As I cycle out of Seogwipo, I’m desperately excited. For the past three months, I’ve been writing paid articles, making websites, and working on a story. While I’ve had several day and multi-day trips around Jeju and Korea, this is the first time in 2014 where I’m riding without looking back, without knowing where I’ll sleep at night. On the back of my brand-new, second-hand bicycle (so much better than the tank that I used to cycle Europe), I have two jars of peanut butter, a low temperature sleeping bag, and a spare change of clothes.
My Korean tourist visa has almost expired and I have to leave the country to get a new one. The easiest and most commonly done way, is to take a short flight to Japan. As someone who detests aeroplanes and doesn’t like flying, I have decided that I will cycle and take the ferry. Besides, this gets me back outside and sleeping with nature, just the way I like it. From Seogwipo to Jeju, I’ll take the ferry to Mokpo and ride to Busan where I’ll catch a ferry to Japan. It’s a ride of a few hundred kilometres, but the exact distance, I have no idea.
Without a map, I aim for Hallasan, the tallest mountain in Korea. On a narrow bridge, a truck misses me by inches. As polite and friendly as Koreans are, I curse their terrible driving and lack of respect for cyclists or pedestrians, or anyone else not in a more intimidating vehicle than they are. Shouting in anger, I wave offensive fingers, but the driver can’t hear me. He wouldn’t care if he did. Why would he slow down or be cautious of someone on a bicycle who will cause him no harm? People should be in motorised vessels racing from A to B.
What a brilliant idea it was to cycle over this mountain. For 20 km I cycle uphill, climbing to 750 metres. I could have chosen a route around the mountain, an easier path to cycle, but no, I went for the most direct route. When I reach the highest point, I am elated. It’s all downhill from here.
Cruising into the town of Jeju, a taxi races to get ahead of me, then swerves in-front of me and slams on the brakes to let out his passenger. I pull both brakes hard and almost swerve into passing traffic, then thump the side of the taxi. I call the driver an offensive name (something I have rarely ever done in life), but he doesn’t care, I am only a cyclist.
Why couldn’t he wait? Why did he nearly have to run me off the road or into a passing vehicle?
I follow the water until I find the ferry terminal. There are two options, similarly priced: a ferry to Busan or a ferry to Mokpo. I have to reach Busan for the ferry to Japan and I could go straight there, skipping the few hundred kilometres of cycling… no, I didn’t get on my bicycle to sit on a ferry all night, I came to ride, to be far from the cities, to sleep under the stars.
I arrive in Mokpo late at night, what another brilliant idea. No signs lead out of the city and I am mapless. Directionless, I investigate rooftops and bridges that could serve as potential beds. As I start to climb the steps that lead to the roof of a fire station, the large metal doors open and I run away. Settling on a large road bridge, I make my bed in a small fall atop large rocks. No-one passes for an hour and just as I’m falling asleep, three Korean men turn up and make a fire a few metres from where I’m sleeping. They have no idea that I am there, hidden behind the drop. Should I say hello? Should I move? I lie silently and when I awake, they are gone.
The morning brings mist. Not the sort of mist that makes the world hazy, it’s the sort of mist that shrouds the world in an invisible cloak. I can barely see more than 20 metres in from of me. Thinking it will soon burn off, I get out of my toasty sleeping bag and begin cycling. The sun is invisible in the mysterious world and with only a pair of shorts and a thin hoody for warmth, within minutes I am too cold to carry on. I get off the bike, warm my hands against my thighs and try squat jumps to get my blood flowing. Starting to cycle again, the process repeats and for several hours I spend as much time off the bike, trying to keep my body warm. This is cold like I have rarely known and the wind whips precious warmth from my body as I cycle.
As the mist burns off, so too does the cycle path. It stops without warning and I am left with the prospect of cycling on a dual carriageway or taking to the farmers’ fields. I twist along narrow, uneven farm tracks, adding many kilometres to my journey in order to avoid the busy road. When there is no other option, I take to the road and cars pass dangerously close. I am taking my life in my hands.
Reaching a narrow tunnel, I refuse to enter and carry my bicycle over fences and fields to reach the other side. This is not the fastest way to go. I need a map. Entering a town, I get hold of a Korean atlas and the elderly couple who own the bookshop cook me sweet potatoes. I sit to eat them and ask for directions. They tell me to cycle on the dual carriageway I had avoided like the plague. It’s the best way for bikes they say. I ask someone else who says the same. I follow a different route on the map, the next biggest road, and soon I find myself twisting up mountains and through a forest. The road changes to a gravel track and my wheels skid as I climb.
Are my brakes rubbing? I look at the back wheel. Two spokes have broken and the wheel is distorted, causing the bike to brake every time the wheel turns. Without the tools to fix it, I carry on. By nightfall, I am winding through small Korean villages. Without cars, I cycle fast, the wind in my hair, shouting with joy. A lady is watering some plants and I ask her to refill my water bottles. She asks about my journey, then brings me three apples and three chocolate apple bars. The apples are the best I have ever tasted in my life.
Reaching another mountain, I decide to climb it in the darkness. Up I ride for most of an hour, fighting the terrain, wind swaying the trees around me. At the top, I stop and look up. The sky is alight with dancing stars. Only the cold forces me to continue to a lower altitude.
Entering a village, I shelter in a bus stop and make my bed there for the night. By morning, the world is freezing again. I watch the sun rise and cruise downhill with my hands slipped into the sides of my shorts, warming them against my thighs. For nearly 5 km I barely touch the handle bars for fear that my fingers will drop off. I have lost one of the fingerless gloves that I borrowed, not that they did much for warmth anyway.
At a reservoir and through small villages, I remember why it is that I am on my bicycle, what it is that makes me feel alive. Riding at over 30 km an hour on a smooth road, a car approaches a junction where it has to give way. The driver looks at me, sees me coming, then pulls out a few metres in front of me. I slam on my brakes, the rear wheel lifting, then slide to a stop inches away. Once more I shout at the driver. He beeps at me. Idiot on a bicycle, get a car.
At the bottom of the mountain, I head into a town and sit in a corner shop drinking hot chocolate. I’ve been riding for a couple of hours and it isn’t even eight. I use the time to plan the rest of my route to Busan along quiet roads.
An hour later, I find myself twisting along mountain roads that follow the motorway. The constant drone of cars racing by, kills all serenity. This is not what I had in mind.
The small road I am on splits three ways when it crosses a dual carriageway, I find myself cycling in the horrendous stream of traffic, being passed at high speed. Again I take to the farmer tracks, the fields, the anything to keep away from the tonnes of metal that would crush me in the blink of an eye. So much of my journey has been spent like this, battling my way through. Eventually I find the small road again and it splits into three. I follow one path for several kilometres and it leads me back to where I started. Another goes back to the busy roads, so I finally take the third option. After a couple of hours, it has disappeared entirely. I ask farmers for directions, asking them which direction I should go to reach Changwon, a city of half a million that is less than 50 km away. None of them know.
I sit down in frustration. Why am I doing this journey? For two reasons:
2. To acquire a visa
Right now I feel that I am taking my life in my hands every time a car passes and I am constantly lost. I am no longer enjoying myself. As I am lost, I am also not close to getting my visa which could have serious implications. Despite being far less than a hundred kilometres from Busan, I am beat. I don’t want to be scared by the drivers anymore. Do something that scares you everyday? Balls to that, it isn’t fun being scared.
I turn backwards and ride into Jinju, a city I had already passed. I’m not allowed to board a train with my bicycle until ‘yesterday.’ After long debates, we establish they mean tomorrow. I search for a bus. There I sit, my Korean cycling experience a failure, cruising along the motorway. I had expected that I would feel sad, regretful for not having completed my cycle when I finally caved, but instead I feel nothing but relief. Tonight, I will not be under the wheels of a car.
In Busan, I cycle across the city at night. A city of 3.5 million (or 8 if you count the metropolitan area), I have to ride over 15 km to reach the water. I ride on sidewalks and cross streets at subways when I can, but still I have to ride on the road often. By the time I reach the water, I am shaking. It isn’t fun to cycle with your life in your hands.
Boarding the ferry to Japan, I resolve never to cycle on mainland Korea again, at least not without checking for a strict bike route. Never before have I known such terrible drivers who have such little respect for cyclists.
In Japan, rain beats down. I shelter for a couple of hours until I decide it is surely going to rain all day. I have to ride 50 km to meet George, a friend from the online world. After soaking me through, the rain stops and the wind starts. I ride along the coast, beaten back by torrential gusts. Fortunately the Japanese drivers are wonderful and give me space and pass slowly. Unlike Koreans, they even know how to use their indicators. By the time I meet George, it’s a pleasant day and we sit in the sun to relax. We have a short 20 km ride to reach her house, but I want a brief respite from riding.
As luck would have it, shortly after we start cycling, a car pulls out from its parking spot while George is cycling on the pavement. Slamming on the brakes to not get hit, she somersaults over the handlebars and cuts the palms of her hands open. Then it begins to pour. I can barely see as we ride first up then down the next mountain and by the time we get to her house, my bones are chilled.
I get into the shower, grateful to be off my bike. There were times when I greatly enjoyed it, but this was not the wonderful short bicycle break that I had imagined. I feel aggrieved at my Korean cycling experience. Is it always this bad?
Here is a video of my journey. I whine a lot in this one.