Ride: Yeoju, South Korea to Chungju, South Korea
Terrain: Continuing along the Four Rivers Bike Trail, which was as lovely as the day before, and mostly flat save for a few bumps along the road. There is one 21% slope that you are literally not allowed to ride up or down (and they’ve put down rubber “speed bumps” to stop you doing so). Something else you’ll notice is the varying scenery, from cityscapes to dense plains to river crossings, all in one ride. Good signposting means navigating is one less thing to worry about, so put the maps away and enjoy the journey.
Oh, the endless faff.
We were supposed to wake up early this morning to ride to Suanbo, a tiny hot springs resort 90 kilometres south of Yeoju, but after yesterday’s unexpected additional exertions, we were seriously flegging this morning. In the end, we didn’t get a move on until after 9 AM. The alarm beeped in 10 minute intervals starting at 7, and we had every intention to get on the road for 8, but our tired bodies kept screaming for “5 more minutes”. It’s early in the trip and we’re clearly not “match fit”.
Finally, we rose from the dead, and after unenthusiastically packing up the bike and grumbling about how this was only Day 4 of 27 and how the hell were we supposed to survive 23 more days of this pish (we are a pair of whingers), we left our humble motel and went out in search of breakfast. The night before, Jess, who is inexplicably obsessed with British-style convenience foods, was elated to find a tiny cafe that made toasties, and resolved to eat there in the morning. However, 30 minutes of cycling around the same 1 kilometre radius yielded nothing, and we concluded that it must have been a delirious hallucination.
Increasingly desperate to hit the road, we made do with one of the two top coffee chains in Korea - Paris Baguette (the other being Tous Les Jours - Koreans love a bit of French action, as it plays right into their soap opera dreams). All this ersatz European glamour comes at a price, though - our simple breakfast cost more than dinner the night before. While everything was beautifully displayed and tastier than the average bakery, we would have felt better eating rice and stew at a mom and pop storefront.
When we finally set off, it was 10 AM and we were already behind. A 90 kilometre day usually takes us anywhere between 8-10 hours, and so we didn’t have a moment more to waste if we were to finish by 5PM or so. Luckily, the Four Rivers Bike Path was spotless and we spent the first clicks out of town just enjoying the sunshine and peace.
All of a sudden, the wind started to pick up and it only got worse as the day stretched into high noon. It was so strong that it slowed us down to a crawl. As is always the case when you’re pumping all your energy through the pedals, it seemed like your effort was getting you nowhere and it only served to frustrate us further. The bike also started to creak loudly, and past experience has taught us to stop and check the couplings before disaster strikes, which only added to the time spent faffing and not making progress.
Not to mention that there was only one bloody stamp to collect the entire day. That upset Jess the most. One stamp! Hardly worth bothering at all.
It was after we had completed 20 kilometres in two hours that we finally decided to throw in the towel and do a shorter day. Instead of going all the way to Suanbo, which would make the next ride through the mountains to Mungyeong shorter, we opted to split this up into 3 days:
Yeoju to Chungju - 60-odd kilometres
Chungju to Suanbo - a very short 26 km morning ride
Suanbo to Mungyeong - staying as is
Using an extra day meant that we had to rejig our plan a bit, but the beauty of an open-ended trip like this is that it isn’t a problem. We’re here to enjoy ourselves and the country, not grind relentlessly to the end.
This small tweak to the itinerary was a huge weight off our minds. We now had the rest of the day to do 40 km instead of 70, and suddenly, a thankless slog was a pleasant trundle. Our frequent stops to check on bike gremlins became less frustrating, and more normal. We started to laugh and point out interesting tidbits of daily Korean life as we rode past, rather than grit our teeth and try to make an arbitrary self-imposed deadline.
We rolled into a tiny village next to the river called Buron-myeon, in search of a convenience store to pick up some supplies. It was barely more than a “main” street with not a whole lot happening on either side, but we did happen to come across a small tea room that sold refreshing drinks and had a bathroom at hand. The very kind proprietor invited us in for delicious banana and strawberry milkshakes (4,000 won each), and while we weren’t able to carry on a full conversation, the universal language of “My god, would you believe how hot it is outside” was easily understood by all.
Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, we continued along the path, which at this point had switched from tarmac into big slabs of stone cemented together, winding across marshy pastures. Although the Korean government has clearly spent a fortune on this trail, it hasn’t been evenly distributed. As we got deeper into the back country, opportunities for pitstops became fewer, further between, and less well maintained. During one such bathroom break deep in the heart of farm country, Jess went into the toilet to find what in Neil’s home town might be referred to as a “dirty protest”. Running out past a confused Neil and shouting, “Do not go in there! It’s a biohazard!” to the obviously non-English speaking female cyclists waiting outside, Jess chose to relieve herself in the woods instead, giggling at the other women who hastily followed her example. Ah, the things you do on your honeymoon.
It was blowing a gale when we got back on the bike in the late afternoon, and the price we paid for paved roads was zero cover from the blasts of air that were hitting us sideways. However, “fighting is 90 percent mental and 10 percent technique”, said some random guru, and we tried hard to concentrate on the good bits of the ride. The rice fields that stretched on as far as the eye could see were a stunning sight, and we were thankful for the flat smooth path after 15 kilometres of bumpy gravel. At one point, we could hear music emanating from nowhere in particular, and were amazed (and amused) to spot a bunch of wrinklies gathered in a nondescript field, singing karaoke. Looked like they were having a grand old time.
Again today, we were impressed by the sheer effort that’s been put into providing this cycle path. Not tunnels this time, but instead long, elegant wooden bridges, built just for bikes, winding their way above the marshes.
Lastly, who could forget the free airshow we got from the numerous F-16 fighter jets casually rolling overhead. It almost seemed like they were lining up to get a look at the two loonies on a tandem, which did Neil’s latent paranoia no good at all. “They’ve finally come for me!”
Chungju was only 8 kilometres away when we heard a ping as we went up a ramp. Immediately, we started freewheeling and groaned as we knew instinctively what the culprit was. Our rear chain had popped loose again, an issue that had started back in the Burma days and returned every so often when we pushed the bike harder than we should have. We’ve had to deal with this so many times now that we can usually sort it out in a couple of minutes. But this time, the chain was stuck between the cogs. And by “stuck”, we mean it absolutely refused to budge. We lost almost 40 minutes trying to get it undone, with Neil doing all sorts of jiggerypokery with the gear shifters to move and loosen the chain until we found a spot where it could slip through.
This was the worst possible thing to happen at the very end of our ride, and to top it off, there were a number of cyclists who rode past us during this time and didn’t bat an eye. One of the things we enjoy about cycle touring is the community it fosters, and we always make sure to stop and check up on a fellow rider in need, in the hope that when it’s our turn to be stuck, help will come. Well, not today.
Finally, the city of Chungju rose up in the distance. We fought against traffic, made a wrong turn or two that saw us going up another hill into town, and meandered our way to the city hall, where we’d figure out our next move.