Winds of South Korea

Planting season in the rice fields

A few choices of kimchi

May ’14

It was only a few hours and the ferry had carried me to Korea. After such a long time in Japan I was more then ready for something new. Docking at the port, I could already see the sheer number of lined up apartment towers that are typical of korea’s bigger towns, a sight that reminded me of what I have seen in Hong Kong years ago.

Straight out of customs at the international ferry terminal in Busan, I logged in a fast and free WiFi connection to contact my host. Technology is omnipresent in South Korea, to me much more then in Japan.

Kenny picked me up on his bike and we rode straight to my first Korean bbq. Heaven. Spicy food, fresh herbs and veggies for all. I liked the food in Japan but this was just different, fulfilling a lot of what I had miss for more then half a year. Over the month I have spent in Korea, food kept being good, surprising and cheap enough. From the staples like funny chicken & beer, to beef tartare, noodle stuffed intestines, pork legs, ramen bowls and all the side dishes. The side dishes! Probably the best thing about going to a restaurant in Korea is that whatever you order, might be a simple soup, it always come with plenty of small ‘tapas’ style side plates. There might be kimchi, or tofu, or cooked peanuts or beans. And many times, it’s kind of all-you-can-eat. Combined with the expensive price of groceries, it was really hard to justify not going out for lunch.

Oh, and koreans? They love to eat, and drink, and eat, and drink, and repeat.. A typical night out probably goes like this: choose a restaurant and eat a full meal there. At the same time pour down some drinks, like beer and soju (the local hard spirit) or so-me, the mix of them both. Then quickly get out and choose a new place, probably a restaurant with a different food speciality and start again. Repeat until you can’t walk, can’t eat, or both. There is also take out if you want to finish this at home. About that, they do delivery too, with real plates they come and pick up the nest day. Impressive.

Skipping most of the hectic traffic with a short train ride, I then made my way out of Busan on the bike path of the 4 Rivers Trail, a combination of cycling paths covering a big part of the country. Most of them following big rivers. It’s possible for example to cycle from Busan to Seoul on this path alone in just a few days. Information in english is scarce, but the way is quite well marked most of the time. You can also accumulate stamps along the way in a special booklet and earn a medal for competing some sections…

They must deliver quite a few of these rewards because I met a lot of cyclists on this path. Koreans seems to be keen cyclists and go all out with high-end mountain bikes (although the trail is mostly flat and paved) and full-body Lycra clothing. In combination with the ubiquitous facemask and sunglasses, I renamed this ‘ninja cycling’. But this also meant the cycling culture is developing quite well in the country, and combined with the general friendliness of koreans, it meant people were always very welcoming of the lone cyclist. Koreans also tend to speak better english then Japanese, or at least it’s more common, so it was very nice.

To contrast the greatness of the cycling paths, wind was there to crap the day. In the next week I would head west, then south, back north, west and finally east, the wind always changing with me, ending up in 6 out of 7 days of strong headwind. I cursed at it a lot, which didn’t help much, and kept going. Korea is just as mountainous as Japan, and it seems the gusts like to come down it’s tight valleys.

I veered off the cycling part quite fast and made my way west to the island of Namhae, then back north along another river bike trail, and the west across the mountains. The scenery was nice, although not extraordinary, the highlight of the day often being the food at lunch and a nice camping spot. Korea, like Japan, felt quite safe and wild camping was never a problem.

I got to Gumi, an industrial town, quite tired of the windy week and got lucky with a last minute Warmshowers host were I could relax a bit.

I was back again on the main cycling path and went up east to visit Andong, then backtracked across the mountains to the west to check out Beopjusa temple, a touristy but well worth seeing spot. From there a few days got me back on the main river and straight into Seoul where I spent a bit more then a week waiting for my kazak visa, meeting some friends and mostly relaxing. Apparently much easier to get in Seoul then in China, the visa for Kazakhstan took 7 days, around 30$ and was pretty straightforward.

Apart from enjoying even more food in Seoul and seeing a few of the must seen sights, I went for a quick hike in the mountains north of town. It’s a bit foggy, or smoggy, and the views are half the fun. The real sport here is people-watching, amazed by the incredibly popular outdoor fashion where hords of mainly older folks will be fully outfitted with all the latest clothes and tech for just a few hours walk. Gloves, Gore-Tex and facemasks included. While riding across the country I was constantly amazed how a poor middle sized town with barely anything in it would have at least a dozen big brand outdoor shop, with real gear and real prices. While koreans enjoy the mountains quite a bit, it seems even more like a big fashion statement, and everyone of all age are caught in it.

The week brought me a new visa in the pocket and some needed rest, (I had mostly recovered from the knee pain I had contracted a month prior in Japan). Ready, I headed for Incheon and the ferry to China. Getting there is half the fun they say…

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