Cross Country Bicycle Tour of Korea
I arrived in the city of Busan feeling lost. I had only flown there because I had found a cheap ticket. After some time in Korea I thought I should start thinking about my next destination. I spent the day bouncing ideas around in my head trying to figure out what to do, where to go. I wanted a challenge, something fun, something exciting. Well, ask and you shall receive.
I was four cups of coffee in, searching the internet aimlessly and losing hope when a message popped up from my friend, Patrick, whom I had met a few weeks back. To my pleasant surprise they were planning a trip in the next couple days to Busan, where I was staying. It was perfect. I needed a break from my frustrated and fruitless efforts in planning. I expected to meet up for dinner and drinks, have some fun, get my mind off things. I did not expect a cross-country bike tour!
This is how it all started:
P: Hey we’ll be in Busan on Thursday.
Me: OHMYGODHANGOUTWITHME. (desperation!)
P: Will you still be around?
Me: Yeah sure I’ll be here. Why not? I can’t seem to bite the bullet on buying a ticket so it would be awesome to see you guys again!
P: We are riding bikes across the country (Busan > Incheon). Get a bike and come along!
Me: I WANT TO DO THAT!!! (Clearly, a knee jerk reaction. I had not given this any thought.)
P: Haha so awesome! It’s about 393 miles on beautiful river paths.
Me: Can I really join you guys? (Am I not reading what he’s writing? 393 miles!)
P: Yeah you can join for sure!
Me: I hope I don’t die. (Ah, there it is. It clicked.)
And that was that. I set out that evening to look for a bicycle and additional gear I would need as well as figure out what to do with all my stuff. I had a day and a half to pull it off. Where there is a will there is a way. This was an instance where the time crunch, while stressful in the moment, proved to work in my favor. If I had too much time to over think this sort of thing it might not have happened.
My adrenaline and excitement couldn’t be bothered by the weather and I set out into the rainy, grey day to fulfill my mission. Things were moving fast. Within 15 minutes I stepped foot into the first bike shop of the day and things were already looking promising, but not perfect. I continued to bike shop number two and finally, third times a charm. I had found my beast. A couple of hours debating, negotiating, and ultimately handing over my beaten up blue credit card to pay for a shiny new bike, things were becoming real. The short ride from the shop to my hostel electrified me. I smiled ear to ear the whole way and let out a few audible woohoos. This was either going to be the biggest mistake or the best thing ever.
Rushed and unsure of what to bring and what to ship I shoved my only possessions into my battered, dusty, scuffed up backpack and walked to the post office. I threw my yoga mat on top of my bag into a new, clean, cardboard box, taped it up and sent it off to Seoul where it would arrive the next day sitting and waiting to be retrieved. I walked away from the post office 16 kg lighter. There was no turning back now.
With everything set in motion my rational mind started to wonder about the logistics of my up coming adventure. Where will we sleep? What will we eat? Am I capable of this? Thankfully I was in good hands. My friends have done this kind of thing before. They cycled across The United States. Cycling across Korea was nothing, but still I was nervous.
Up until this point my idea of riding a bike had mainly consisted of peddling hard, fast, and furious through the flat streets of Chicago on a light weight road bike, slapping the doors of cabs cutting me off in traffic and yelling at careless pedestrians. I’ve rented salt eroded, barely held together bicycles in many beach towns. Twice I had leisurely ridden beautiful trails in Pennsylvania for a day, but nothing over 60 miles and nothing strenuous. This was new territory for me. I was about to attempt 393 miles in a country that is 70% mountains in less than a week. I was worried and I was enthralled.
Korea has amazing, well-connected, wide, smooth paths that roll along connecting rivers. It was only a few times we found ourselves climbing hills in the company of cars. Clear trails have been paved for bicycles only. Korea has set itself up as one of the most cycle friendly places. They even help encourage your adventure with booklets, called passports, that allow you to stamp your progress. They have red booths along the way equipped with ink pads and unique stamps for each stop. It never got old to smack the purple soaked rubber onto my passport.
Signs, while not always helpful and often confusing, are posted along most of the way. We were forced to stop and ask for help a handful of times. In a way it created a connection with the other cyclist, a camaraderie. We were all in this together. We were all quietly speeding through the arteries and small veins of the heart of Korea while the rest of the world unknowingly continued on. I often had the feeling that I was in a secret world, riding through small farms on winding paths, seeing Korea from these secret passages only accessible to those willing to take this alternate route. Biking is hands down the best way to experience Korea. Biking lets the beauty sink in. It doesn’t disappear in a flash like it does from the window of a bus or car. It doesn’t beg you to look up from the small area around your feet like when you hike. It hugs you from all sides as you zip along in the open air. You earn the panoramic views with every push of your pedal. It’s exhilarating.
Along the way friends were made. We met a father and son duo that became our instant teammates over many kilometers and several meals. We became our own bike gang. Dad became everyone’s dad, always riding behind and looking out for us. The young son inspired my inner child to loosen the grip on my brakes and reap the reward of climbing steep hills. Our experienced leaders left me confident in our pursuit. Banded together by bikes we surpassed language barriers and age differences and simply enjoyed our ride and each others company.
They say nothing worth doing is easy and hitting the pavement on bike as a form of transportation is no exception. Mother nature isn’t always sweet and forgiving and things don’t always go as planned. We dealt with the unsurprising flat tire and getting lost a time or two sending us riding later into the night than we would have liked and sometimes the late rides turned into the most magical. We also dealt with longer lasting annoyances like weather.
What should have been a day of climbing a few hills that I had mentally prepared for turned more difficult than anticipated. Poorly placed, unclear signs sent us on a rocky, turbulent 12 km mountain bike course. My inner demons awoke. I suddenly had to face my fear of not being strong enough physically or mentally, the fear of feeling lost, the fear of giving up, the fear of snakes. Simple, basic fears that are easy to avoid in most everyday life. I yelled at myself to make it over the hills as I dodged snakes in the path. In a moment of clarity I realized there is nothing I would have rather been doing. I pushed on and embraced the challenge. I found myself exceeding my expectations and having a blast, smiling and sweating my way to the bottom. Exhausted, we made our way out and all agreed that was the most fun we’d had yet.
A day of rain started out as no big deal and gradually worked the nerves. Soaked head to toe in less than ideal biking clothes I started to wonder about my choices. My toes and thighs were numb. My hands began to feel of pins and needles. My eyes filled with water blurring my contacts leaving me to squint for hours. Knowing a delicious, hot meal, and a couple of cold beers was only a few short hours away kept me going. Some days it’s the little things that get you through.
Tired after a day of rain we were met with a day of wind. Wind strong enough to stop me dead in my tracks and push me over like a giant bully. I had been looking forward to a day of open, flat riding where I could enjoy the beautiful scenery and talk myself up to the biggest climb of the journey. The headwinds were strong, my spirits were low. I was ready to give up and found myself wondering where I could find the nearest bus station. Gusts of wind snuck up like quiet ghosts and slapped into my body. My jacket puffed up like a giant yellow blow fish in full self-defense. If you just keep pedaling you will eventually get somewhere else and I wanted to be anywhere else in that moment. With no other way to get there, I spit the dirt out of my mouth and pulled myself back on my bike. The top of the longest climb proved worth all the effort with stunning views and ice cream.
The 393 mile (633 km) journey ended after 5 1/2 days. Several challenges along the way left me feeling weak, many left me feeling stronger than I thought possible. I never imagined I would cross a country on a bicycle and now I can’t imagine not doing it again, and soon. It’s a personal experience with many variables playing a role. Your body is always stronger than you think. You ride through the pain and soon forget it. It’s a lesson in mental adaptability and persistence. You learn to live in the moment. You get through the hour. You ride to your next meal, your next stamp. While the cogs of the great big world go on around you, the cycling world becomes small and simple one chain rotation at a time. The reward and the accomplishment are worth the challenge and I can’t wait to do it again.