Ride: Seoul, South Korea to Yeoju, South Korea
Terrain: Our second riding day on the Four Rivers Bike Trail did not disappoint - it was lovely and quiet, and paths are clearly marked. But you start to see how alpine the country really is, as we encountered some short but exhausting climbs along this route, including a nasty 12% hill that gave us something to swear about. You do get to experience the famous Korean ingenuity though, like the bike trails that they have blasted through certain mountains so that you don’t have to climb up them - a godsend on this unexpectedly long day.
What a long day.
We set off from Seoul bright and early at 9 AM today, after enjoying a breakfast of toast, fried egg, and tea by Mr. Kim at the Haemil Guesthouse. The kitchen is small but cosy and functional, and we shared it with a few other people who looked completely bewildered at the sight of two loonies in lycra. Any home-cooked meal whilst on the road is a gift (which is why Northern Ireland felt so much like we were passing from one person’s living room to the next, in a good way), and even though the food was nothing special, the act of someone cooking it for us really made us feel comfortable and at ease.
Seasoned tour pros at this point, we had packed everything the night before so that in the morning, we could get away with minimal faff. After some kind well-wishes from a passing granny who thought our bike was the bee’s knees, we kicked our heels and cycled away. Luckily, the Sunday morning traffic in Seoul was a lot tamer than our ride in, and we were able to make our way down to the river bike path without too much drama.
Even though it was Sunday morning, we did see a sight which baffled us at the time: a queue of twentysomethings outside a not-yet-open shop, the purpose of which we were unable to discern as we rolled past. We’ll come back to this later.
It really is a beautifully made trail. As we trundled eastward out of the city along the river, we found we had everything we could wish for, apart from a tailwind – instead, it was stubbornly blowing in our faces, and we really could have done without it. The path was dotted with cyclists, families camping in the parks, very clean public bathrooms, and all the convenience stores you could want. They even provide facilities so you can make your lunchtime ramen right then and there, with a nifty disposal system for you to separate leftover soup from the dregs (how efficient).
Koreans are very serious about their cycling. Like with everything else they tackle, it’s got to be perfect, so we saw a lot of gorgeous bikes today from all the top brands – Giant, Pinarello, Cervelo, even the odd Look - which goes to show how popular this past-time has become. That being said, there’s already a lot of interest in our tandem. It’s not like they’ve never seen one before, but tandems here seem to be more of a thing couples rent for a day for a bit of fun. Certainly, nobody is riding a fully-loaded monster like ours the length of Korea.
Every time we stop, we get many a glance and hushed conversation before the group nominates a brave soul to come over and ask us some questions. One such fellow cyclist came over for a jar during lunch, but because he was mumbling, Jess didn’t understand what he asked us. So obviously, he then went over and asked Neil because he obviously looks like he knows more Korean than she does. When that didn’t work, he yelled back helplessly at his friends who were laughing at him and calling him names (that much, Jess comprehended).
Finally, we had left city life behind, and while the surrounding backdrop was starting to look considerably more rural, the bike path was as smooth as ever, and facilities were still plentiful. We were, however, the only non-Koreans around by this point, a fact that surprised us given how popular this route seemed to be amongst the international cycling community. For some reason, we were expecting to see many more “oegug-in” (foreigner), but so far, we stood out like a sore thumb.
Regardless, we were happily meandering along, soaking it all in, when all of a sudden the sky became darker. Looking up in concern that we might get hit with a surprise thunderstorm, we laughed when we realised that the “dark sky” was really just shade cast by a mountain…a mountain that had a bike-only path carved through it.
Say what now?
As you can see, we are enthusiastically getting involved with our cycling passports and the allotted stamps per route - after all, part of the fun is stopping every so often to collect them, and affording yourself a wee break. This works well in theory, but in practice, we have found that some of the phone boxes are somewhat away from the main drag, and going out of your way to reach them is almost more trouble than it’s worth. This wouldn’t be a problem on a shorter day, but adding extra time and distance to an already long ride could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Even Jess is pragmatic enough to see this, and she’s the stampmeister in this relationship, so in the future, we’ll be carefully assessing the ones that don’t appear to be directly on the way.
It was about 2:30 PM when we finally stopped for lunch at a small roadside shack right next to the path, a cheap and cheerful establishment with a very patient waitress who explained the day’s menu in slow and clear Korean for Jess, while Neil looked gormlessly on. 15,000 won got us a huge beef stew with a bowl of rice and a veggie pancake, plus the obligatory banchan (side dishes) that come with every meal. It was so much food that we were able to split it between the two of us and still feel full to the brim afterwards, and reassured us that we could make our money go a pretty long way here, while leaving something in the pocket for the odd splurge in the big cities.
Waddling back to our bike, we settled in for a long afternoon in the saddle. At this point, we still had about halfway to go.
Near the end of our day’s journey, there was a nasty 12% surprise that we (and everyone else, as there was about 10 of us at once) had no choice but to hike up. As the other riders in our impromptu peloton began inching forward, and we fell more and more behind, we cursed our 200+-kilo tandem, and not for the last time on this trip asked the now-traditional question, “Whose idea was this anyway?” before finally reaching the summit. Just before we crested, an opportunistic woman had wisely set up a drinks stand that everyone flocked to as if we had just crossed the Sahara. Between gulps of ice cold water, we listened as she warned us to be careful on the way down, as there was a bad accident involving a poor cyclist earlier in the day. As we set off, we could see why - due to the torrential rain storms that beset the area a few days before, rivulets flowed across the steep descent, poised to unseat anyone taking it on too enthusiastically.
We had reckoned on this day being around 90km - slightly on the long side, especially at the start of a tour, but nothing to worry about. Somehow, it ended up more like 110. On and on we rode, enjoying ourselves, but wondering if it was ever going to end. Finally, the city of Yeoju loomed ahead. It was 7 PM - a full 10 hours after we had first set off. We were done.