Ok, I need to tell you guys a secret that not many expats seem to know about. Did you know that Korea is full of beautiful, scenic riverside bike paths? Did you know that you can even cycle all the way from Seoul, in the North West of the country, to Busan, in the South East? And that you can get a cute little passport that you fill with stamps for each checkpoint you pass? Just fill your wee book with stamps, and you can get yourself a medal as a keepsake for your hard work! I didn’t know about any of this until a few weeks before the end of my contract last year, and was pretty gutted that I didn’t learn about it sooner. When I decided to come back to Korea, I wanted to actually leave with something to show for my time here so I picked up a passport and told myself that I’d fill it as much as I could by the end of the year.
At the beginning of May when we were treated to a rare 4 day weekend, the Wee Gypsy Boyfriend and I decided to make good use of it and start filling up our passports, which had been gathering quite a bit of dust. Rather than gently easing ourselves into it, we decided to go for a double whammy and do both Yeongsangang and Seomjingang Bike Paths- over 320kms of cycling.
Day 1: Mokpo – Naju (66 KMs)
After spending the night in a pretty rundown love motel in Gwangju, we jumped on an intercity bus, crammed our bikes in the underneath compartment, and began our journey to Mokpo. Because we had decided to treat ourselves to a long lie in our luxury hotel accommodation, we stupidly ended up travelling at midday on the first day of a long weekend…. Anyone who has ever been in Korea on a bank holiday will know how big a rookie error that was- our 1-hour long bus journey ended up taking 2 and a half hours. Very annoying. So after a much-needed trip to Kimbab Nara for a feast to fuel us through the day, we ended up getting off to a really late start.
I hate to start off with a negative but, I need to be honest and say that I was really not impressed with the coastal city of Mokpo where we began our journey. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe my expectations were too high, but it was just a bit of a letdown. I have a tendency to look at the map and assume that all coastal cities are going to be like Costa Del Korea, but they usually just serve as industrial ports- nowhere to sunbathe or get an ice cream unfortunately.
There was a lot of construction work going on at the beginning of Yeongsangang Bike Path which made finding the first couple of checkpoints challenging. With all the diversions and miles of building work ahead, we weren’t feeling too enthusiastic about our journey. When we finally ended up reaching the serene surroundings we had been expecting- for starters, an actual bike path fit for cycling on- we were pretty relieved. To add to the fully functioning bike path, there were also cute little rice paddies and tree lined farming communities. This was such a welcome relief from polluted city life… Until after miles of cycling we realised that there was no nice, safe, polluted-but-convenient, city nearby.
We had brought our tent to camp in, but since rain was on the forecast, we thought it would be better to get a roof over our heads. We decided to cycle to Naju, our nearest hope of civilisation and crossed our fingers that we would be able to find a motel.
Naju turned out to be a bit of a trek away and we were definitely regretting our long lie as we cycled well past sunset. When we eventually got there, we found a huge motel with rooms for just 40,000KRW a night. To make life even sweeter there was a galbi restaurant right across the road. After stuffing our faces with galmaegisal (samgyeopsal’s under appreciated little cousin) we pretty much rolled back to our motel and hit the hay for an early night, hoping to be fresh and have an early start the next morning.
Day 2: Naju to Seomjingang Dam (101 KMs)
It was pretty difficult to peel ourselves from the comfy motel bed after such a late finish the night before. We got moving at around 10.30am and as we were riding through Naju we noticed that the speciality dish advertised outside most of the restaurants was hongeo (홍어.) I immediately remembered what this is- hongeo is one of Korea’s most notorious dishes. There is really no nice way to put this so I’m just going to be blunt about it. Basically, it is a fish that has been fermented in its own piss until it turns into ammonia. As we say in Scotland- Boke! We were so relieved that we had managed to find a galbi restaurant the previous night and didn’t have to resort to eating there, although I would have rather starved!
We passed through Gwangju city in the afternoon, which is where our journey had actually begun on the very first night. The cycle path gets really chock-a-block around here so you need to watch out for the masses of daytrippers on tandem bikes with no spacial awareness. Trust me when I say that they are a hazard not to be reckoned with!
The highlight of Yeongsangang bike path was definitely Damyang. Oh, lovely Damyang- I need to come back and explore you properly really soon! When we got there we fueled ourselves with a huge lunch (our eyes were definitely bigger than our bellies) at a cute little sushi and donkasseu place. I could barely move after devouring so much food but I had zero regrets! Damyang is famous for bamboo rice and you can find lots of restaurants that specialise in it- we didn’t try it as it didn’t really sound appetising to us. Plus, people were queuing outside, even around blocks. Patience is definitely not my biggest virtue so it was a no-no.
There are so many cute places to check out in Damyang like the bamboo forest and the sequoia street so factor in a bit of extra time to see the sites. If you are running low on time (like we were) you’ll be pretty pleased to hear that the penultimate checkpoint on the Yeongsangang Bike Path is sequoia street, so you can stop for a few quick photos.
We finally reached the last checkpoint, Damyang Dam, at around 4pm, and while we would have loved to have a celebratory drink at the finish line, we were racing the sun to get to the start of the Seomjingang bike path.
There are 2 options on how to get between the end of Yeonsangang and the beginning of Seomjingang- you could stick to the bike path for a solid 70 km of cycling which will see you doubling back on yourself. Or, if you are a bit of a
n idiot rebel, like WGB and me, you can take a nice 30km route on the motorway- sorry mum! To be honest, this sounds much worse than it actually was since the road was reasonably quiet and we stayed on the hard shoulder, far away from the rest of the traffic. In fairness to us, the sign said no bikes, boats or motorbikes and we spotted a fair few scooters zooming through- if they can do it, so can we! The worst bit was definitely going through the tunnel- the echo from the cars is deafening when you don’t actually have the protection of a car to shield your ears and it’s hard to know what’s coming behind you without looking back. Pretty scary stuff!
After flirting with death (not really!) on the motorway, we arrived at Seomjingang Dam checkpoint at around 7.30pm. It was starting to drizzle a bit and we realised that the rainstorm that had been forecast for our first night had maybe just been delayed. Just our luck since now we were in the middle of nowhere with no motels in sight. We managed to find a park with a pagoda to camp in which shielded us from the rain, but it was still pretty windy. Luckily our body weight and heavy bags stopped our paper bag excuse for a tent from blowing away. Every cloud has a silver lining though. After the stormy night we were treated to this view when we woke up- it was like our own 5-star hotel!
Day 3: Seomjingang Dam to Saesongam (92 KMs)
We woke up pretty early and headed to the little shop at the bike checkpoint and had an extremely nutritious breakfast of cup ramyeon before we started the day- I love an excuse to have things like ramyeon for breakfast so I was secretly glad that there were no healthy options! We decided to stock up on snacky things since we weren’t sure how easy it would be to get food along the way. I should point out that there did seem to be a lot more restaurants on the Seomjingang bike path than on Yeongsangang bike path. This is probably because of its proximity to Jirisan National Park and the number of tourists in the area. I should point out, though, that after a quick search on google translate I noticed the local speciality seems to be catfish soup so if that’s not your bag, do try and stock up on some convenience store food.
In terms of scenery, this bike path far trumped Yeongsangang- the surrounding mountains were much more dramatic and breathtaking and everywhere seemed so lush and full of life. If you only have time to do one bike path, I’d go for this one. Pictures speak much louder than words, so have a “wee swatch” for yourself:
Later we cycled through Gurye and saw one of the loveliest sunsets that I’ve seen in Korea- I live in a city surrounded by mountains, and filled with high-rise apartments so a good sunset is a really rare treat. Gurye is full of restaurants where you can stop and get a bite to eat- and they have a fair bit more than just catfish soup which is always a good thing! We decided just to cycle through because we were once again chasing the sun, and wanted to reach the last checkpoint before calling it a night. We ended up sleeping under a pagoda by the Saseongam checkpoint. We really lucked out with this little camping spot since it was right on the bike path and next to a really great canteen that sells our absolute favourite Korean food- haejangguk!!! Thankfully, this time, there were no intestines (like our serious lost in translation moment after visiting the Cheonju Mountain Azalea Festival).. just lovely old pork spine. It was an amazing supper after such a long day of cycling.
Day 4: Saseongam to Baealdo Waterfront Park (57 KMs)
Our final day of cycling! We woke up pretty early so we could get home at a reasonable time. We had big ambitions of also squeezing in a detour to Hadong Green Tea Fields, but when we actually got moving, we were pretty keen to get finished. Seomjingang was beautiful from start to finish. However, I was not impressed with the number of hills towards the end. God sake mother nature, what you playing at?! I was looking forward to a nice downward cycle towards the coast but it was not to be. For every lovely downhill, there was an uphill that my tired legs (and pretty achy bum) weren’t too enthusiastic about.
When we finally got to Gwamyang, we realised that there were actually quite a few interlacing bike paths which made finding the finishing point quite tricky. Frustratingly, we ended up taking a wrong turn when we were SO CLOSE which meant we had to turn back on ourselves and go back up the huge hill that we had just flown down… We did not feel quite so smug after that! But anyways, about 15 minutes later we arrived at the final checkpoint (woohoo!) and were feeling chuffed with ourselves for the amount of cycling that we had actually done- 320km!
We started our 20km journey to the bus station through the extremely industrial city of Gwamyang- another coastal Korean city that is nothing to write home about, so don’t get too excited about it.
Getting back to Masan ended up being a whole new adventure in itself- for starters, we couldn’t get a direct bus. Then, all of the buses were full and we had to wait about 2 hours until we could get on one- a lot of pushing and shoving was involved!
We had to transfer in Busan so we made the most of it by stuffing our faces with curry, nan bread, and samosas at the Indian near the bus terminal- we never actually managed to get a cold beer, but Indian food is definitely a close second in the treat department for me!
So that’s us 2 bike paths down now and we definitely want to do a few more. Our Summer holiday plan is to conquer the Seoul to Busan route, and we will probably squeeze in another as a bit of practice before that. I love that I get to see a whole other new side to the country that I’d probably never see otherwise, while actually achieving something at the same time. If you have some holidays coming up, or live near a bike path, I’d definitely recommend you to get yourself a passport and get in on the action. It’s a really amazing way to see the country, while getting fit. And coincidentally, it doesn’t cost much to do, which is great if you’re trying to save money, like me! Just remember to invest in a padded seat cover- your bum will thank you!
LET ME KNOW! Have you ever been on a bike trip in Korea?