There’s a lump in my throat and my eyes are watering as we whizz along the river path, heading out to the north of Seoul. Partly it’s the incessant dust that coats everything here but also I’m quite emotional.
This is my last ever ride on Custard the touring bike, as today I’m delivering him to his new home and family in the city.
I feel like I’m handing over a child, albeit not a favourite one.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make but, as we near the end of our travels, we had to weigh the cost and significant effort of flying the bikes against how we want to spend the last few weeks of our travels. This part of the trip was always vague, always unplanned but now, with just 4 weeks left it feels like a good time to stop riding. To rest and relax a bit and to take stock of all that the last year has been. When the opportunity to sell the bikes to a family in Seoul arose it seemed fitting somehow.
Rolling into Seoul also marked the end of our journey from Busan along the 4 Rivers route, nearly 400 miles and 13,000 feet of elevation later. We covered the distance in 11 days (30-40 miles a day) at a relaxed pace but it could easily be done far quicker (or slower) depending on preference and from either direction.
Along the way we encountered a huge number of cyclists riding everything from speedy, lightweight bikes, touring with just a credit card and a change of underpants; to cycle-tourists so loaded with luggage it was hard to see where the bike ended and bags began.
If I travelled just this route again I wouldn’t bother with camping gear. Unlike any other country we’ve been through, camping in Korea is not a cheap option, a night’s pitch often costing more than a hotel.
Why? Koreans do camping in a big way, seeming to treat it as an extension of house building.
It’s hilarious when our tiny 7ft x 4ft tent is pitched between 2 vast canvas palaces complete with shade sails, chairs, tables, bbqs, scatter cushions and sound system. These are true feats of engineering and logistics, no wonder every campground comes complete with a stack of large hand-carts and trailers to transport the set up between car and pitch.
The strangest thing however is that these mini-palaces are often only there for the day.
I was astounded the first time we arrived at a campsite that was choc full of tents at 3pm only to find that over the course of the evening almost all were dismantled, painstakingly packed up and carted off home.
One very surreal experience was going to sleep early one night surrounded by tents but waking in the morning the sole occupants of a vast, empty site.
Finding places to camp has also been tricky. Searching through various internet platforms it’s easy to identify half a dozen or so sites on route but, as we found out, that doesn’t mean they actually exist or are still open. Oh no.
One particularly hot and hilly day we managed to visit a total of 5 camps to find only one open. Unfortunately it was the first and one we’d blithely turned down in favour of later, and as it turned out, non-existent options. Lesson learned.
Given the cost of camping and other associated problems we’ve largely been staying in hotels. Love Hotels to be precise.
These have the advantage of being plentiful, amazingly cheap and very accommodating to sweaty/wet/muddy cyclists.
It was a bit of an eye opener at first, weaving the bikes through privacy gates or hanging screens into the always secluded hotel car park.
Love hotels are popular not just for illicit trysts but also with everyday couples. In a land where housing space is at a premium and with large extended families sharing living quarters, the opportunity for a bit of intimate space and privacy is valued here.
They are also a conventional, cheap place for cycle tourists and we’ve quickly gotten used to being presented with a pack of toiletries on arrival which include toothbrush, shampoo and prophylactics.
One pack recently also had plastic gloves in it. I’m not going to venture down that road of speculation but they did come in handy for cleaning the bike chain, as did the free toothbrush.
The downside of these little havens is the purpose for which they are intended. On several occasions now I’ve been woken in the small hours by a very vocal occupant or 2, blearily hoping as I put the pillow over my head that a swift conclusion is forthcoming!
Back on the bikes the mountain out of Munyeong that I had been dreading simply flew by. A gentle 6-8% gradient for most of the climb made it surprisingly simple. Having stocked up with liquid at the start of the day we were literally plied with food and drink for the entire climb by kind strangers, making it the first ascent in which I’ve finished with more drink than I started with.
The scenery has been spectacular, the strong sunshine making photo and rest breaks numerous. Broad river vistas, agricultural fields, sculptures and public art have made the miles fly by and it’s with a heavy heart that we roll towards the city and the journey’s end.
The very air too is heavy, as it turns out, with dust.
For the final few days we’d both had vaguely sore throats and gritty eyes, bodies and bikes constantly covered in a sticky film of dust. This turns out to be a seasonal phenomenon where large clouds of yellow dust blow in from China where desert dust is whisked into the atmosphere and carried by strong winds. China’s growing industry, especially the use of fossil fuels such as coal, has meant growing desertification of land, which in turn means more dust.
In the strong spring winds pollutants from foreign and domestic manufacturing become mixed in with the dust producing a cocktail of poisonous particles. Korea has the 8th worst air quality in Asia and weather forecast also carries dust warnings, advising people to stay indoors if pollution levels become too high.
Previously I’d been perturbed by the vast number of cyclists here who ride covered from head to toe, including full face masks and goggles. It felt like riding amongst groups of mannequins or hordes of commuting mime artists. Having experienced the dust now I completely understand.
Our last few days cycling into Seoul were dogged by this, combined with the usual city pollutants, so that the hazy cloud blanketing the view also weighed on our spirits.
It was with a sense of relief, more than pride, that we bid farewell to the river path and pedalled our final few, frenetic city miles to finish riding.
Busan to Seoul, done.
Despite the cities and the dust this has been one of the easiest legs of the tour both in terms of cycling and navigating.
The path is really well marked and in most places well maintained.
There have been some testing short climbs and steep ramps to push up but the vast body of the riding has been smooth and free flowing.
The Korean people we’ve met along the way have been curious, open and welcoming and very generous with little gifts of sustenance.
There is a huge recreational cycling culture in Korea, in contrast to Japan where bike paths were fewer but bicycles far more numerous.
In Japan more people seem to travel by bike as an everyday form of transport whereas in Korea riding is much more a pleasure sport.
In consequence the network of bike paths here, cycle shops and even toilets is extensive and enjoyable.
I’m glad we’ve experienced both countries and so, so much more.
I haven’t fully taken in the fact that we will be continuing our journey now as pedestrians but it’s something I will take time to reflect on and write about soon.
For now, Custard and Kara (M’s steed) have a new family and new roads to travel. Our riding journey with them and 11 months of cycle touring is at an end. It was truly a great ride.
Just four more weeks remain, of relaxation or something like it, and who knows, maybe we’ll find the odd bike to ride somewhere else too.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.
18 May 2023 at 7:55 am
Nice to get some information about Korea. But, why are you leaving your bicycles?
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18 May 2023 at 10:52 am
A good question. We bought them second-hand just for this trip and they have been amazing. They cost just £150 and the cost of flying them each leg is generally more than that. My bike in particular is a little small for me too so for another tour I would look at other options. We have a few more short flights to take before we get home so it was a question of looking at economics and future riding. Very sad to see them go but they will be well loved and used and that makes me happy. 😊
18 May 2023 at 11:01 am
And, how will you transport all your panniers to and from the airport?
18 May 2023 at 11:31 am
Usual way, in the same canvas garden waste sack we bought in France a year ago. 6 euros each and they have carried the panniers on every flight since. Packs away very small and light 👍