You're in for a big surprise...
It's not so long ago that South Korea was most associated with the wartime sitcom MASH and shoddy products. These days Korea is better known for its catchy K-pop, Samsung Smartphones and--increasingly--for its world-class cycling infrastructure.
Canadian cycling enthusiast Maya Goldstein tells us more about why bicycle travelers are flocking to the Land of the Morning Calm.
The Bike Trails
South Korea may be one of the best-hidden cycling gems of the world, and certainly of Asia. When we began searching for a suitable cycling destination for touring with a baby, we started hearing rumors that South Korea has an amazing cycling infrastructure.
Being skeptical about this, we tried to gather information in English. This turned out to be quite challenging, but don’t let it discourage you!
We decided to go with our then 7-month-old baby and we were not disappointed. South Korea has several major cycling trails, with the longest one being The Four Rivers Trail, which basically crosses the country. You can start in Incheon close to the airport (we started in Seoul) and ride all the way to Busan in the south, a distance of over 600 km.
The trail follows rivers and streams, rice paddies and soy fields, and is a designated cycling path that is mostly away from traffic and noise. It was built and designed for cyclists and we crossed endless tunnels and bridges, most of them only for cyclists, and many were actually huge dams.
It was our first overseas cycling trip with our baby and it was a perfect destination. There are several other bike trails in the country which we have yet to explore, a good excuse to go back to South Korea someday.
Just like the cycling infrastructure, Korean food must be another well-kept secret. We knew very little about Korean food before our trip, but we were so pleasantly surprised.
Korean food is varied and tasty: bibimbap (a rice bowl), mandu (dumplings, similar to dim-sum), excellent fish, stews, BBQ meat and hot pot, and everything comes with Kimchi on the side. Food is usually available just around the corner, even along the trail as you pass through towns and small villages.
The markets were some of the liveliest markets we’ve ever visited, especially in the big cities such as Seoul and Busan. I don’t think words do justice to the amazing Korean food, so you may just have to try it out yourself.
Maybe it’s because we traveled with a baby, but we got a lot of attention in Korea (or at least he did!).
In restaurants, people always wanted to hold him, which was very pleasant for us to eat while he was entertained. People also offered us many gifts along the way such as fruit, chocolate and one time a couple even paid for our meal in a restaurant.
Even though most people spoke very little English (and we don’t speak Korean), we felt that they tried to accommodate us and to make sure we were happy and having a good time in their country.
If you want to experience a different Korea head to Jeju Island. It’s probably one of the very few places in the world where you can cycle on a separate cycle path so close to the ocean.
While Jeju Island has a lot of hustle and bustle from tourists, it’s mostly Korean tourists which just adds to the experience. It’s a crazy island where you’ll find three sex museums, a Teddy-Bear museum and a Believe It or Not museum, but also great scenery and beautiful beaches, many of them feel untouched.
When we rode The Four Rivers Trail and Jeju Island we mostly camped along the way. Finding a camp spot was very easy.
Along the trail we usually camped in parks, or just on the side of the trail. On our first night, we literally set up camp just beside the trail, in the outskirts of Seoul.
Although people still passed by the tent at night and early morning, no one seemed to mind. We camped by the side of the river, in public parks (always with clean toilets nearby), close to bridges, in a free campground, and on one occasion on an exceedingly hard concrete slab, just off the trail.
On Jeju Island, we camped a few times in free campgrounds which were convenient. Sometimes though we camped just on the beach, waking up to the sounds of the waves and birds every morning. Maybe not exactly the Korea you had in mind?
About the Author
Maya and Gili and now with their son Neil love cycling and cycle touring (and for Neil: anything that is bike related).
They take any opportunity they can to go on their next cycling vacation. Their longest trip was crossing Central America (through all seven countries) over five months and with a lot of time to explore.
After Neil was born they decided it wouldn’t stop them from doing what they love, so they’d just take him along for the ride. They cycled for three months in South Korea and Japan starting when he was 7 months old. When Neil was 18 months old, they cycled in France, and just before he turned two they headed to New Zealand for a month of cycle touring. When they're not bicycle touring, Maya and Gili ride around their home city of Vancouver. Neil, who is now two, scoots around happily on his balance bike.
Maya is also a passionate educator. She combines her two passions into a cycling education non-profit program for young kids learning to ride on balance bikes called Kids on Wheels.
You can follow their family adventures on their blog: Life in MAGIcLand.