It was time to venture off the bike paths. If we stuck to the official trails, we’d exit the country believing all Koreans ride fancy bikes and look good in spandex.
After several car-free weeks, we thought it best to ease ourselves into the reality of road riding. We cruised out of Seoul on the banks of the Han River along with hundreds of lycra-clad bicyclists. A warm autumn sun and big blue sky brought smiles and a deep sense of contentment.
Past the airport near the port city of Incheon, the bike trail petered out. After being cooped up in Seoul for close to a week, naturally we were keen to push on. That’s how we let ourselves get sucked into the bowels of an industrial metropolis. Factories spit out noxious fumes, massive trucks rumbled past and giant earth movers hallowed large pits into the planet for yet another large scale construction project. A less than pleasant spot for a cycle tourist.
Eric valiantly navigated us through the sprawl with the help of our detailed Korean-only road atlas (thank you Steve Sessions!). Our English language maps were useless. Now, when you’re not searching for a place to sleep, the possibilities are endless. You pass a pretty park or a nice looking church with a big lawn out back. Or maybe there’s a grassy area down by the river or a peaceful temple with a spot to pitch the tent.
But once night falls and you’re stranded in a city of 2.5 MILLION, rest assured all possibilities dry up. I did not freak out. We were in Korea, after all, not Afghanistan. After several hours of winding our way through Incheon’s grimiest quarters, we spotted a sign reading Wolmi Park, 4 Kilometers.
We found Wolmi, set up camp next to a nice picnic table not far from the public toilets, wolfed down some ramen noodles (it was too late to cook) and jumped in our sleeping bags for some shut eye.
In the morning the park was abuzz with activity. Not only was there the usual cadre of pre-daybreak walkers and fitness freaks but also a group of nuns unpacking folding tables and food for some sort of event. Wolmi, it turns out, is no ordinary neighborhood park. In fact, it’s an island that was heavily bombed by the US military back in the 1950’s. The 93 napalm bombs that were dropped took out not only the North Korean soldiers they were intended for, but also resulted in ‘collateral damage’ of several hundred civilians.
Eventually a highway (the one we cycled in the dark) was built to connect Wolmi to the mainland and the former army base was turned into a memorial site, amusement park and formal gardens.
We later found a Wolmi tourist brochure (in English) which stated: Be Cautious not to Do Cooking or Camping. Well, at least we didn’t bungle the cooking part.
If all goes to plan, we’ll be back on the road bright and early Monday morning, passports in hand with shiny new visas for the Philippines! Up next is the wild, untamed area near the DMZ, way up north on the border.
As always, your comments and feedback are appreciated.