Go with the flow on a South Korean cycle

The nation's riverbanks have been developed with a series of biking trails, says Anna Maria Espsäter

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.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled from Heathrow to Seoul with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Returns start at £599.

Other airlines flying to Seoul include Korean Air (00 800 0656 2001; koreanair.com) and Asiana (020-7304 9900; flyasiana.com) from Heathrow.

Cycling there

Riverside cycling guide (riverguide.go.kr).

South Korea-based Exodus DMC offers organised cycle trips (00 82 31 907 8044; exodusdmc.com).

More information

Korea Tourism Organisation (020-7321 2535; gokorea.co.uk). VisitKorea.or.kr; email: london@GoKorea.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor