Rough Guide: Like Japan, South Korea is a very developed Asian country full of skyscrapers, super malls, and underground super centers. The main difference being the impending threat of destruction coming from its close neighbor in the north. Gas masks, camouflaged military outposts and armored convoys will be the norm while cycling through this small mountainous country. Prices can be rather expensive and in many places Japan seemed a lot cheaper in comparison. Hot springs are also prevalent and can make cheap lodging solutions. National parks do not let cyclists enter, and many great trails are located inside there boundaries. I thoroughly enjoyed cycling the east coast down to Gyeongju which had a great museum and many historic sights. I entered the country via the airport in Seoul then cycled south to Pusan where I took the overnight ferry to Japan. I was in Korea for about a month during the month of November. The weather was a bit rainy but enjoyable.
More from the blog below:
Jumping ship in Incheon, Korea
October 28, 2014
My connecting flight to Japan is delayed! 12 hours maybe 24 who knows! A bit restless and ready to hit the road I made the decision to ditch the flight and pedal out of the airport. I am now in the north of the country and am full of options. I really have no idea where I am, in terms of where in the country the Incheon airport is as well as how far I am from Busan. From what I remember south Korea is not that big. Well, here we go; another country, language and so many new customs. It all begins right here and now. My east Asian adventures begin in Incheon!
Korea: Wealth of East Asia
November 4, 2014
The transition from Central to East Asia was not easy. Like a plant that had grown roots from Norway across Europe and into the far east of Central Asia, I was plucked and transplanted to a completely different environment. No longer would there be a struggle to survive or a constant undertone of adrenalin as I pedaled through distant villages ravaged with wild dogs, there was suddenly so much wealth in front of me. I had only taken a few steps off the plane before a runway escalator transported me to immigration, following a quick electronic finger printing and thermal scan for Ebola symptoms, an elevator took me down to the luggage carousel, where friendly airport staff carried my boxed bicycle and panniers through customs. In the bathroom a Mozart piano concerto covered up the sound of flushing toilets and urinals. I quickly realized that the adventurous world which had been so prevalent through the last few months of my life had changed, after traveling thousands of kilometers, I was in more than just a new country.
The Incheon International Airport is located on an island off the north-western coast of the country, about 60 kilometers from the North Korean border. Directly to the west are the two islands of Baengnyeongdo and Daecheongdo, who’s ownership have been the subject of constant conflict between the two countries, not to mention the continuous shelling from both sides across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), since the end of the Korean war in the 1950’s. I would quickly observe that the wealth, future and economy of South Korea though currently so stable could quickly fall to the North’s largest standing army, creating constant fear in the government and the minds of many of its citizens.
I boarded the airport railroad and headed towards the capital city of Seoul. Each stop was called in 4 different languages, and I looked out the window and marveled at what looked (after so many months in Central Asia) like a city from the future. Bridges, tunnels and highways intertwined in the shadows of skyscrapers half lost in the clouds of the afternoon overcast sky. Everything was silent. The trail glided effortlessly across the tracks and the passengers sat still and gazed at the screens of their cellphones. A little girl sitting opposite me jumped off her distracted fathers lap and pummeled into my knee, the father taken by surprise quickly put down his cellphone and profusely apologized for his daughter’s misbehavior. No sooner did she return to the parental figures lap did he return to his cellphone.
“Last stop Seoul station” blasted over the intercom in Mandarin, I awoke to find the street car empty and I slid the 28 kilogram bicycle box and 3 over stuffed panniers off the train and into the elevator. “Main floor” the elevator called out, and without pushing a button I was shuttled up 5 stories to the ground level of the city. The doors opened to a long corridor that connected the elevator shaft to the rest of first floor of the train station, pushing and walking slowly I was passed by busy Koreans carrying shopping bags and briefcases, and I looked out the window and noticed that I was walking in a glass tunnel above a large fountain. I since arriving in Korea I had traveled so far but had yet to breathe the outside air. There was small waiting room at the end corridor, “It’s time to put Gabriella back together, and explore a new country” I thought. “Welcome to Korea”.
The first Korean word that I learned was “Chi Naga Yo” which means “Please (politely) watch out”. After close to an hour of assembling and repacking Gaby I pedaled through the busy streets trying to navigate my way to the “Old Village” district in town. Cars no longer honked as I took up the entire slow lane, and passed with caution utilizing their yielding lights, showing no sign of road rage. The sidewalks however were a spectacle, a craze of mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians dominating for space. I held my breath as “kamikaze” like Koreans pedaled head-on at full speed on flashy BMX bikes. There was so much commotion between everyone that is seemed like it was all choreographed and that if one person stopped everything would fall apart. A taxi cab pulled up beside me and offered to lead me to my destination. Pedaling on I passed store fronts selling dried fish, pharmacies advertising miracle skin creams and restaurants venting the smell of kimchi into the streets. The traffic signal turned from green to yellow and all cars seemed to stop at the same time letting the mob on the sidewalk pass. Ten minutes later I arrived in the old village district only to be shocked as I watched a large camouflaged truck unload a group of soldiers carrying automatic weapons. “What is this….Israel” I thought. An official directing traffic asked me where I was going and before I answered, I asked him what was going on with all the military troops. “North Korea” he said to me in a heavy accent, and waved me through.
I spent two days in Seoul, half the time wandering through busy streets converted into open shopping malls and the other half try to rest after the long red-eye flight. I was back to the world of Capitalism. Name brand clothing shops dominating the late night shopping scene, and McDonald’s and fast food restaurant chains served hungry customers into the early morning hours in Mypeoeng district. It seemed like every other shop was a 7-11 or CVS convenience store, selling everything from seaweed rice wraps to shampoo and skin cream. I contemplating camping in the forests outlying the city, but decided on a cheap guest house. I worked hard for what little rest I would get struggling for close to an hour at getting Gaby and all my panniers up to the third floor and into a room the size of a closet. Though small it still had all the amenities; TV, refrigerator, shower, toilet, sink and an air conditioner. I was literally in a tiny house that even had an ironing border and a clothes line. The staff was a bit confused when I asked about how much it would cost for me to do laundry, “Its free” they said, “There is also plenty of detergent for you to use as well”. Free laundry! I remembered countless occasions of bargaining with landowners over how much laundry would cost. In Bukhara and Samarkand, the owner wanted $10 for a single load, those times were over.
The next morning I asked for a late checkout and the man at the desk told me I would need to write him a “Thank You” note, and then I could do as I pleased. After writing “Thank You” on a yellow sticky note, he stuck it to his desk with the rest of the thank you notes written in Korean and smiled, I checked out 3 hours later with no hassle.
Seoul sits at the meeting point of 4 large rivers, and I followed a beautiful bike path east towards the more remote part of the country. The path was separate from the main road and traveled over streams, flooded rice patties and on wooded decks through fertile fields. My loaded bicycle drew constant attention and I was repeatedly asked to pose for photographs, eventually leading to a lunch invitation. I made friends with fellow cyclists and at a large bowl with sweet noodles and ice “King’s Noodles”. It is not uncommon for most large cities to have a Teddy Bear Museum and I contemplated visiting until I found out that the entry fee was $15 to see a bunch of Teddy Bears.
My first night of camping was a bit challenging, as after 4 hours of pedaling I still hadn’t escaped the suburbs of Seoul. After an hour of looking I give up and just put my tent somewhere. Sleeping on a dirt mound between two large tract like houses I awoke the following morning to see both house owners washing their Black Hyundai sports cars. Packing up I pedaled to the nearest 7-11 for breakfast. These stores are seriously the convenience store of the future, free boiling water, use of microwave, WIFI, toilets and tables. Instant noodles are by far the most common food consumed in country. Throughout the streets gutters are usually filled with dried vegetable and noodle remains and sinks in most public restrooms are usually clogged with noodle debris. Large grocery stores, blasting Korean Pop songs sometime on distorted speakers often dedicate a full aisle to all the different flavors of instant noodle. Individual packs are also sold at the cashier beside packs of gum, cigarettes and condoms.
By the third day, I had finally escaped the suburbs of the capital and arrived in a small village. Farmers cleaned and dried fish, hanging them on wooden racks and old women washed cabbage in large plastic buckets preparing to make kimchi. Occasionally I see remnants of older times mixed with the present like a well-used bamboo wheeled barrow with shiny new wheels, or a lien two shack street vendor selling cellphones. There is not much left to be seen of the old, the new is in full force over here, and the youth quickly adapt and forget. This is where China and eventually the rest of South East Asia will be, and it seems like all roads in Asia eventually lead to the same place; development and the adaptation of the western life style.
I am in search of the untouched and forgotten lands of South Korea, they must exist somewhere! I will pedal and search the mountainous interior for the remote. Almost as if foreshadowing my first week in the country, no one in Seoul understood the meaning of the word “countryside”. -Julian
Trick-or-Treating for Kimchi
November 11, 2014
I am now on my last leg of my travels in South Korea. Today I spent a long, hard day pedaling the mountainous coast finally ending up in the city of Pohang before evening. After a bit of asking around and wandering about I found the local Jim Jill Bang (spa house lodge). I am now eating noodles, drinking fermented rice water and lounging in the spa, preparing for a nice evening out of the tent. I am not far from Busan, where I will take the overnight ferry to Japan, but before leaving Korean I plan on visiting the tropical island of Jeju located between the two countries. Will touch base again before heading to Japan, hopefully from Jeju Island.
Overnight boat to Japan
November 16, 2014
I am 3 hours away from boarding an overnight ship headed for the Japanese harbor city of Fukuoka. I am hoping this trip goes better than my experiences traveling across the Caspian sea, however from what I am told we will arrive in Fukuoka sometime between 3-4 am.
Korea has been a great experience I really enjoyed my time here. I will post Korea in retrospect when I arrive in Japan. See you there!
Ann Yong from Korea -Julian
Korea in retrospect
November 17, 2014
I really lucked out on boat last night! Trying to find the correct terminal to check Gabriella, I ran into the owner of a limousine service who bought me dinner and upgraded my ticket to first class!! Instead of sleeping in a mixed dorm room with 12 other travelers I had a large room with a double bed, small kitchenette, T.V and bathroom all to myself. Unfortunately the journey was only a few hours, making it really difficult to leave the comfort of the suite for the cold, rainy Fukuoka morning.
My plans for visiting the beautiful Korean island of Jeju changed when I noticed that November is quickly coming to an end, leaving me with little over a month before heading back to the states for the holidays. Korea, besides being one of the most populated countries in the world, was especially bike friendly! Bike paths can literally be found everywhere and when pedaling on the highways vehicles usually pass with care. The traffic light system is also designed in a (rather annoying) overly cautious manner where 5 seconds will pass between a red light and the green! Making maters worse intersections are usually devoid of sensors, which leads to huge traffic jams during rush hour. During this time I see many vehicles do what I call a “Korean U-Turn” where drivers will often turn around near the intersection at a red light and try to drive into nearby drive way to avoid waiting at the signal.
The mix of people and openness of elders was also quite interesting, especially in the countryside where I was often lectured and sometimes even scolded by elderly women for the following:
1. Not wearing warm enough footwear/clothes. (Sandals are a definite no-no)
2. Camping in the wilderness (they said this will make my mother and father worry)
3. Not eating the correct food (“kimchi and noodles everyday will make you weak and eventually sick”)
Luckily my Korean and their English was extremely limited so the top three pretty much sum up the conversations of many encounters.
While pedaling through the more inhabited regions I would often set up office at a Starbucks or McDonald’s, which always has free internet and unlimited hot water. The Starbucks’ in Korea almost always take up two floors. The bottom floor is usually empty, and at first you think that you are the only customer. That is until you go up the stairs and see that almost every seat is filled with Koreans on their laptops or cellphones. No one speaks and it’s almost as if you are on the silent floor at the local library.
I must say though that, one could visit Korea solely on the purpose of frequenting the public bath houses (Jim Jill Bang). I stayed at a few of these during my visit, usually pedaling into the city in the late afternoon and asking a local to point me in the direction, (Jim Jill Bang Odi Soy Yo). Almost every major city will have one and on all three occasions I have never seen another foreigner inside. It usually costs less than $10 to; bath using 3 different shower set ups (standing, siting and tub), soak in 3 different pools (very hot, warm and cold), sauna, steam and sleep in a warm wooden room near a wood burning stove. Home cooked food is usually available, but sleeping can sometimes be difficult as cellphones frequently ring at odd hours during the night.
Before pedaling to Busan (where I took the ferry to Fukuoka) I spent 4 days exploring the ancient Korean capital of Gyeongju. During Korea’s dynastic period, Gyeongju was the main city in Korea, with 5 different Dynasties calling it their capital. Throughout the city there are hundreds of landmarks ranging from tombs to temples to ancient villages. There are also lots of examples of early works of Buddhist art fabricated at the time when Buddhism was spread to Korea by the Chinese Tang dynasty (early 7th century C.E). The Koreans at this time also adopted Confucianism as well as the Tang Clothing style. Many of the giant tombs in Gyeongju contain Chinese board games, pottery and jewelry.
On my last day in the ancient city, I made friends with a “Miss Kim“, a Korean lady in her 80’s who claimed the title of Kimchi master! This is a pretty bold statement in a land of cabbage but I took her word for it as she gave me a tour of the different types brewing in large plastic tubs in her yard. Like my grandparents in Los Angeles (who always adopt and use the latest piece of technology) she boasted that she gave up using the classic black ceramic kimchi pots because she wanted to introduce a new style of fast/flash fermenting, and plastic tubs warmed faster during the day. I tried all different flavors and even drank her home-brewed soy sauce and miso paste.
I got totally lost following a bike path headed for Busan and ended up in the center of one of Korea’s largest cities, Ulsan. Aimlessly, I pedaled for close to 45 minutes, taking steep walkways to underground shopping malls and pedaling roads built on bridges that seemed to lead to the heavens. As it got dark, I gave up and decided to fill up my stove and cook dinner in a park. My luck quickly changed at the gas station where I befriended an employee who gave me fruit, crackers, vitamin drinks, gloves and 20,000 won ($20).
20,000 won goes fast in a Korean grocery, store especially when you buy foreign goods! For the first time in a very long time I bought peanut butter, jelly and gummy bears! I was so excited that I woke up several times at night to eat a few bites of peanut butter, and chew on a gummy or two.
Overall I would have to say that the same mechanism that led me like Korea, has also made me dislike it. Many people seem to be stuck in social constructed norms, where situations that don’t fit in with their daily routine are often ignored. This can be said for many countries but it was very noticeable in Korea. I found that many people will ignore me when I ask for directions on the street. If I speak to them in Korean or pronounce a destination in Korean they will tell me that they don’t speak English and walk away. It seems that they would rather ignore than to confront a new situation. Being ignored is great when you are camping in the central park but when you are lost it’s frustrating.
Even with these constrictions I met many great and hospitable people, and hold a high regard for Korea. It was an interesting experience traveling there, and I am interested in how Japan will compare.
Time to find a place to set up my tent in the busy city of Fukuoka! I looked at a few hostels but they are all located up several floors in large buildings with small stair cases/elevators and it just too much work to carry Gaby all the way up to a cramped dorm room for one night. Prices are also pretty steep here so I rather save a few Yen for more peanut butter and gummies.