We were moving again, eating up the distance at a record pace. South Korea is a cycling nation. This means a lot of cyclists and a lot of cycle paths, that criss-cross the country and link up the different regions1. One of the most famous and popular is the so-called four rivers path that connects Seoul to Busan. We considered taking it to head north but were concerned we would not see much of the land by taking this direct route. The next few weeks confirmed that bike paths are great for getting places, but less interesting for actually see sights and people. So before pointing our handlebars towards Seoul we decided to head south and explore the coast. These are the tales of down south.
The path stretched along the huge Nakdong river, the fourth longest of the peninsula. We followed the east bank, the red tarmac of the bike path making for easy pedalling. The city soon dropped away and we were surrounded by green hills. This would be the scenery that would accompany us for most of our trip, a combination of small, steep mountains and large wide rivers. We passed many other cyclists, most of them out for a day ride, their small radios blaring music as they rode. We would hear them coming a mile away. Sometimes we would see a group with heavier gear who were clearly going for a longer ride, but they were few and far between. Camping was not a problem, the wide parks next to the river gave us ample space to set up our tent and enjoy the warm September weather. The summer’s humidity had already started to drop and the cold winter was still some time away. We had blue skies and made the most of the being outdoors.
The Korean peninsula has had an eventful history, always pushed and pulled between its powerful neighbours in Japan and China. Later, this became a tug of war perpetuated between the Soviet Union and the Western world which ripped the country in two and created the modern, divided states. The outside cultural influence is undeniable, but it has maintained its own unique flavour through cuisine, language and traditions. Many of them have been exported worldwide. It is in the south where invasion from Japan was a very real concern for hundreds of years. The Nippon armies attacked and invaded much of the country in the 1500s under Hideyoshi before being pushed back. This explains the large fortifications built in Jinju, which was to be our first stop of our southern tour before actually reaching the coast. It is a small city, but one of our favourites, with many bike paths above the river and the beautiful castle and temple on the hill. It is of course surrounded by the walls built to keep the Japanese out, but we could enter at nightfall after stowing our gear.
Nongae was a Korean female courtesan, or kisaeng. Legend has it that when the Japanese had overcome the defences in Jinju they had all the entertainers come and serve them. Nongae, bereft of her husband led one of the generals to the cliffs edge. There she embraced him and jumped off the edge, taking him with her. This patriotic act is now honoured through a festival held in Jinju each May.
After our short stop we set our sights on the small islands that make up the jagged coast. Some are accessible by road bridges and we planned to ride across and explore the beaches. It was still hot and we approached the sea under a blazing sun. This is one of the most rural areas of the country, where traditional agriculture is the backdrop for the white sandy beaches. During the first afternoon we advanced along a small road, surrounded by multiple crops. The aged labourers were attending a multitude of tasks. The red hot spicy chillies being collected and set out to dry, and we would keep seeing them by the road for the following months, throughout east Asia. On the other side of the road a farmer was using a small tractor to plough the earth for the next crop. A group of elderly women were already at work in the next field, their backs doubled down as they concentrated on the task of planting the seeds. They used tiny stools that dragged behind them as they crawled forward, crab-like along the straight lines. We had travelled through time once again, and the scene, apart from the tractor, would not have looked much different hundreds of years ago. Sometimes, a car with tourists coming from one of the modern cities would come past, a reminder that we were still close to a changed world.
As the day came to an end the heat started to fade, and the evening colours crept into the sky. We crossed a bridge from which we could see the traditional fish traps, the currents flowing around them. We slowly ran out of time as we stopped at the end of the island, watching the fishing boats making their way back to port. That night we set up our tent by the side of the road, the cliffs falling away from our look out point into the pines and then the sea.
Next morning we visited one of the famous beaches that are the main attraction on the islands. As the season was officially over we had the place almost to ourselves. We spent the morning under the stunted pine trees. A couple of elderly inhabitants were out to enjoy the breeze and keep fit on the ever present exercise machines. They smiled at us and gave us some ginseng tasting sweets.
We continued touring the coastal roads, jumping from one isle to another. It was calm and like the previous day the evening gave way to an explosion of colour. We were once again running out of time to find somewhere to camp but couldn’t rush the view, which had lit up in fiery orange and yellows. The scene was made slightly surreal by the huge tankers that had no place in the calm bays west of Namhae. They slowly driften past as the sun dipped lower. We finally found a small beach where to stop and cook supper but an elderly grandmother made it clear by walking past every five minutes we were not very welcome. We crawled through the undergrowth to the edge of the village and set up our camp in the dark.
Next morning we left the islands behind as set off inland, following the Seomjingang river path inland. Once again the scenery was green and quite tame. It was Mike from Busan who had recommended it, and it was our favourite bike path in the country, much quieter that the rest and more scenic. It took us to past Gurye where Joe, welcomed us and shared his home and knowledge of the region with us. From there we continued through lovely forests, aiming for the city of Jeonju. It was one of the best places for pure cycling, relatively flat with no worries about traffic. It was a route to enjoy the act of pedalling and feel the bike fly forward in all its mechanical majesty.
Arriving in Jeonju we were visited by our third typhoon. We had weathered a small one in Busan, but this time the rain was torrential. Luckily the wind was not too strong and we were able to go out to visit the traditional houses or hanok. As we stepped into the downpour we were greeted by a humid smell and the sickly odour of the ginko berries, crushed into a yellow mass on the pavement. They were everywhere and the flooding water was starting to push the saturated mass into piles that blocked the sewer entrances. The streets had started to fill with water and we squelched through the puddles on our way to see the cities highlights. These are found in the small, traditional district, that still conserves over 800 hanok houses. Like similar venues around the world, many of the older businesses have been taken over by restaurants or gift shops to cater to visitors. Unfortunately this decreases the charm but there is little to be done. Because it was raining, the streets were emptier than usual and as we climbed the small steps up the park above and we had the place to ourselves. After, descending back into the small streets we came across the fan museum. We were blown away by the intricate designs and learnt how the different models were made from split bamboo before the paper and finally hand painted motifs were applied.
Most of the time we cooked rice and noodles in our tent, but when we ate out the table would be covered in small bowls. Compared to our one plate camping set-up this was quite a luxury! Banchan are the multitude of different side dishes immediately laid out around the main course. Many of the ingredients are often spiced, fermented or pickled, giving a combination of crunchy and soft textures. Kimchi is made from fermented, spicy cabbage. Being one of the basic parts of Korean cuisine it is found in almost all meals. Its special flavour is very characteristic, and even though it takes time to get used to, can be very good. Young-Joo, an old friend who welcomed us, confided seriously she would be hard pressed to live without it. Other Koreans concurred with this opinion, and is their main reason to return home.
We also discovered other recipes, such as bibimbap made from rice, vegetables and egg or Korean barbecue, where small chunks of meat are grilled by the dinners at the table before being dipped in garlic or soy sauces. Thankfully on that occasion our new friend Jaehwan showed us the ropes and helped us cook. If you like spicy food, then chicken feet in chilli sauce can be very strong! A staple food is of course, fried chicken. These restaurants are everywhere and serve huge delicious portions of an American staple with a new twist. In many places you will need to bring a friend, as often in Korean restaurants the menu is set for at least two people. Eating out on your own is inconceivable. One way around this is by buying in a convenience store. You can find one of my favourite foods for a quick snack: gimbap, made from multiple ingredients and rolled in rice and seaweed. They are a tasty bite before some more pedalling.
After Jeonju we left the city and set off back into the country. We were quickly swallowed up by the mountains again and got into our pedalling rhythm. The ever present gazebos would give us a place to sit during our lunch stops and shelter if it rained. We headed north.
1 For more information on the 4 rivers path you can click here or check this post, and for Korean cycle paths in general here. For google maps doesn’t work so try kakaomaps or other offline services explained here , under navigation.