On June 2nd, 2008 we packed up our bikes for the first time and began our adventure with a trip around Lake Ontario. It is kind of scary to think that we have been off work and traveling by bicycle for over a year now. To celebrate this anniversary we are hopping on a freighter. We hope they have a good bottle of wine waiting for us. We also hope to write a few year in reflection posts as we while away the time crossing the Pacific.
We are a few days behind, so you will need to wait in anticipation of our final adventures in Southern Korea. We are writing this from Hae-Undae Beach, so we still need to make our way across the metropolis of Busan and find the Busan New Port and our ship, the Hanjin Madrid. If you don’t hear from us until mid-June, then you know we succeeded in getting aboard!
Bikes packed for the shakedown cruise - around Lake Ontario June 2, 2008
We awoke to a heavy fog. Our original plan was to take the boat over to the ferry terminal in central Busan, which would allow us to skip riding across half of the city; however, early in the morning, the roads did not seem too busy and the fog made the idea of a boat ride less appealing. Given that we had all day to ride only 32 or so kilometers we thought we had plenty of time to ride, so we opted to skip the boat ride and ride the through the entire city. (Queue ominous music in movie soundtrack)
Busan provides a good summary of our experience in Korea: hills, construction, big roads, and massive blocks of apartment buildings – not exactly the most scenic or bicycle friendly country we have visited. It was neat to see, but we are glad that we were only here for a week.
The traffic of Busan was not a problem for riding; however, navigating through the streets was. We often opted to change our routing to avoid hills, bridges, or tunnels; however, there were times when avoiding the hills and bridges was not possible. Riding up steep hills with traffic is not a fun venture – fortunately, when it was necessary we were able to find sidewalks so we could stay off the roads.
We stopped for lunch at 1 pm and were only just at the half way mark (or what we thought was the half way mark). We realized that we needed to stop dawdling if we were to get to the port on time. Of course, shortly after lunch we came upon a massive hill that we could not find a way around – so up we went. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as we had feared.
By 3:30 we were getting worried that we would not make it to the port on time. We knew the boat was not arriving until 7 pm, but we needed to arrive in time to clear customs before customs closed at 6 pm. Our appointed time to meet the agent was 4:30 pm. We came to a T-junction in the road with a large rock (AKA mountain) in front of us. We saw a sign for the port that said it was 14 km away – our GPS estimate said 4 km! With the hills we were only averaging 11 km / hour. The sign also pointed us in the opposite direction we thought we should be going. The directions on our computer agreed with the sign, but we checked with a local that said we could go the other way – which did appeared to go around the rock in the direction we knew the port was in. Of course, it did not take long for this road to lead us to another hill. By now, we were both rather tired and our stress levels were increasing. There were no gantries in sight – so we had no idea how far the port was. Fortunately, there were signs, so we had confirmation that would could at least get there from here!
Screaming down the other side of the hill, the signs led us off the main road onto a side road. Unfortunately, the side road was not signed, so it did not take long for us to miss a turn. We pulled into a gas station and asked for directions. They confirmed we needed to be going in the opposite direction – at this point it was 4:20 pm and still no gantries in sight. Since the road was a divided highway with no place to turn around, we hopped back on our bikes and continued. As we approached a set of lights, we saw another sign for the port, telling us to turn left. After making the turn, we could see gantries in the far off distance, definitely a good sign.
Again, we followed the signs leading to the port. There was water between us and the gantries, which meant we had to ride back towards the highway we had exited. We rejoined the road where we had missed the turn and entered what we thought was the port road. Becky rejoiced that it was 4:28 pm and we were nearing what we thought was the port entrance, only to be led around a corner and down another long straight stretch of road. Riding along, we saw a sign indicating the Hanjin port to be another 3 km down the road. After 2 km, we saw signs for the Hanjin office and the North Port, but the roads leading to this port were not yet built, and what was the “Hanjin office” looked like a bunch of temporary construction buildings. At this point, Scott was afraid that our first detour had brought us in the back way, and we had missed the gate where we were supposed to meet the agent. Not certain where the port entrance was, we stopped at the entrance to one of the new roads and asked the guard to call the agent for us (of course, this request was made mostly in mime as the guard did not speak English, and our Korean phrasebook didn’t include such useful phrases as “Can you please call the Hanjin port agent and tell him where we are?”). It took a bit of gestured explanation, since the number we had written down was the international variant, not the local Korean number. Finally the guard understood, and agreed to make the call. After a brief conversation with the agent, the guard indicated we were to wait there and the agent would be along shortly to collect us.
Not 2 minutes later, Mr. Shin (the agent) drives up in his minivan. He informs us that the ship has been delayed and we will not be able to board until 10 pm, but he could clear us through immigration now. He takes our passports to customs and confirms that the gate we want is just another kilometer down the road. We decide to go and check it out. Originally, we thought we would ride back into the small town near the port (about 7 km), have a nice dinner, and then return to the port after dark. When the agent returned with our passports, he mentioned that would could just have a meal in the port cafeteria and hang out there until he returns at 10 pm. Since we had already ridden today much longer than we anticipated, we opted for the lazy option of dinner at the port. We had a typical Korean cafeteria meal and hung out for several hours until we could board the ship.
The agent arrived promptly at 10 pm and we were permitted to follow his vehicle to the ship, rather than having to load the bikes up. He sped a long (we think perhaps testing how fast we could ride!) to the ship, which fortunately was at the closest birth to the port entrance. She was still docking when we arrived, so we watched the last lines being secured and the gangway being rigged. We immediately recognized Raymund, one of the crewman from our voyage on MSC Alessia, who confirmed that indeed we would have the same Captain as we had on MSC Alessia.
Once the customs and quarantine folks cleared the ship and departed we clambered up the gangway to be greeted by a very young and bouncy Chief Mate who showed us to our cabin. While collecting our luggage, we were briefly greeted by the Captain. As the ship had just arrived, things were still pretty chaotic, so we headed up to our cabin to shower and crash for the night. So far, this looks like it will be another fun trip.
We had ridden to Jinha Beach yesterday, planning for a shorter ride into Busan, but it turned into a much longer day than we had hoped. Twice we tried to get off the highway, only to be met by roads that were through roads on our map but were not in reality. It appears that South Korea does not put military bases and Nuclear power plants on the map. So, we ended up following roads that looked like they were through roads only to run into security pointing us the other way or large fences blocking our progress. Annoyingly enough, our map actually showed “Point of Interest” in these areas, but said points were inaccessible.
We noticed that there are several nice beach areas at the edges of industrial sites – such as Jinha Beach. We wonder if South Korea, which such little land, does not suffer from the “Not in my backyard” syndrome the same way we do in North America?
In addition to the roads that weren’t, as we entered Busan we discovered that it is a very hilly city. When we got to Songjeong, we searched for a way around the big hill, but there was none to be found. Automobiles had the option of going through a tunnel to get to Haeundae beach, but we had to take the scenic route over the large hill. Being the end of the day, we were tired but made our way up. The trip down definitely provided a nice reward for our hard work.
We had hoped to get to Haeundae Beach with enough time to take the boat over to the main ferry terminal in downtown Busan. That would have made for a shorter ride to the New Port to meet our ship. Unfortunately, we arrived in Haeundae Beach (the north eastern part of Busan) after the last boat had left. We found ourselves another nice love motel, opting to pay an extra $10 for a stellar ocean view (50,000 Won for a smallish room (still big enough for bikes) near the ferry terminal). We also learned that we could upend our bikes on the rear wheel when fully loaded – perfect for fitting them into small elevators. Now if we had only discovered this a few months ago!
We had also hoped to have time to visit with a Couchsurfing and Servas host in Busan with whom we had made contact. Unfortunately, with our late arrival today, and likely long day tomorrow, we were too tired for a visit and our time was definitely running short. Instead, we went out for a quick meal, and ended up at an Indian restaurant. Not quite the gourmet Korean fare we had been hoping for, but our other choice was one of the many raw seafood restaurants, and we weren’t feeling quite that adventurous today. (We also could have eaten at Outback Steakhouse or T.G.I. Friday’s, but declined).
We made contact with the NSB agent and were requested to arrive at the New Port before 4 pm. The GPS tells us that it is only 32 km as the crow flies, so we should have lots of time to get ourselves there tomorrow.
We were both feeling rather sluggish at the start of the day – the result we are sure of colds that we are trying desperately to avoid. Fortunately, our bus ride to the south west of South Korea brought us to some much less busy roads. We started off on a minor road that brought us through the artificial lake at Bomunho Resort. As we rode up the hill around the lake, we passed many recreational cyclists out for a ride around the lake, including several on tandem bikes. We certainly received a lot of puzzled looks and waves of encouragement.
To avoid the tunnel on highway 4, we had to climb for about 2-3 km up over a hill. We were surprised at how tired we were finding ourselves, so we opted for an early lunch break. Becky was in desperate need for a coffee, but unfortunately the “coffee shop” turned out to be a bakery with an instant coffee machine with no real coffee to be had :(.
Taking a closer look at the map, we decided to forgo highway 4 as it would bring us too far north, and we were hoping for a little less of a climb further south at highway 14. We jumped onto highway 7, which was a little busier, but had a nice shoulder and a gentle downhill slope. At highway 14 we turned off, but missed the turn in the small town and ended up back on highway 7. When we took a closer look at the map, we decided not to turn back to highway 14, as is involved at least a 200m climb (we could see the foreboding hills in the distance). So back onto highway 7 and the gentle downhill slope.
About 10 km outside of Ulsan we noticed a bike path. For the first 5 km it followed along a river. It was very reminiscent of the Ottawa River pathways except the river had very little water. After the river the bike path remained, although at times it was no better than a sidewalk. We followed it for 20 km, before turning off onto a less busy road. Unfortunately, that less busy road took us through a large series of industrial complexes. There was at least 20 km of beach front industry – yuck. It was a big relief when the industry stopped and we passed through some green fields before entering Jinha Beach.
In Jinha Beach we found a lovely sea side community. There were a ton of hotels in town, for the most part they were a little older and less flashy than any of the ones we have seen so far. We looked at one, which had a nice large room for 35,000 Won. The second one we looked at also had a large room for only 30,000 Won. The room was clean but rather than LCD monitors and TVs, they were CRT – not a big deal for us.
Sadly, neither of us were in the mood for seafood, which is what this town specialized in. We decided we needed to try out a Korean Fried Chicken place. The chicken was good, as fried chicken goes – certainly less greasy than KFC, but they did not serve anything else – no rice or any form of starch. We ended up picking up a couple of boxes of crackers at the convenience store. Overall, dinner was a bust – oh well, you can’t have yummy Korean BBQ every night!
We mostly took today off to relax. We had considered doing a day ride around town, but in the end neither of us was feeling up for it. We both felt colds coming on, and we don’t want to be sick when getting on the boat – there is a risk that we may need to go through departure screening for Swine flu like we did in China. It would really suck to have a fever when trying to depart.
In search of a place for lunch, we did ride around town a bit. We saw many of the Tumuli (grass-covered burial mounds which are often equated to underground pyramids). So far, we are finding the streets much less chaotic – with the occasional bike path too. We are looking forward to tomorrow riding on much quieter roads.
For dinner we went back to the same BBQ restaurant we visited last night, so it must have been good! (Actually it was, although the fatty pork wasn’t terribly healthy). BBQ with lots of vegetables, mushrooms and little bits of pork for flavouring is really yummy. We may have to look for a Korean-style BBQ stone when we get back to Ottawa.
Knowing our time in Korea was running short, and to escape the busy highways near Seoul, we decided to take a bus to Gyeongju – a town about 100 km from Busan that is known for its many ruins and monuments. It should allow us a couple of days of riding without feeling rushed such that we can explore more side roads and avoid busy highways.
Taking the bus in Korea turned out to be pretty easy, once we found a real bus station. Scott showed the bus ticket agent where we wanted to go, and we were sold a ticket for a city where we would need to change buses, in this case Daejeon. Once we arrived in Daejeon, we were able to purchase tickets to Gyeongju. The buses ran frequently enough that we did not need to wait more than an hour at either station. There was no surcharge for bikes (nice), but the luggage area was smaller than other buses we have travelled on, so we needed to remove our gear and seats in order to load the bikes. Fortunately, most people travelling on the buses have little or no luggage, so we could take over two complete compartments without a problem.
All week, we have seen the mourning and outpouring of grief: there have been shrines set up everywhere we’ve passed, with huge condolence cards, flowers and people in black suits. Many of the people we saw at the shrines were in tears. Today as we were travelling, every television we saw was tuned to the funeral coverage, and many people in the bus stations were glued to them. On the buses, we got continuous radio or television coverage.
We also noticed a visible presence of military in South Korea, both on the ground with uniformed soldiers using public transit, and jets and helicopters in the sky. We wonder if this is normal or if this is related to the recent threats by North Korea. On that note, we are glad that we decided to forgo the DMZ tour on Wednesday, as the tension would have been extreme, if we had even been allowed to go.
After 6 hours (2 hours waiting and 4 hours on buses) we were in Gyeongju. We looked at a hotel near the bus station. It was a bit old but nice, clean, and cheap at 30,000 Won ($30 CAD); however, it did not have an elevator or Internet. Given those requirements, our best option was another “love motel”. Becky continued to be entertained by the tackiness of these places, such that she had to check out several before we made a decision. We ended up staying at the Sky Motel – mainly because they gave us a better deal than anyone else and the room did not smell smoky. When we went to walk away, the price for two nights dropped from 130,000 Won for two nights to 100,000 ($87 CAD). Given that tomorrow night is a Saturday (weekend), the price was the best we could find.
While Becky was checking out rooms, Scott was taking photos of the motels, especially their methods for preserving the anonymity of guests, from license plate covers to fully enclosed guest-lockable garages. He was also fascinated by the decor, especially the nighttime lighting, which gave a Las Vegas flair to the Love Motel districts.
Today was another slog on busy highways. It seemed like we would never escape the city. At one point we were moving along so slowly we were being passed by trees! OK, so maybe the trees were on the back of flat bed trucks, but still we were passed by several of them today.
Since there was no way we were going to make it to Chungju-si tonight, we decided to try and catch a bus from Yangji (the intersection of highways 42 and 17). A nice man, Stephen, found us and tried to help us find the right bus, but we would need to take 2 buses to get to Chungju-si. He talked to the driver on the first bus, who said our bikes were too big (it did not have luggage space). The driver did say that after 2 more busses, there would be one that could take us. We looked at our map again, and thought that it would make more sense to go to Icheon (not to be confused with Incheon where we started), and try to catch a bus south from there. So we hopped back on the bikes and continued along to Icheon (another 22 km).
Icheon being a much bigger city, was listed in the Lonely Planet. With the help of a lot of pure luck (the LP did not have a map, and our map showed Icheon in a huge area and did not indicate which part was downtown), we found the Now, It’s the Moon Time Hotel – yes, another Love Motel. We noticed that the hotel had neat little sandwich boards that went in front of each car to cover the license plates. Unfortunately they had nothing available to disguise our bicycles. The room we chose was not quite as well equipped as last night’s, with only a small CRT television, and much less floor space. Quite adequate for our needs though.
Our plan today was to get to Chungju, southeast of Seoul. Unfortunately, riding in the city in Korea is not the most pleasant (or quick) experience. Incheon is riddled with road construction, which added to the hellishness of today’s ride. We often found ourselves breathing in dirt and dust as big trucks passed us. Fortunately, the drivers were all great, either waiting behind us or passing us with lots of room to spare.
At one point, we needed to cross some water. We came to several large bridges. A group of Korean cyclists on mountain bikes rode by us, and we flagged one down to ask for a recommendation on how to cross the body of water. Unfortunately, their plan was to climb 3 flights of stairs with their bikes to access a pedestrian walkway on the highway over the bridge. That option did not really work for us, so the next recommendation was to ride over the bridge. We found that the Korean cyclist was not at all familiar with the map or able to point to where we actually were. This is the second time we have encountered local cyclists who can’t read the map – and this map was in Korean! They were able to confirm that we needed to cross the bridge that we saw above us, so we waited for a red light to give us a lead over the traffic, and hopped on. In the end, the experience was not bad. Cars gave us plenty of room, so no problem.
It took much longer than expected to get to anywhere – too many deviations to avoid highways and traffic, plus when we did get on a roll, we hit an exceptionally large number of red lights. Eventually we decided to stop in Suwon, a city of about 1 million people, just south of Seoul. We are navigating using a 2009 edition road atlas as we were not able to find a good GPS map. This is the third time we are navigating without the GPS (the first was in the US and the second was in southern Italy). It has pointed out to us just how much the GPS simplifies our lives, and we are definitely missing it.
Using our Lonely Planet as a guide, we found the neighbourhood in Suwon hosting a large number of “Love Motels”. Becky could not believe just how cheesy the area is. Scott had the first try at finding a room, but for some reason they would not allow him to see it. Becky walked down the street to a slightly less cheesy area and tried a hotel – the Shangri-la resort. The room was amazing – lots of space, shower and Jacuzzi tub, computer with Internet, 42 inch LCD TV, fridge, the necessary “Sterlet nano ultraviolet sterilizer” (useful for ensure the glasses and mugs are clean and, well, you can use your imagination for what else it may be used to clean), and of course a free condom too. All this for a 40,000 Won ($40 CAD), great value for tired cycle tourists.
Our main task for the day was to get some decent maps of Korea and some Korean cash. There are so many big expressways (especially in Northern South Korea) that we needed to find a detailed map of some of the smaller roads. Also, many hills also means many tunnels and bridges, so we wanted a map that indicates tunnels, so we can do our best to avoid them.
We took the bus from Incheon to Seoul and were immediately struck by how modern the city is and how western it feels. At one point we walked for several blocks looking for food and only saw western fast food outlets. We had to duck down onto a side street to find Korean food.
Finding an ATM that took foreign cards proved to be more of a challenge than we anticipated. We used the “5-star hotel” trick, and headed to the Ritz Carleton. Upon climbing the entrance ramp to the lobby, Scott immediately had a sense of déjà vu. It turned out that this is where he stayed on his first visit to Seoul for business back in 2002. Fortunately, they did have an ATM that accepted foreign cards, so we were able to get some cash (hopefully enough to last us until Busan).
We found two book stores selling English titles. Bandi and Lunni Books at Jonggak Station on the 1 line had a good selection of bilingual English/Korean maps, and we picked up a (rather heavy) road atlas. Unfortunately we visited Kyobo Books first, so also have a map of South Korea which we don’t need.
You know you’ve been travelling too long when you take pleasure in using a public washroom. After so much filth in Chinese toilets, it is a downright pleasure to use Korean washrooms. They are clean, free, and even include toilet paper most of the time. It feels just like home – in some cases even cleaner than home! Life is good!
Tired out from a late night chatting with Jessica and Terry, and running errands, we did not actually do anything touristy in Seoul, other than walking past the Boskingak bell tower. We bought some groceries to make dinner, and headed back to Incheon. We spent the evening visiting with Jessica and Terry and preparing to get back on the bikes tomorrow. It was very interesting to exchange perspectives on South Korea and China, since Jessica has been here 12 years, and Terry his whole life.
We arrived in Incheon later than expected, which meant that we would not arrive at the Memorial Monument at the appointed time to meet with Jessica – our Couchsurfing host. We needed to get a phone card so we could call Jessica, as we couldn’t find anyone who would lend us their phone. We found the lack of people with cell phones on the ferry to be rather odd actually. We suspect that many of the people on the ship were Chinese, and since Korea uses a different mobile phone standard than the rest of the world, their mobile phones wouldn’t work. Of course getting a phone card required that we first get some Korean Won. Fortunately, the port had an exchange both. Unfortunately, they only exchanged 100 Yuan notes – so we changed the 300 we had left and are stuck holding 97 Yuan in small notes (oops).
Yes, this is a church, not a museum, office building or art gallery
We got a free map of Incheon from tourist information to supplement the map in the Lonely Planet. This is the first time since the since the US that we have ridden into a city without a city map on the GPS. The lack of a decent map certainly posed an additional challenge!
We were surprised to find the riding rather stressful, although all the cars and trucks left a comfortable space as they passed. We did not see any other bikes – the streets of China were filled with pedal bikes and electric bikes. In Korea, we saw hardly any scooters and no bikes. We have entered the land of the automobile. The lack of bikes means a lack of bike lines, add to that road construction, and the riding stress levels increase. With the not so great maps, we ended up running into large overpasses without shoulders and tunnels – both of which Becky refuses to ride on unless there is no alternative. Fortunately, we were able to find an alternative route. What should have been a 7 km ride, turned into a 12 km one. Our other observation about Korea is that it is not flat. We can expect to ride through more hills here.
When we got close to Jessica and Terry’s house we called again, saying we were close to the LG and Hyundai apartment blocks and in front of a Korea Telecom building. We rode a little further and Jessica found us, but as she pointed out later, apartment blocks which say LG and Hyundai are everywhere, as are KT buildings, so a more unique landmark could have been useful. The Ferris Wheel was just around the corner, but we hadn’t seen it yet.
Before meeting up with Jessica, we noticed there were a large number of churches in Korea. Many of them had exotic modern architecture, but we didn’t take pictures – sorry. We had expected to see many Buddhist temples, but did not expect to see so much Christianity. According to the CIA World Fact book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html#People), South Korea is comprised of 26.3% Christian (19.7% Protestant, 6.6% Roman Catholic), Buddhist 23.2%, and 49.3% claiming no religion.