South Korea might seem a long way to go for a spot of cycling, but this Asian nation is establishing itself as a world-class sports destination. It's hosting the Asian Games in 2014, the Winter Olympics in 2018 and, last year, it was voted Asia's leading sports tourism destination. Cycling looks set to become the next big thing here, even for slightly rusty proponents such as myself. At the of start my cycling adventure in the capital, Seoul, I was rather too eager to test-ride the sturdy road bike and climbed on without checking gears or breaks. I swiftly rolled into our (stationary) back-up bus and promptly fell backwards, landing in a puddle. My guide and driver both looked horrified, but only my pride was bruised.
The rivers Han to the north, Geum to the west, Nakdong to the east and Yeongsan to the south, have all been developed as part of a government scheme to get Koreans cycling. Of the 1,757km of river cycle paths, 310km follow the Han, which divides into North and South Han east of Seoul. There are plenty of cycle paths along the Han River in central Seoul itself, but with 25 million people living in and around the city, it's a pretty busy place. After my initial debacle, it seemed a good idea to break myself in gently, so bikes were bundled into the bus and driven 30km east to a quieter area.
"Ready?" asked my guide, Woonbae Park, or "Mr Park" for ease, as we set off from the small village of Changmoru, into the South Korean spring sunshine, following the Han River's north shore at a steady pace. Much to my relief, the riverside paths proved fairly easy cycling – although not always flat (this is a mountainous country after all). It was a weekday and there were few cyclists on the brand new, nicely surfaced paths. We followed the Han along an elevated section with lovely, pastoral views across the river and abundant flowers in full bloom. Great use has been made of existing infrastructure with sections of the cycle paths following disused and converted railway tracks.
At Ungilsan, the Han River splits into North and South Han ("Bukhangang and Namhangang", Mr Park carefully had me practising the pronunciation) and we continued along the former, following its northern shore past gentle hills and floating fishing huts. Our destination was Chuncheon, 75km from central Seoul and the main city in Gangwon province. I arrived to a somewhat non-descript, modern city, full of concrete apartment blocks, on the banks of the river. However, it had a few tasty reasons for visiting.
Chuncheon is well-known for two distinct dishes, chicken barbecue (dak galbi) and buckwheat noodles (mak kuk-soo) – in other words, the perfect place for a late lunch. We settled in, shoes off, sitting cross-legged at a low table, at Dak Galbi restaurant, by the river. The hot plate sitting in the middle of the table was soon filled with chicken, cabbage, mushroom, rice cake, onion and various greens, all stirred into a hot red chilli paste and cooked in front of us. When the dak galbi was nicely sizzling, we grabbed some of the delicious-smelling mix, wrapped it into fresh lettuce or wild sesame leaves and tucked in. All the food was served with banchan, side dishes consisting of types of kimchi, traditional fermented and seasoned vegetables.
Chuncheon marks the end of the cycle paths along the North Han. After devouring such a vast meal, I was grateful to hop on the support bus for the remainder of the journey. The road from here climbs steadily, and although cycling is perfectly possible, this route is best suited to experienced cyclists at ease with hairpin bends. Our final stop was the village of Haean at the bottom of Yanggu Punch Bowl, a crater-like valley surrounded by high peaks. "Some of the fiercest battles of the Korean War took place here in 1951 and several thousand people lost their lives," Mr Park told me. The area, formerly part of North Korea, now belongs to the South and looked remarkably peaceful in the afternoon sun. Lofty, snow-clad peaks surrounded the vast crater that gives the place its name; these days gentle ginseng fields spread out across the crater floor.
My home for the night was the rustic Punch Bowl Pension, overlooking the mountains. Following the mimed instructions of the owner – whose English was as good as my Korean – I entered, taking off my shoes first. No sooner had I stepped inside than she grabbed my arm, pulling me to the ground. Only when she pressed my palms firmly against the floor did it dawn on me that she was trying to demonstrate the wonderful underfloor heating. The "pension" was in fact a number of self-contained little cottages and I had my own two-storey wooden abode for the night, complete with terrace, enormous heating unit and a curious lack of table and chairs. A village walk revealed a modest military museum nearby, commemorating the battles, alas closed for the evening.
Well rested, we set off the following morning, cycling through the Punch Bowl crater. Pedalling down the valley in the blazing sunshine, alongside the glittering waters of a fast flowing stream, with impressive summits all around me, was one of the trip's highlights. We spent the morning exploring the mountainous landscape, before it was time to hop back on the bus and head south to explore.
After the morning's road biking we were back on the cycle paths, which were busier than the quiet roads up north – serious Korean weekend cyclists were out in full force. From Yangsu, the cycle paths followed both elevated sections and the riverbanks of the South Han themselves, with pleasant views of the quiet rural scenery contrasting sharply with the majestic mountains I'd been surrounded by only a few hours earlier.
Continuing south, we soon came upon some of the area's best-known sights – the weirs at Ipobo and Yeoju, futuristic and distinctly odd-looking, if very impressive (the former has large, silvery egg-shaped engines along the top and is built in the shape of a crane – of the avian variety), and nearby sixth-century Silleuksa Temple, one of few Buddhist temples with a riverside location, a serene spot for quiet contemplation.
It was South Korea in microcosm: timeless agricultural landscapes and striking feats of engineering sitting side by side. It might be a long way to come for a spot of cycling, but getting out of the city and into the country had afforded me a fascinating glimpse of South Korea.
The writer travelled from Heathrow to Seoul with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Returns start at £599.
Riverside cycling guide (riverguide.go.kr).
South Korea-based Exodus DMC offers organised cycle trips (00 82 31 907 8044; exodusdmc.com).