Korea: so easy and relaxing it was almost boring. Amazing food, silky smooth cycle lanes, incredible hosts, beautiful scenery.
I arrived in Incheon, the old port city of South Korea, with no one to stay with. After only an hour using the ubiquitous free WiFi, I had a Warmshowers host only 10km from the port. Chan Song accepted my request to stay with him at incredibly short notice. He met me right after he had finished work, cancelling an appointment for a haircut and took me to his tiny one room apartment where I had a shower and we went straight out to dinner to eat pig’s foot. I was sceptical about liking it but apparently it is a delicacy in Korea just like in China. Happy to try any food, I approached the meal with an open mind. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. The foot also included the lower leg and it was delicious, very similar to pork belly. The meal came with lots of side dishes like Kimchi, chilli sauce, salty shrimp, fermented leaves and a dish almost like grass, marinated in chilli, sesame seeds and sweet vinegar. Side dishes in Korea are free, when you want more you just ask.
After one night at Chan’s I made my way to Seoul, starting at the beginning of Korea’s four rivers cycle path. A cycle route that goes all the way from north to south, 70% of which is solely off-road cycle paths. I think it’s up there with the cycle paths I experienced in Belgium, possibly better. It makes the city feel so much more alive, thousands of people cycling to work every morning. The paths a hushed frenzy of chains and gears clicking.
It’s an amazing place to ride, I would recommend it to anyone, so easy and simple, almost too easy. I want to come back with more time and go off into the wilder parts of Korea. The main cycle route cuts straight down the middle of the country but there are also routes along the East Coast and routes snaking down to the South West.
In Seoul I had a Korean Couchsurfing host to stay with called Red who described his home as small and damp, and that he hates it. Indeed it was small and damp, an actual puddle greeted me on the wrong side of the front door. Red is a well-travelled 50-year-old filmmaker still following his passion and I respect him so much for it, obviously following the tenet that it’s better to be an honest street sweeper than a dishonest king (here is a trailer to one of his movies about the taxi drivers of Seoul). We became friends over the three days that I stayed with him. He took me on a small tour around Seoul which ended up being a kind of food tasting tour as I kept asking about Korean foods and wanted to go to the local market. Because we both had an interest in sci-fi topics, we had some fascinating conversations and agreed that good sci-fi is really just the preface to the future, much of it has already come to pass and will do so again.
He told me he wasn’t a very good tour guide for Seoul as he wasn’t interested in the city. Having grown up there he found it boring. This is something that happens to many people, we disregard our home town or even our home country in favour of those beautiful imagined far off places. Yet I think just as much can be learned if you can look upon the place you call home with fresh eyes. Easier said than done but how would someone who lives in a two room ‘house’ without a shower or inside toilet see your home? What would they think of the regular buses and trains that are sometimes a bit late. What would they think of those rolling green hills or that beautiful city park. What would they think of your 10-year-old car or our free healthcare?
I asked to see the part of Seoul where Koreans go, rather than the tourists, so for lunch we went to a cheap restaurant that had been in Seoul for as long as Red could remember. These places often tend to be the best and most immersive in any big city, you need a local to show you to get a true feel for the place, often you want to stay there for hours interacting and observing. On our way to the restaurant we saw groups of old men outside a small park playing a simplified version of Go, except everyone was crowding around one game between an old man and a young boy. As Red quietly commented for my benefit, it became quite heated. The tension built as the boy set out to play his last move to beat his much older and more experienced opponent. All of the old men congratulated him when he finally completed his move. On came the next player, another old man. Within a minute the boy was winning and the old man, not wanting to lose face, stopped the game using the excuse of teaching the young boy how to play, moving the boy’s pieces around the board. This enraged the other old men who were shouting at him, telling him the boy was better than him, telling him to play fair, many of them who were crowded around the board walked away in anger, bumping into me as they left the ruined game.
The restaurant served only one meal, spicy beef soup with a bowl of rice and a bowl of the simplest Kimchi. For those who don’t know, Kimchi is fermented vegetables, there are 180 different types of Kimchi, the most common being the baechu kimchi using napa cabbage as a base. I couldn’t get enough of it. Kimchi often contains many different ingredients, you have the base vegetable such as cabbage but it could also be radish or sesame leaves, cucumber, aubergine, courgette and many more. After the cabbage is soaked overnight in brine to kill any pathogenic bacteria it’s drained and a mixture of sub ingredients is added. This includes chilli flakes, red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, shrimp, sesame seeds, mustard leaves, salt, rice starch and vinegar. All these ingredients and the end product are incredibly good for you.
Here is a short list showing just some of the powerful health benefits of Kimchi proven by research: Anticancer; anti-obesity; colorectal health promotion; probiotic properties; cholesterol reduction; anti-atherosclerotic effects; antioxidative and anti-aging properties; brain health promotion; immune promotion and skin health promotion. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Korea is predicted to have the longest life expectancy by 2030, overtaking Japan.
The U.K. and especially America will be lagging quite far behind probably due to our horrific sugar-laden western diets. So instead of that big dollop of ketchup with a meal, reach for the kimchi.
(Here for the science geeks is a link to one scientific journal that outlines the research and benefits of Kimchi, it makes for very interesting and exciting reading if you consider the health benefits to a whole population. It would have been nice to write more about the topic but this blog possibly isn’t the place for it…
Anyway, back to the old Korean restaurant… Red told me that everything was the same as the first time he had been there 25 years before. The food tasted the same, the restaurant looked the same and the same old lady served you your meal.
The last night I was in Seoul we went to a Korean BBQ restaurant where you have a hot plate which is actually the lid of a big metal rice cooker heated underneath by a gas hob. On the hot plate you put slices of pork belly and vegetables such as bean sprouts, chillies, garlic, onion, and kimchi… all the sides are refillable. I never thought a rice cooker lid would be an essential piece of cooking equipment for a home but I’ve changed my mind.
I left Seoul at 7pm in an incredibly good mood, having made a good friend. I cycled the silky smooth and softly lit cycle paths through the city with the sound of cicadas and classical music drifting from speakers placed along the path. I continued until 10pm, when I found a place to camp near the Han river in the middle of the city. Korea being such a safe place, I just took out my sleeping matt, pumped it up and slept right there next to my bike with a beautiful view of the city at night.
Korea has everything you’ve been missing as a cycle tourer when you want to relax. Toilets, drinking water, free camping and more are often common place. There are also wooden pagodas everywhere, sometimes in stunning places, perfect for sleeping without a tent or resting for lunch.
South Korea was the perfect beginning to the end of my journey and the first half of what has been the cherry on the twowheelstotokyo cake…
I continued down the lazy four rivers cycle route, soaking up the landscape, the wildlife and the relaxing cycle paths, contemplating all that I had experienced in the last year, the anniversary quickly approaching. I’m not sure what else to say about South Korea, it was quite uneventful yet very enjoyable. The highlight was the food, I enjoyed it so much and I’m looking forward to replicating many of the dishes in the future.
I realise most of this post has been about food… I couldn’t help it, for me it’s such a big part of travelling. You learn so much about a country and its culture through its food. For example, most Koreans have two or even three fridges in their homes, one normal fridge and one or two kimchi fridges that replicate the conditions of being buried in the ground, which is traditionally how kimchi was made. Large pots would be filled with all the ingredients needed to make it and they would then be buried for maybe a few weeks or months all the way up to a decade…
It’s sounds awful but then you remember we love to spread mould riddled old milk onto dry crackers and suddenly it doesn’t seem so weird.
Much of the country feels quite new, with few old buildings in a similar way to certain parts of Europe. Many being destroyed during the Korean civil war, which lasted for three years from June 1950 to July 1953. Soviet and North Korean forces pushed all the way down to the southern city of Busan which was the last stronghold of the South Korean and US forces. The war was ‘won’ when combined US and South Korean forces attacked the northern port city of Incheon, cutting off supplies to North Korean and soviet forces. This pushed them all the way north to the border of China and the current North Korea. This is where the border would have stayed with Korea united as one, except China decided to get involved and pushed back to the current border where a stalemate ensued with both sides being equal in force. This created the divided Korea that exists today. Since then, South Korea has enjoyed rapid social, economic and technological progress, changing almost beyond recognition compared to 30 years ago.
In the south of the country in the little village of Sejin-ri, straddling a small river nestled in the wooded hills, I stayed with some more Warmshowers hosts. Mook and Ahgie, are a forty-year-old couple who moved from the city of Busan to Sejin-ri for a more peaceful life in the countryside, working at a wetland centre. They lived in one of the few traditional Korean houses in the village, it was so simple and beautiful, I felt instantly relaxed there as soon as I arrived. There was that Japanese and Korean style of architecture, half inside and outside, making you feel so much more connected to nature. We ate dinner together sat on a wooden floor covered with a tatami straw mat, accompanied by the evening cacophony of insects. We talked about their travel experiences cycling in countries like Turkey, Scotland, England and Europe. On my second night there we went out to a restaurant with some of their friends, two of them were potters which is much more of an art-form in Asian culture. They make wares such as traditional elegant tea sets. They were cousins who lived together in a large building that used to be a primary school. It’s where we went after our game of pool to drink beer, listen to one of them play guitar and sing Korean songs while the other made some Korean pancakes of onion, egg and flour fried in oil.
I left Mook and Aghie’s the next day to head towards Busan to stay with another Warmshowers host, cycling straight towards a typhoon. On the way I met a group of five young Korean cyclists who were intensely interested in my journey, they couldn’t believe it. I hope I inspired them to follow their dreams and do big things. They wanted to get to Busan that night so we cycled together in the dark, talking and braving the strong winds that had picked up. I planned to camp just outside of Busan, ready the next day to go to my host’s home.
The cyclists said they wanted to stop at the next restaurant they saw so I told them I would carry on because I couldn’t afford it but they laughed and said they were inviting me. As always, I tried to politely decline. I’ve been given so much by so many people it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable now, I almost feel I’ve been given too much, not being able to give anything in return except for my story. Yet I hope I’ve also learnt to accept gifts gracefully, so after the third offer I accepted and we stopped at a small restaurant next to the dark cycle path. The food was incredible, something called Bibimbap, which I’ve made before. But this was special Bibimbap. I’ll let the photo do the talking, you mix everything together with your chopsticks. I was told it’s quite a boring dish for Koreans as it’s usually made by using the leftovers of previous meals but it’s probably their most famous food.
We continued to cycle on through the dark and at 12pm I decided to camp, we said goodbye and shook hands multiple times, they wished me luck and told me not to die, I told them I would do my best not to and went about finding a spot to sleep in the howling wind. Ah I’m so lucky. Within 10 minutes I found an excellent place, a mobile office on wheels near to the river with a rowing boat inside but plenty of space for me and my bike. I knew being next to the river wasn’t the best place in a typhoon but the structure was chained to the ground and looked incredibly heavy… I slept like a baby.
The next morning was pleasant and I finished the last 30km to my host Felix’s home, where he lived with his parents so he could save money for travel. Both of us were the same age, he had already done a year’s bike tour in Australia, New Zealand, North America (where his bike was stolen), Canada and then four months living and working in New York (which I was incredibly envious of and had lots of questions about).
My four-night stay at Felix’s home was fantastic… his mother Mrs Cho, an excellent cook, wouldn’t stop feeding me. She wanted me to try every Korean food she had or could make. I would finish an enormous lunch with Felix and then an hour later Mrs Cho would want me to try something else she had been cooking. I left Felix’s home nearly 6kg heavier than when I arrived…
Felix told me that they were very nervous and excited about having a foreign guest. Mr Cho works in a senior position at a fishing company and Mrs Cho is a housewife but she seemed to keep herself incredibly busy, almost never stopping.
On my last full day there, Felix took me on a tour of Busan, as much as you could see in one day. We started at the culture village where he rented me a traditional Korean Hanbok. We walked around for forty minutes and took photos of the not very cultural sites in what was more of a tourist village than a culture village, but it was still fun. The photos we took made me laugh and I was grateful for the experience as it was something I would have never ordinarily done on my own.
From the culture village we went to the Haedong Yonggung temple by the sea, it was beautiful although packed with tourists. Built in 1376, it was destroyed by the Japanese invasion of 1592 and then rebuilt in 1930. I can imagine that before it was touristified it must have been an utterly stunning place, probably difficult to get to along steep coastal paths, secluded and peaceful.
After Haedong Yonggung we went for lunch to a place near the sea and had a dish of spicy octopus called Nakji-Bokkeum with rice and side dishes of bean sprouts, cold cucumber ‘soup’ which is more of a refreshing sweet-sour drink and lettuce with sesame seed dressing. The octopus’ dish was sweet and quite spicy, maybe a little too sweet but it was delicious. Korean food is always quite heavily ‘sauced’. Is that a word? There is often some sort of sauce to dip food in or a dish will be made with lots of sauce to begin with. It’s either sweet, spicy, umami, sour or a combination of all of them.
After this vast meal Felix said I had to try a traditional Korean pudding so we went to a cafe and had (blabla) which consists of frozen milk which is then shaved to a fine powder of basically milk snow… this is piled up and then covered in bean powder which tastes a little like powdered marzipan and nuts.
Next we went to the market but, because it was a Sunday, most of it was closed. We wondered around and on a corner at the end of the road by the sea I spotted a stall selling fish. I hoped it might be the start of a small street market so we wondered over and I was gifted here with a real insight into what felt like the real food culture of Busan. Although I didn’t eat anything because I was so full, we wondered down this street looking at all of the different fish, seeing people bartering for better prices or people eating seafood at small tables and chairs. It was the freshest seafood you can get, killed after you’ve ordered your meal. It’s somewhere I’ll have to go back to.
We continued on to more sights in the city and met some of Felix’s friends for some beers at a bar. Then we went to the top of the ‘mountain’ that overlooks the entire city, with fog reflecting its light; millions of people all living in this small area, the city appearing like one giant living organism which depended on thousands of different factors to work properly. Just like a real body. The roads took people to and from wherever they had been to work or spend money, consuming and creating.
The next day I was on a ferry to Fukuoka, Japan, which I couldn’t quite believe, back in England it never seemed real, this surreal far flung island chain, the distance so utterly vast, a totally abstract destination.