I can’t remember where I heard about it, but soon after moving to Korea I discovered the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. The project aided to completely revitalize the river ecosystems across Korea. The government also developed bicycle lanes alongside the rivers to encourage an environmentally friendly recreation for citizens. One of the bicycle paths extends from Incheon (인천) to Busan (부산), roughly 633 km (400 mi) across the country. I had discussed it my friend, Tim, for a few months and we eventually set a date when he flew to Korea and we started our journey.
The circumstances under which Tim and I spend time together develops nothing less than a strong friendship. We first met while queuing overnight for a concert in Atlanta. We’ve taken a road trip to Kansas City for a midnight show in a small bar. We’ve met up in D.C. and explored all it had to offer. He’s come to Orlando and hung out with my friends. And now, we’ve ridden bikes across Korea together. It’s interesting to watch the progression of friendship and I am truly grateful to have the friends that I do.
When the journey was over, we had experienced eating dinner with strangers, sleeping in small towns alongside the river, climbing grueling mountains, and enduring the summer heat. It wasn’t easy, but the mental reward for completing such a journey was most satisfying. For months after the trip, I would reflect back on that experience and continue to learn from it. Below are the daily experiences as we traveled across the country.
Day 01 Sangsu Station (상수) to Gapyeong (가평) 105~110 km 2016 June 06
From Sangsu (상수), we crossed a bridge to get to the south side of the Han River (한강) and headed east at a leisurely pace. The city went on for awhile and we shared the bike path with other bicyclists, people walking dogs, and runners. We eventually made it out of the city and the people became more dispersed and infrequent. We rode for a few hours before checking the map and realized that we had made a wrong turn and rode onto another trail headed in a different direction. This mistake ended up costing us the rest of the day. Defeated and with the sun setting, we stopped at a motel and rested for an early rise. We ate dinner at the restaurant attached to the motel and a kind old man, an ajusshi (아저씨) ate with us and paid for our meal.
Day 02 Gapyeong (가평) to Binaeseom (비내섬) 110~115 km 2016 June 07
We rose early to make up for lost time and hadn’t realized how far out of the way we had gone until it took us an hour to find the fork in the road that got us lost in the first place. It was an unfortunate mistake that could have been prevented by simply reading the signs. Discouraged, we pressed on and into new territory. We met an English speaker along the way that listened to our story and told us to forget about the lost time and to not get so caught up in our objective that we miss the beauty along the way. We took his words into consideration and scrapped the itinerary we had prepared for and just planned to ride until the sun was setting. The bike path cut through nature and exposed us to beautiful sights along the Namhan River (남한강), from open fields full of flowers, to deserted roads, we saw a lot of Korea that a foreigner otherwise might miss out on.
Day 03. Binaeseom 비내섬 to Mungyeong (문경) 110~115 km 2016 June 08
This was the day we climbed the 548 m (~1,800 ft) Ihwaryeong Pass (이화령), part of Mungyeong Saejae (문경 살제). Tim and I switched bikes on the first day, so I was with the panniers and their extra weight while he took the fixed-gear road bike. Riding a heavy bike, I took every opportunity to get off at the first sight of a steep incline and push my way to the top. I hadn’t done enough research to know just how tall this mountain was or what day it was going to come, but we eventually made it to the top. The view was beautiful and gave great perspective into the arduous journey we had gone through. We ate inside the shop, refilled our food and water, and relaxed as long as possible. Finally, we coasted down the mountain, a 5 km (~3 mi) decline full of twists and turns. It felt glorious. We got to the base of the mountain and came across some interesting Korean architecture. I opened my bag to get my camera, only to realize that I had left my camera at the top of the mountain. Assessing the situation (and becoming irrationally irate) I stopped the first vehicle coming our way and asked for a ride to the top. The man smiled, told me to put the bike in the back of his truck, and I was on my way. The camera was at the top just as I suspected. I thanked the man, then coasted back down a second time.
Day 04 Mungyeong (문경) to Chilgok (칠곡) 100~105 km 2016 June 09
Tim and I woke up this morning and had our usual breakfast from a convenient store. Our food of choice for breakfast and lunch on this trip consisted mostly of hard-boiled eggs, protein bars, nuts, ramen, and gatorade. Only when we got to a motel did we search for a restaurant and ate something more substantial and authentic. We were halfway through our journey at this point and my muscles were sore. A voice inside my head was replaying the same message all morning. If you don’t feel good about it, you can always stop. No one will be upset that you didn’t finish. I didn’t listen to the voice. I kept going. I learned really quickly that the first hour of sitting on the bike was quite miserable until my butt went numb. I couldn’t prevent the initial pain, only anticipate the numbing. Our goal for the day was to make it to the city of Gumi (구미), but no sooner had we entered the industrial city that we were looking to get out and on to the next town for a better experience. We ended up going half the distance to Chungju (충주) and stopped at a small town that seemed to have a population of four, including Tim and I. The guy that ran the motel made us an excellent meal. We were literally on the bank of the Nakdonggang River (낙동강), so we left the patio door open and fell asleep to the sounds of rushing water, birds, and insects.
Day 05 Chilgok (칠곡) to Namji-Eup (남지읍) 120~125 km 2016 June 10
This was the most difficult day of our journey. We had a regular goal that would fall in line with our average daily distance, but we also had an extended goal if we felt up to the challenge by the end of the day. If we decided to maintain the average pace, we’d have to prepare for a half day to add to the already six day journey. The sun was more noticeable than any other day and we stopped on many occasions just to rest under a small tree to hydrate and cool down. This particular day had long stretches of straight cycling. This didn’t bode well for me because I was always wanting to be at the farthest point that I could see. I kept repeating the same message in my head. Just pedal back and forth, left foot, right foot. It will be okay. We reached our main goal with time to spare, so we agreed to hit our extended goal and get to the original city we prepared for before we got lost on our first day. However, we didn’t take into consideration the amount of time it would take to ride through the mountains, of which there were plenty. The sun had gone down and we were still in the mountains. Tim had a headlamp and was guiding us through the hills when he suddenly got a flat tire. We had to stop every ten minutes to pump up the tire and we eventually caught up to another cyclist headed in the same direction. He joined us and led us into the city and to a decent motel. We thanked him endlessly and were grateful that we had made progress for an easy final day.
Day 06 Namji-Eup (남지읍) to Busan (부산) 90~95 km 2016 June 11
The hardest parts of the journey were over. It was bittersweet to be riding, though we knew we still had a full day ahead of us. We rode alongside the Nakdonggang River (낙동강) on a bike path that was constructed similar to a bridge over the water, just along the edge of the terrain. We eventually made it to the outskirts of Busan. It was a Sunday, so we saw families and couples out and enjoying the long stretch of greenway. We got into the city limits and slowed our pace, stopping every ten kilometers to rest and embrace as much as we could. The sun was setting as we crossed the final bridge and made it to the last certification center. We reveled in our success, took pictures, and processed the journey that we just accomplished. Satisfied, we backtracked to find a motel next to the bus station that would take us home the next day. We got cleaned up and went out and celebrated by eating junk food from Lotteria (롯데리아) and my first cup of coffee in a week.
We reflected on the trip that night and came to the conclusion that we would never do something like that again. Despite our conclusion, I would absolutely and completely recommend the journey for someone whom has never done it before. If you haven’t explored much of Korea, it’s an instant opportunity to experience so much of Korea’s landscape. We rode through old train tunnels that had been converted into bike paths, riverside bike lanes, steep inclines, and the flat plains of Korea. Of the almost two years I spent in Korea, this trip was one of my favorite experiences simply because it wasn’t something that was easy to check off a list of things to do. You can visit Seoul and go to all the traditional folk villages, but it takes quite the commitment to trek across the country on a bicycle. One absurd realization is that six days is considered slow to some people. I read countless blogs online of people riding over the course of three or four days. Though, considering I hadn’t ridden a bike in two years, I am quite content with the amount our pace.