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South Korea

 

628km - 13days

 

5 May Ė 21 May 2014

 

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5 May - Hong Kong Ė Seoul, South Korea - By plane

After packing my meagre belongings, a short taxi ride took me to the airport. Once again, the overweight baggage fee was shocking, but nothing one could do but pay and get it over and done with. The flight from Hong Kong arrived in Seoul three hours later (the time difference made it four hours) and found I couldnít draw money but could at least pay with a cardówhat a pain. Priority was, therefore, to contact my bank and one could only hope all would be sorted out by morning.

 

6 May - Seoul

What a fascinating city Seoul was; as to me, it was only a dot on the map very, very far away. The first thing one noticed was how very modern it was. It must have been the most technologically advanced city Iíve ever visited. Even at touristy places, there were no more brochures, only barcode scanners. Even though scanners were starting to take off in other countries, nowhere was it as prevalent as in Seoul. That said, the old and ancient werenít forgotten, old traditions were alive (albeit with a fake beard and moustache), and one didnít have to go far to stumble upon an ancient temple or palace, sometimes right amongst the new ones.

 

7 May - Seoul

 

After taking the bike to the bike shop to be reassembled, the Bukchon Traditional Cultural Centre was my next stop, and then it was on to Deoksugung, an old palace site where stunning old buildings remained.

 

On the way back, the path led through the Namdaemun Market (famous for its street food) to pick up my daily portion of kimchi. It seemed kimchi appeared at every meal and often as the main dish. It looked like fermented vegetables eaten on its own or fried in a pancake. Whichever way it was prepared, it was delicious and I needed my daily dose. It all made sense as the key to traditional Korean food was fermentation.

 

8 May - Seoul

I had all intentions of leaving in the morning but changed my mind as there were loads more to see. Good thing as well, as in the process of picking up gas for my stove, I discovered a cycle path along the river to Busan. Although sceptical, whether the path led all the way to Busan here was no harm in trying it out.

 

Iím not sure what Iíd expected, but Seoul was completely different from my expectations. Not only was it super modern with interestingly designed high-rise buildings, but the city was also modern in a funky way, with many cool and cosy-looking coffee shops and restaurants. Old buildings sat comfortably amongst new ones, and narrow pedestrian lanes and malls were buzzing with all kinds of local goods and food.

 

Once again, it must be mentioned just how technologically advanced this city is, as it was enough to make about anyone feel like Rip Van Winkel. I was quite convinced no one ever paid in cash; swipe-and-go or scan-and-go was the preferred method of paying. I thought both paper and money soon would be obsolete and it was no surprise to find Seoul, very fittingly, had a money museum.

 

I strolled the Cheonggyecheon, an 11-kilometre stream, right in the middle of the city. Itís believed the river was rediscovered after the demolition of a raised highway and the area was, by then, peaceful and relaxing with loads of greenery, public artworks, wooden bridges and small waterfalls.

 

9 May - Seoul Ė Yange Pyeong (Yangpyeong) - 91km

More than happy to get back on the bike, I headed out of town with a big smile on my face. It is such an amazing sense of freedom cycling in a direction, not quite knowing where youíre heading. Although there were much more to explore in Seoul, I was eager to hit the road and turned the bike in the direction of the river and soon found myself on the famed bike path along the mighty Han River. At the time it was understood it was the longest bicycle path in the world and that it led all the way to Busan. The day was a public holiday, and the route filled with cyclists dressed to the nines.

 

Twice I met up with other cyclists, and the spacious path made easy chatting while cycling. In the process, I received a whole stack of information, all which came in handy along the way.

 

A wave of joy washed over me and I, once again, realised I didnít want to do anything else. The best part was the route ran along the old rail line, resulting in it being flat and all hills were avoided by cycling through old rail tunnels.

 

10 May - Yangpyeong Ė Chungju - 100 km

It took me the entire day to cycle the 100 kilometres to Chungju. The path made it another stunning day of cycling with hundreds of reasons to stop and, in the process, I met another cyclist on his way to Busan. He was the sweetest boy, cycling on his road bike with only a wee backpack. He waited for me while I slowly slogged up the hills and translated the information boards encountered. Most of the signs were in Korean and of not much use to me and I was happy for the explanations. At one of these stops, I tried beondegia, a popular snack food in Korea. Beondegi was steamed or boiled silkworm pupae, which were seasoned and eaten as a snack. I only ate one as it was too weird and had an unpleasant taste.

 

In the town of Chungju, I said good-bye to Ben (his English name) and found myself a room while he carried on along the path.

 

11 May Ė Chungju Ė Suanbo Hot Springs - 25km

Once again, I met another cyclist, this time with a loaded bike. The Koreans were extremely generous and it appeared they couldnít let you go without giving you something. With two energy bars in my pocket, I waved him good-bye and soon reached the small mountain town of Suanbo, famous for its hot spring.

 

On cycling into town, looking for a place to have a dip, I heard someone call my name. It was Ben, we had breakfast together, which turned out quite interesting. Koreans sit on cushions on the floor and eat from low tables. The dining area was a raised platform and one had to remove oneís shoes before stepping onto it. Ben didnít only pay for the food but also escorted me to a spa where he stayed the previous night.

 

The spa was my first jjimjilbang (Korean sauna) experience and resembled a public bathhouse. This interesting set-up came with separate mensí and ladiesí facilities. Inside were a variety of hot and cold pools. Firstly, you stripped down, then had a shower, then a total scrub down and only then could you enter the pools. No bathing suits required. Public nudity wasnít something I was used to and found it all bit unnerving. It appeared most of the ladies had never seen a foreign woman naked as there was blatant staring. I couldnít wait to submerge myself and stayed there until I dared to dash where I left my clothes.

 

The coolest thing was most of these facilities came with napping rooms. They werenít meant for overnight sleepovers, but most cycle tourers used it for such a purpose. The room only had a mat on the floor, but a free place was a free place, although I didnít think I could ever get used to a wooden pillow.

 

12 May - Suanbo Hot Springs Ė Gumio Weir - 103km

It rained all night, but by the time I woke, the weather had cleared and it turned into another lovely day. The bike route ran through small mountain villages where locals sat winnowing outside their homes.

 

I usually prefer the most inexpensive accommodation and, therefore, often spend the night in establishments where rooms are let by the hour, for purposes other than sleeping. I have, therefore, had my fair share of oddly shaped beds. This time the bed was a round one and came with all the necessary personal care items.

 

13 May - Gumibo Weir - Dalseongo Bridge - 108km

Iím sure freedom means something different to everyone. I look at freedom as being able to live the life I want to live. As I left, I knew this was my freedom, at least for the time being. The ride came with incredible views as the route stuck close to the river, past small villages, old temples, and lush and green farmlands.

 

On spotting a nice grassy patch, I thought it a perfect spot to pitch the tent. It not only turned out to be the Millennium Plaza but the entire place lit up at night, making one feel a bit like a goldfish in a bowl.

 

14 May - Dalseongbo Bridge Ė Namji - 90 km

When camping at a public square, there is no sleeping in. After boiling water for coffee and packing up, I tried an alternative route. Miss Smarty Pantsí way didnít pan out, and she had to backtrack to the morningís starting point. The day turned out a hilly one; sometimes, with the gradient so steep, it required pushing the bike. The lack of breakfast soon made for dwindling energy and a lunch stop at a trusty 7-eleven came at the right time. With renewed energy, I tackled the remaining hills and digs in Namji was perfect for charging my growing number of gadgets.

 

15 May - Namji Ė Busan - 111 km

The stretch from Namji to Busan marked my last day on the road to Busan, and although stunning, it wasnít without its hills. My route followed the way over the mountains, past small villages and wonderful scenery. It was spring and the flowers were blooming, making it a pleasure to be out.

 

In the dying moments of the day, I arrived in Busan and was in no mood for the evening traffic after being on the cycle path for the past few days. There was, however, no choice but to brave the traffic in search of budget accommodation.

 

I always feel half sad and half happy on reaching my destination. I thought I cycled through the entire city to reach the centre. Luckily, a tourist information came into view where one could find all the necessary information, as well as the location of a budget motel down one of the narrow lanes. A lane which transformed itself at night into a food market and which became a hive of activity.

 

16 May - Busan

As a ferry sailed from Busan to Japan, I set off in search of the Japanese Consulate, only to find this particular consulate didnít issue visas to foreigners. One had to apply in oneís home country or have a permanent residence card.

 

Changing course, especially due to circumstances beyond my control, wasnít one of my favourite situations. It was a hassle packing the bike and flying elsewhere, as flying was costly, and it took a good few days before getting back on the road. The whole fiasco was, however, my fault as I didnít like planning or reading up about countries as it kind of took the surprise out of travelling.

 

The main reason for disliking the whole affair was because I could um and ah for days about where to go. There were so many options and so many interesting and exciting destinations in the world. Right then, it was slightly easier as my options were limited to places where visas werenít required and where one could cycle a few months without having to change direction or applying for another visa.

 

My best destination was, therefore, the Americas, as I already had an American visa and had unfinished business there. Just because it was the most obvious didnít necessarily mean I would go there. The best wouldíve been to return to San Francisco (where I left off last time) and cycle north. It wouldíve been the best, weather-wise as well but, as I said, just because it made the most sense didnít mean I would do it.

 

17-21 May - Busan

I packed up and cycled to Blue Backpackers as there were more people to talk to and more facilities. In the process, a bike shop was located, and the plan was to cycle there the following day to acquire a box or bag to pack the bike. Still unsure which direction to go, the decision was best left until the very last minute.

 

The next day, the bike was handed in to be boxed, and although many things needed repairing, I didnít fix it, as it was better to do so on the other side (wherever it may be).

 

Busan was the second largest city in South Korea, and the metro system quite extensive. I ventured into the belly of the earth to visit the famous Buddhist temples, situated on the outskirts of the city. These temples were always a pleasure to visit, as they were tranquil and peaceful. Interestingly enough, the temples in South Korea seemed to have a green tone to them instead of the red hue in China.

 

As always, there were the four Heavenly Kings, or gods, each watching over a different direction of the world. They were the protectors of the world and fighters of evil. Wondering around I met a small tour group and started chatting to them; afterwards, they offered me a lift back to the metro, which was very kind of them.

 

Back in the city, it was the time of day when rows and rows of food stalls sprang up, and one could pick and choose from the large variety of dishes. I had my fill and then headed back to the hostel to pack my last few belongings for my very long flight to Seattle, USA via Beijing from where the plan was on cycling south to San Francisco. The reason for this decision was the direction of the prevailing wind and, therefore, a no-brainer.

 

22 May - Seattle

We flew into Seattle in the early hours of the morning, and what a beautiful sight it was. The interesting thing was that we arrived in Seattle before leaving Beijing. I was, as usual, dead tired, collected my luggage, hailed a taxi and headed for downtown Seattle. First stop was at a bike shop to drop the bicycle and then I went in search of the local hostel.

 

Once booked in, I discovered, with a shock, that I left my backpack with all my valuables in the taxi. In a flat spin, I contacted Yellow Taxi Cabs. I had no number or name to give them, but they had a lost-and-found section, where I could leave my details.

 

I was rather sleepy and went for a bit of a snooze. Upon waking up, I found my bag neatly placed on the table next to my bed. I was thrilled about getting the bag back, to put it mildly, and did a little happy dance. But then, the taxi driver was the sweetest Somali guy, to whom I chatted non-stop from the airport. I knew that if someone were to return the bag, it would be him. A big thank you to this unknown Somalian taxi driver.  

 

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