck, and we rode along thinking this was the easiest introduction to cycling in a new country that we had ever had in our years of touring.
But because it had rained cats and dogs for three straight days prior, some parts of the route were flooded. This wasn’t really a problem for us until we got closer to Seoul and came across the river crossing that we needed to take to get into the city. It was completely submerged under water, and there was no way we were going to be able to use it.
Unfortunately, that was the only prescribed bike path on the Four Rivers Trail, so we were on our own at this point, as there weren’t any bike detours provided on any signs. Using Naver, we started picking our way past each of the 27 bridges that connect the metropolitan area across the Han River, shunning any that weren’t bike-friendly and finally finding one that we could actually get access to. And even the one that we eventually rode across was less than ideal, mostly because its “bike path” ended at the top of 3 flights of stairs. Our final mission was trying to gently steer a loaded tandem down a steep ramp about 10 centimetres wide without slipping on the slick metal staircase. There were more close calls than we cared for.
We were exhausted by the time we threaded our way through the hectic Seoul rush hour traffic and arrived at our guesthouse. It was 5 PM, and we had been on the go for nearly 48 hours. Time to wash up and do what we really came to Korea to do: eat.
*There’s little point trying to mess around with Naver or Kakao Maps outside of Korea, as the server speeds don’t work well across continents. But trust us - once you’re on-site, they’ll do you good.