A Panorama of Korea
After two months of criss-crossing Japan by bike, I finally cross from Fukuoka to Busan, on board the “Dream” ferry, to continue my bike adventure towards Seoul.
Korea isn't a bike's best friend. In my opinion, it is the country with the most dangerous drivers I've ever seen in all my travels; they drive fast and badly! Traveling by bicycle around the city is a constant risk. Local authorities have found the beginnings of a solution to the problem, by creating as many bicycle paths as possible. There are incidentally two, which connect Busan to Seoul.
But that was nothing compared to the beginning of the wet season. I knew the start date but not its strength. I saw the Sun for all of 2 hours during my 5-day visit to Seoul. So it's best to avoid cycling around this region from the month of June.
Traveling across Korea wasn't my longest trip, it totaled some 600km, but it was one of the more demanding ones when it came to crossing the mountains that cover 70% of the country.
From Busan first heading towards Jeju Island for about a week. Then returning to Busan towards Seoul via the centre of the country. All in 4 weeks.
Just as I did in Japan, I used an offline application for iPhone called MapsWithMe (a collection of detailed maps that can be downloaded for free). Except that in Korea, these maps are not as detailed as they were for Japan. Even with Google Maps, you will be presented with very poor content, and the distance calculation tool is absent as well. There is a much more detailed map available on the net, but it's in Korean!
On this trip I mainly relied on a website by Dutch resident, who gave details of his trip with maps and some tips Bicycling in Korea. I would strongly recommend for you to browse through his website before you hit the road.
Busan is an extraordinary city! As much for its culture, its cuisine, its landscapes and its people. I had the chance to spend 5 days there. Everything is easily accessible by metro and bus. Do not miss visiting the cultural village, and its landscape of colourful houses and urban art, not forgetting the historical monuments in the surrounding area.
Jeju Island is one of the 7 Wonders of the natural world. A visit is therefore essential!
I chose the ferry instead of the plane so I could meet people. But if you get seasickness, or don't have the time to spend nearly 12 hours on the ferry, I would recommend you go by plane. Busan Airlines offers flights that are cheaper than the ferry, with a 15kg baggage allowance. Unfortunately, these offers are in Korean. In English, the prices are more expensive, so ask a local. Transporting a bike is allowed, but you will have to pay the excess above the 15kg allowance, while bicycles are free on the ferry, and it also saves you a night in a hostel.
However don't forget your earplugs and eye mask to sleep. The light may be left on all night and the rumble of engines is loud.
The cheapest option is the tatami with blankets and pillows, though I was suspicious of the state they were in. Plan to bring something to cover yourself with, and also to cover the rectangular pillow. However, the atmosphere is magic, you will meet a lot of locals who will try to engage in conversation with you, to share a meal and give you advice.
Once there, it is relatively easy to travel by bicycle, the sites are well marked and very well equipped. The magic moment was climbing Mount Halla, on a clear day. Access is via two hiking tracks. I did the climb taking both paths, to enjoy the different landscapes of the surrounding area.
I decided on this trip I would make a small video, with the theme of self-criticism. So I asked Koreans and expatriates to speak to me about Korea. The question was simple; The thing you love the most about the country, and the thing you would want to change? The video editing is going to take some time, but I promise to finish it as soon as possible.
With Lisa, an English teacher at the University of Andong, I was invited to exchange views with her students around the theme of travel, which was also an opportunity for me to learn more about the country. We talked about lots of topics closely or distantly relating to Korea, such as military service, cosmetic surgery, the turbulent history with Japan, suicide rates, and many other subjects that allowed me to have a more accurate understanding of the country. I realised that the Koreans have an opinion, sometimes very distinct, about themselves in contrast to their neighbours.
Andong is the spiritual city of the country, and a culinary city too, don't miss its local cuisine, a pure delight!
A year earlier, in the Cook Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I met Ben with whom I spent a good time in the company of another resident of the hostel. This time we met again in Daegu, where he'd been teaching English for several months. A good evening, but pretty short. See you next time, perhaps in Brazil.
I get the impression on my trip, that I have seen more churches in Korea than in Belgium. Maybe because they are well developed. Indeed, every church has a huge cross on its roof which is lit up at night, with a bright red that can be spotted for miles around.
But South Korea remains a country that is extremely tolerant towards religious matters. The majority of the population identifies as atheist. However, Buddhism is understood to be the first religion. Christianity is the second religion of South Korea: 10.5 million South Koreans are Christians!
Finally arrived in Seoul. It's difficult to visit the city in 5 days given its size and the difficulties of getting around on a bike. Each neighbourhood has its own special features, its own atmosphere and types of people who live there.
I discovered a rather different Korea from the rest of the country, considerably focused on the appearances and material possessions. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace; parents even offer it as a gift to their children.
My first mission in Seoul was to make a video with Junno (a friend from Seoul who I met 6 months earlier in Myanmar) with theme of the first encounter between a traveller and a city. While first cycling through the city, then walking through the markets, ending up in Itaewon at nightfall.
Huge amounts of production and post-production, but the video is finally ready HERE.
Korea shows the influence of it's two giant neighbours, China and Japan, but the country has above all its own identity, which doesn't resemble any other. Visiting Korea without having taken the time to read, even a bit, about its history is a serious mistake. An glance at its history will help you to understand and then to appreciate this magical and unique country.