Cycling scenic South Korea

By | Category: Travel destinations
a look out point near Inje on the Han River

a look out point near Inje on the Han River

It has to be said I’m not an experienced cyclist. Sure, I can, if necessary, get around by bike, but 20-odd years in central London have hardly improved my skills – usually I’m a happy hiker, not an avid cyclist. Still, when the opportunity to try out some of the recently opened cycle paths in South Korea presented itself, far be it from me to turn it down. I was just hoping my cycle stint wouldn’t include the full 1,000 miles of riverside paths…

Arriving amidst the hustle and bustle of central Seoul, I was faced with the very reasons why I never cycle in London – traffic, other cyclists, people in abundance, the works in other words. I settled into my hotel for a breather after the night flight, but in the afternoon I was scheduled to meet the bike that was to be mine for the duration of the trip, as well as my accompanying guide Mr Park and my driver Mr Koo. Said and done, after lunch I was introduced to said bike, on the pavement outside my posh hotel and it was agreed I would do a little test ride along the nearby back streets. Failing to remember that “bikelore” had moved on since my early days of regular cycling, I at first tried to break using my feet, not my hands and rolled straight into a, luckily, stationary vehicle, toppled over and landed on my backside, much the combined horror and amusement of my two Korean helpers. With my ego and bottom pitifully bruised, we decided to postpone any further cycling that afternoon, in favour of a few hours’ sight-seeing around the South Korean capital.

an old railway tunnel is now a cycle routes

an old railway tunnel is now a cycle routes

As a precaution, the following morning, we headed some 10-15 miles outside of Seoul before it was time to “get on yer bikes”, driving along the southern banks of the broad Han River past exceedingly quirky architecture. South Korea, rebuilt after the ravages of war, comes across as architecturally haphazard to say the least, but many of the buildings are nicely chuckle-worthy for the visitor. How about a boat-shaped café named Sydney and a youth hostel with a large replica of the Eiffel Tower on top? For all its urban landscapes, it’s rural South Korea, its less modern, more timeless side that, for me, is the most interesting and scenic. The national government appeared to agree, as they have in recent years invested heavily in a wide network of cycle paths following four of the country’s main rivers, taking in some stunning scenery, especially in springtime at the height of the cherry blossom season.

Finally stopping in a small village, it was time to mount that two-wheeled devil and get to it. Mr Park, who was also my cycling guide, set off at a gentle pace towards what, much to my horror, appeared to be a motorway, but thankfully the cycle path was separated from other traffic by a barrier and we cycled steadily across Paldang Bridge, spanning the Han River, to the north bank (endearingly referred to by Mr Park as “the nose side”). Once across, we followed the north bank to Jungang, the start of a cycle path that was following a disused railway track. Most of it has been covered over, but every now and then you catch a glimpse of railway tracks beneath. This route was particularly scenic, along an elevated section, with the spring flowers out in full bloom and lovely views of the river. The pristine paths were in excellent condition and none-too-busy on this spring morning.

at the convergence point of the South and North Han Rivers

at the convergence point of the South and North Han Rivers

After a good morning’s pedalling, my Seoul mishaps happily behind me, we were picked up by Mr Koo and the minibus, turning north where the river divides into two, following the North Han River. At lunchtime we had a tasty stop at Chuncheon, a town famed for its chicken barbeque and buckwheat noodles and for good measure, having cycled more than in the last few years combined already, I tucked into both. The chicken dish was cooked at our table by an extremely severe-looking elderly lady – South Korea has a profusion of those – and contained all manner of interesting vegetables in addition to chicken and traditional red chilli paste. Stuffed to the point of bursting at the seams, I was rather relieved to agree with Koo and Park that we’d continue by bus for the rest of the day.

From Chuncheon we did a bit of a detour for the afternoon and evening, leaving the rivers and cycle paths behind for a trip up to an area known as Punch Bowl, named thus in English during the Korean War, after its crater-like surroundings. We were perilously close to North (Nose) Korea here, staying the night at Punch Bowl pension in the village of Haean, in the “heart of the bowl” itself. I was slightly taken aback when another formidable-looking elderly Korean lady, who didn’t speak a word of English, proceeded to show me my room and then wrestle me to the floor. Just when I was beginning to think North Korea had started bombing, she cheerfully began mimicking caressing said floor and it dawned on me that she was just proudly demonstrating their under-floor heating system.

South Korea is full of these surprising moments of linguistic confusion, where body language simply has to rule the day. Even with those who speak reasonable English, such as my guide, Mr Park, things would sometimes get lost in translation, or should I say pronunciation – I was just about getting used to him referring to the nearby neighbour as “Nose Korea”. The following morning we cycled through the Punch Bowl crater itself, away from the Nosy Neighbour and down south, in blazing sunshine, surrounded by impressive mountain scenery, along a fast-flowing river, Naerimcheong, well-known as a rafting destination. Our little overnight detour had been worth it for the scenery and the excellent dinner alone, not to mention that wonderful under-floor heating, but now it was time to return to riverside cycling.

a ponoramic view of the Punch Bowl and the mountains

a ponoramic view of the Punch Bowl and the mountains

Mr Koo (mentally referred to as Koochie-koo, I have to admit – us travel writers have to make our own fun) drove us down to a spot from where we could follow the South Han River for a change of scene. After the mountains we were now firmly on the flat, back to former railway tracks turned cycle paths and following the river at a leisurely pace in three different stretches from Ungilsan to Sinwon, Ipobo and Yeojubo over the next couple of days. Quiet farmland and timeless river views were occasionally interrupted by the more modern, such as the futuristic weirs at Ipobo and Yeojubo, both of which we cycled across. Just as I was beginning to get the hang of this whole business of cycling it was, however, time to stuff the bikes on the bus one last time and head back to Seoul. There was time for one more stop and one more classic Mr Park pronunciation. Stopping at the Temple of the Divine Saddle and I enquired as to how it got its name. “Because this is where a monk tamed a wild hose,” said Mr Park. At least I didn’t have to ride one of those, but I’d otherwise be very happy to get back in the saddle any time for another South Korean cycle adventure.

For more information about Korea, click here,

Images by Anna Maria Espsäter

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