A couple of months ago, my friend Jin told me that she wanted to ride her bicycle around Korea. Despite stormy forecasts and not much of an itinerary, she took off on a several week journey that will take her on an unusual tour of the country.
Thankfully, she invited Discovering Korea to come along for the ride (that’s just a turn of phrase. I’ll be watching from my desk chair).
Jin’s Cycling Tour
I have been planning/thinking of taking a bicycle trip around Korea for the past 2.5 years. Although I’m Korean, my father worked for the Korean Trade Agency and hence we moved every two to three years to places like Argentina, Egypt and Ecuador.
As a result I have lived most of my life abroad. When I thought about coming back to Korea a couple of years ago, I realized that I didn’t know much about my country and a quarter life crisis started taking hold of me.
After quitting my job as a radio producer and traveling for about one month, I pondered what I would do with the rest of my life. I came up with a blank slate.
In lieu of actual plans, I decided to take this trip around Korea to remove some of the many distractions of my daily life, to put an end to this “quarter life crisis” and to finally see and enjoy the beautiful country side/ people of my own country.
Day 1: Seoul to Suwon
After some (but not a lot of trip planning), on Day 1, I woke up at 7:00 am to pack the following:
- 1 fleece
- 1 hoodie
- 3 Pairs of socks
- 3 pairs of underwear
- 2 t-shirts
- 1 large notebook
- 1 Korean map (book)
- 1 large Korean map (folding map)
- various toiletries
- digital camera
- 9 GBs of memory cards
- extra camera battery
- phone charger
- bike lock
- 2 bike tires, bike flat repair kit, bike tools, speedometer, light
- tripod (helmet gorilla grip)
- reflector vest
- stickers made for the trip
- tour information book
My friend Phoebe flew in from San Francisco to join me on the first leg. At 9:00 am she arrived at my family’s apartment and began assembling her bicycle.
Matt showed up around 10:00 am and after he and Phoebe convinced me to repack my gear into a lighter bag, we were ready to leave at around 11:00.
Our first test ride took about 90 seconds. We rode to the Paris Baguette across the street to grab some brunch with my friend Christina.
There, realizing my bag was still too heavy, I unloaded more stickers and shampoo. After a quick pre-journey photo shoot, we were off.
Unfortunately, there were too many kids popping out from every direction, too many tandem bikes with only the boyfriend pedaling and too many elderly people wandering into the bike path.
We decided to stick one of our trip stickers on the exit 9 sign of Yeouido Park and continued eastward. We made a quick stop at Tokkeegul (토끼굴) near the Apgujeong-dong neighborhood and headed towards Tancheon stream (탄천).
Although biking along the Tancheon to the Seoul suburb of Bundang (분당) was supposed to be a nice break from the busy streets, the wind was blowing hard and it felt horrible. It if wasn’t for Phoebe, I would either:
a. Still be in Bundang
b. Called a friend and asked them to pick me up.
c. Cried like a little baby
Nevertheless we made it although the wind was always against us and I never realized that Bundang was so large- it seemed like we would never get out of there.
As we went more South the bike lanes got wider and the smell of nature grew stronger.
After getting off Tancheon we headed towards Suwon (수원) on Highway 1. We were intimidated by the 18-wheeler trucks that zoomed by us, so we opted for a local road that was a bit farther, but safer.
We somehow managed to get to Suwon by 7:00 P.M. I couldn’t stop yelling with joy!!!! 아싸!! We celebrated our amazing first day by eating hwarogwi (화로구이).
After a very filling dinner we went off to find our overnight accommodations – a typical Korean jjimjilbang, or public bath house.
Neither Phoebe or I had ever been to one and I was not very excited at the thought of being naked in front of a mass of people.
We found a placed called Seongsan 24-hour Sauna and tried to lock our bikes next to some stairs, but an angry parking lot attendant came out and told us that we were killing the flowers he planted under our feet.
Once inside I was questioned about my gender (I’m going to count the times I’m asked about my gender. Gender Count: 1). We walked into the female section and I was asked again (GC2).
We looked around and after resolving my nervousness I pulled the clothes off. After the initial embarrassment I was kind of okay with the idea of being naked, took a shower and jumped into the hot water.
It was AMAZING!!
After a long day of biking and with so many muscles aching there couldn’t have been anything better than a hot bath. Phoebe and I tried the different hot and cold water tubs as well as the saunas.
Despite brushing our teeth in the changing room, the people at the jjimjilbang were very nice and friendly. Finally we found a nice (though super hot) private room to sleep.
I had to run out of the room near morning due to all the sweating, but we both slept decently well.
Although it was a very hard day, Phoebe and I successfully concluded day one of this bike trip that I’m calling “Around the Block” (동내 한 바뀌).
So what have I learned so far?
I’ve learned that I need to be persistent and not so fearful. I am easily discouraged and very easily side-tracked. I need to think through things more and be more realistic regarding my ability and what lies ahead of me.
I complain a bit too much. I need to try new things more often. I need to be be more open to people and don’t always react so aggressively.
It’s hard to emphasize how important Phoebe, Matt, Christina and my family were in encouraging me to actually set out on this bike trip and for me to actually complete the first day.
Ultimately, I think this trip will do a great job in getting me out of my comfort zone.
Day 2: Suwon to Onyang Hot Springs
Rain showers were expected across Korea during the day, so Phoebe and I prepared for some rain during our sight seeing foray in Suwon.
We set off for the dominant structure in the city, the Hwaseong Fortress (화성수원). The Fortress is an impressive and massive structure built by King Jeongjo, the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty.
Walking along the Fortress wall offers a very scenic and quiet path in some areas and a grand view of the city from others.
There was a trolley that drove around the Fortress and we jumped on it with out any hesitation, as our legs need as much rest as they can get. The trolley was a quick and effortless way to see many parts of the Fortress, including an archery area that we had to try.
Watching the Korean National Archery Team sweep the medals in multiple Olympic Games had me thinking shooting an arrow would be a piece of cake. However, just pulling the string back was hard.
Phoebe hit the board at least three times, but I only hit it once. After these somewhat disappointing results we risked running into rain and jumped on our bikes and continued south.
We picked up our bikes at the jjimjilbang and suddenly the angry/hostile parking lot man was very nice. He showed us the way out of Suwon and onto Interstate 1.
So far it seems like the second encounter always brings the friendlier side out of people.
We headed south on Interstate 1. In Osan we were told by a police car to get on the bike lane, but once we stopped and looked for the lane there was none to be found.
Our weather luck was good as we encountered only a slight drizzle, a big improvement from the crazy wind we had yesterday. In Pyeongtaek we took a nice long break at a McDonald’s/Newcore for water and to make sure we were going in the right direction!
We arrived in Cheonan around 5:00 pm and went to our first “PC Bang”, the Korean name for Internet café. There we found out that the nearby Onyang Hot Springs (온양온천) had some amazing water.
We were too tired, which is probably why we decided it wasn’t cheating to jump on the subway from Cheonan to Onyang.
Our logic was that our final destination for the day was Cheonan and we reached it via bicycle, and since Onyang was an addition to the route it was okay to use other means of transportation.
We boarded subway line 1 at Bongmyeong Station (봉명역) and got off at Onyang Hot Springs (온양온천). It was a humbling experience to realize that after two days of hard biking we were still within the reach of Seoul’s subway system.
Like last night, we searched for another jjimjilbang to spend our second night. I was asked about my gender three times (reception, entrance of the female locker room, next to the lockers).
After safe passage through the questions we were pleasantly surprised to find a three stream water pressure massage inside. We both took turns under the water massage trying to ease the muscle pain.
We also tried rubbing salt on our skin in the hot sauna to exfoliate. We also enjoyed some very unhealthy tonkatsu chicken cutlet at the bathhouse restaurant.
Despite a talkative couple who stayed up all night chatting, I fell asleep after only a few minutes. Sleeping and staying at a jjimjilbang is becoming more and more natural and comfortable. I am becoming a true believer in the jjimjilbang!
To summarize, Day 2 was a much better than the first one. I realized that I am more of a sprinter than a long distance person.
I think that long distance runners/cyclists are very strong mentally. Conversely, I am only able to bike for about two hours before getting totally tired. I’m hoping that things will get easier as the kilometers pile on.
Thanks to the comforts of cars, buses and trains, I had forgotten the actual concept of what a kilometer was. I could be back Seoul in a little over an hour from here if I just hopped on the subway. It’s very humbling to realize the limits to my physical strength.
Thats it from 동네 한 바퀴.
About Matt Kelley
Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.