Exploring South Korea by bike in late winter was a different journey of sorts. Bicycle travel through a land deep in hibernation was filled with crisp foggy mornings, temperatures sucking the mercury down to well below zero Celsius that until midday, and minimal precipitation. Most days, the sun was bright, the air was cold, and there was no snow or rain to speak of — thank goodness. Being off-season, following the Four Rivers bikeways, I usually had the bike paths to myself. It was pure solitary cycling bliss.
For most cyclists, late winter isn’t the optimal time to ride in Korea, like the spring or fall; but as most travelers know, it was an interesting time to go nonetheless. Regardless of the cold and the possibility of rainy weather, I wanted to ride, to explore the country, meet the people, immerse myself in their culture, and savor the culinary delights South Korea had to offer. With tickets purchased, the panniers packed, and the Divide in a box, I made my way to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport and hopped a short two-hour flight Incheon to begin my winter journey across the Korean peninsula.
Once out in the country and rolling through the valleys, mountain silhouettes hung in the distance like pale specters in the morning fog. Stark, leafless trees covered carpeted the rusty brown countryside. The Korean landscape lay dormant, waning away the last days of winter. In weeks, the trees would be budding and the cherry blossoms in bloom. But a land of muted earthy tones and charcoal shadows that formed ethereal shapes on distant horizons was my world now. Solitary days cycling across Korea in winter provided me with hours peace and seclusion.
Away from the cities and along the bike paths, the South Korean countryside was surprisingly quiet and devoid of people. Most of my days on the bikeways were spent in the company of myself, save for stops at local coffee shops to chat with locals or at certification points where I might run into another solitary rider or two. It was a great time to take in the surroundings and just ride. On the silky smooth rolling bike paths ranging 80-120 km was pretty easy to do.
South Korea in late winter, nearing the cusp of spring, held a beauty and sensorial experience all its own. Absent were the lush green landscapes of spring or the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. Only a palette of subdued stark brown leafless trees and pale yellow composting leaves on the hillsides remained. Many of the farmers’ fields still lay fallow, yet to be sown though some farmers were getting an early start and tilling the land or planting the rice paddies as I made my way farther south towards the southern tip of the peninsula and Busan.
Solitary hours in the Korean countryside provided plenty of time to feel alive and take in the winter beauty. It was the perfect opportunity to reflect and appreciate the wonderful scenery I was fortunate enough to travel through. Pedaling along near-deserted bikeways that snaked along the serene banks of the stately Hangang and Nakdonggang rivers is a great way to get lost not only in the countryside but in the landscape of one’s own mind. There were no cars or trucks to dodge, only to keep rolling forward and soak in the airy landscape.
Numerous herons and cranes plied the shallow waters for fish and frogs. Making passage from Seoul to Busan made for leisurely travel. I felt pampered riding on the well-maintained protected bike paths well away from cars and roads. At times, the riding seemed almost too easy, and more like being on tour versus adventure cycling.
Occasionally, the bike path would drift away from the river and into tranquil evergreen forests. Short, steep climbs replaced the gradual grades along the river banks. The mountains in Korea aren’t high like those of the eastern Himalaya but are much steeper. Several times, I found myself in first gear and standing on the pedals to keep ascending.
Low season meant solitude and having the bike paths mostly to myself, save for stretches near any of the major cities where bike and pedestrian traffic picked up and I encountered hundreds of day-trippers out for a leisurely walk or ride. South Korea has a pretty strong bike culture with many Koreans sporting quality road or mountain bikes.
The Four Rivers Bikeways
The Four Rivers Bikeways form the heart of South Korea’s bicycle touring network that consists of highly maintained state-of-the-art bike paths that meander along the banks of the Hangang, Nakdonggang, Geumgang, and Yeongsangang Rivers — over 1,700 kilometers of riding potential. Along each of the routes are red booths containing ink stamps that you can use to stamp pages in a Four Rivers Passport Book to track your cycling journeys. The books and maps of the routes are available at selected stops on all the major rivers. After completing a route (getting a stamp from each certification station), you are eligible certificate commemorating your journey. Due to time constraints, I rode only the Hangang and Nakdonggang Rivers.
South Korea is very bike friendly. Dedicated bike lanes were virtually everywhere I rode. State of the art bikeways can be found on most of the major rivers. High-end bike shops abound. It seemed every major city I passed through had a nicely outfitted bike shop or two, with many of them being located right along the bikeways.
Mini 7-Eleven’s and other convenience stores can be found along all the bikeways, even a small restaurant or two, which serve as congregation points for cyclists to chat, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. Cycling clubs set up coffee stops and even little cycling shops in tents and utility vans with plenty of bike parts, clothing, and tools that cyclists can use along the routes. A few campgrounds are located along some of the routes, along with clean restrooms spaced out along the paths, especially near the cities. Unfortunately, the ones I passed along the Nakdonggang were all closed for the season.
If you are into quiet bicycle touring that is mostly away from traffic, South Korea is the place to go. It’s a great place to get into cycle touring while riding through along stately rivers and tranquil countrysides. Clean cycle-friendly accommodations and tasty eateries are available in the villages and towns along the bikeways. And in my humble opinion, the Koreans have the best fried chicken and beer on the planet.
Solitary bike paths roll through numerous riverside parks. A few locals are usually out for a late afternoon walk or maybe a casual ride. It seems a lot of Koreans place a high priority on recreation and getting outdoors. On weekends, the bike paths were filled with steady streams of cyclists (mountain bikers and roadies) and walkers. There were scads of hikers sporting day packs and trekking poles heading for the forest trails leading to the mountain tops.
Meeting other cyclists on the road is always a special pleasure. It’s a rewarding experience connecting with other riders, both local and long distance travelers, to listen to their experiences from the road.
“My name is Hwang. It means ‘yellow’ in Chinese.” Hwang is a local cyclist out of Changju, located in central South Korea, and like many Koreans, he was sporting a sweet high-end carbon bike. Hwang used to live in Seoul and work at a Hyundai factory. Now he and his family live in Changju where he operates a construction equipment rental business and bikes every chance he gets.
Lighter and faster, Hwang gradually disappeared from sight as we made the five-kilometer climb to the summit of the Ishwaryeong Pass, an approximate 500-meter elevation gain on a steady 10 percent grade on the Saejae Bicycle Route through the Baekdudaegan Mountains. Ascending into the clouds, tiny snowflakes began to fall as I chugged and zigzagged up the mountainside. Cresting the summit, I spotted Hwang waiting patiently at the top alongside his florescent S-Works carbon road bike for me to appear.
Cheering me on to the top, Hwang then insisted on buying me lunch so that we could continue the conversation we’d started at the bottom under the freeway underpass. Hwang really enjoys riding in the hills around Changju and the challenges the climbing has to offer. Some day when his kids are raised, Hwang wants to get a touring bike and travel the world too.
South Korean Bikepacking
Franco and his two compadres had just finished a two-week bikepacking trip through the mountains north of Busan when they sat down next to me on the train to Seoul. Outfitted in U.S. Army ACU (Army Combat Uniform) jackets, they picked up from a local surplus store along with straps and camouflaged bags, the trio were rolling low-tech and making their dreams happen. With the journey complete, the three intrepid bikepackers were taking the night train back to their homes in Seoul. It had been a demanding journey through the mountains, so Franco’s buddies grabbed a few zees while Franco and I chatted the night away.
A Change of Pace
A few days on the bike paths had me yearning for the adventure of the open road. Don’t get me wrong. The bike paths in South Korea are wonderful and great for cycling — probably the best in the world — but to tell you the truth, I enjoy the freedom and adventure that comes from riding the regular roads and exploring where the local people are, not just other cyclists.
At Daegu, I jumped off the bikeway along the river and cut out for the foggy mountains and valleys still between me and Busan. I spent the rest of my time on the surface roads riding from village to village with occasional forays along streams and other little trails I happened upon.
The Demilitarized Zone
After taking a train from Busan back to Seoul, I rode north to the DMZ, and soon found myself in the midst of many sharp looking South Korean soldiers all decked out in berets and digital camouflage and hanging out in coffee shops and fast food joints in most of the villages I passed through.
Upon on the border at the Odusan Observatory, I had a chance to peer across the Imjin River into the Hermit Kingdom and capture my first ever glimpse of North Korea. Not too much to see, just farmland, a couple of small towns, and lots of guard towers strung out along the miles of double-walled concertina fence located on either side of the Imjin River. As I peered through the binoculars, I wondered if they were looking back at us.
Wandering through the fields and along the thicket-like double row of fencing and concertina that forms the DMZ, a four-kilometer wide boundary that divides the two Koreas, I ran into a couple of platoons of South Korean soldiers on patrol and probably out training for the day. Other than a couple of furtive glances, they paid me no mind. Farmers were beginning to work their fields with hoes and small tractors getting the soil ready for spring.
Though most South Koreans go about their daily lives, potential trouble from North Korea is never far away, and the South Koreans have taken many precautions for that possibility. Cargo trucks carrying platoons of strack-looking South Korean soldiers toting rifles and donned in combat gear passed me numerous times as I wandered the backroads near the DMZ. Occasional Blackhawk helicopters flying nap of the earth along valley floors and popping over ridgelines served as constant reminders of the tension that exists between North and South Korea.
Coffee Lovers Rejoice
South Korea is replete with coffee shops of all sorts. Even the smallest bergs offer coffee of one type or another. I had no issues getting numerous cuppas along the way. Most shops opened about 9:00 am, so if I was hitting the road early, I just brewed myself a cup of Turkish coffee with my trusty little coffee kit before starting out.
South Korea is a great place to ride. The bikeways and cycling infrastructure are state-of-the-art. Because there are no cars on the bike paths, it’s a great place to get into cycle touring. If you’re looking for a little more adventure, you can jump off of the bike paths and explore the countryside or big cities. Most Koreans are pretty polite drivers and give cyclists room on the road. If they do honk their horns, it’s usually just a light tap to let you know they’re behind you.
There is many beautiful rivers to ride. Most of the terrain is flat to slightly rolling hills. Heading northeast of Seoul will get you off the beaten path and into rugged mountain country. Riding north to the Demilitarized Zone offers some interesting exploring as well with a mixture of valleys and rolling hills. Most Koreans are quite friendly, polite, and willing to help you along your way. Spicy Korean dishes are tasty and will keep you fueled for miles.
If you’re looking for the “red carpet” of bikeways or some interesting countryside to explore, South Korea may be the next adventure for you.
Please leave your comments below. Let me know what you think. If you like what you see, follow me on Facebook. Cheers, Johnny
Getting in and out of South Korea was pretty straight forward. Bike boxes fly as one piece of checked luggage on China Southern Airlines as long as they aren’t over 22 kg. A taxi got me, my bike, and bags to a hotel in Incheon, which was about 33 km away and cost 50,000 won.
The hotel I stayed at in downtown Incheon at gladly stored my bike box until I returned to fly out about two and a half weeks later. All of the hotels I stayed were quite accommodating and had no issues with allowing my bike in the rooms. No one asked me for my passport, not one time, when I was getting a hotel room. I handed over the cash and they gave me the key.
SIM cards can be rented at the airport for reasonable rates. VPN is not allowed in South Korea. I had no issues with connectivity while I was on the road.
Certain trains have rail cars designated for bikes. Check with the station ticketing agent to find out which ones do.
For more information about cycling in South Korea click these links: