River story – 4 River Paths, South Korea

After three months in South Korea and 3098 kilometres that we cycled there, we wanted to sum up all the bike trails that we took. 4 River Paths project, as this huge enterprise is called, was supposed to regulate the 4 main rivers (Han, Geum, Nakdong and Yeongsan) to prevent repeating floods and droughts and to improve cleanness of the water. Project covered also revitalisation of river side areas and building infrastructure friendly for nature and people, following their motto: „River of new life, new Korea”. K-Water company, who manages water regulation in Korea, is the sponsor who implemented all these dams and bridges, with colorful lights and music, museums, pictures and other installations that we tried to find somewhere between kitsch and functional art. We don’t want to write about controversies that always appear when a man intervenes with nature, so although we have our thoughts about it, we will focus only on bike aspects of the 4 River Paths project.

The project included building cycling lanes along the main and smaller rivers, also along the coast. What is very interesting, is certification system, where you collect stamps to a special passport and receive a medal and stickers at the end. Most of cycling tourists go only from Seoul to Busan, which is around 630 km. We decided to cycle all the lanes, which is around 2000 km. In that way, we could get to know Korea much more, visit more places, not only those close to cycling lanes. Our route started and ended in Busan, where we came from Japan by ferry, and after three months we said goodbye to Korea (almost) with tears in our eyes. The map of our route:

description of the trails:

Below we describe our impression from the following paths. From the 5th of March till the 1st of June Korea has undergone a green transformation! At the beginning we saw the last snow, and we left when the rice was well planted on the fields and apples (plum size) grew on the trees. We decided to send back part of our warm clothes home. We even got tanned a bit, but believe us, that our primary attitude was as foggy as foggy Korea was at the beginning of March. That is why, it was worth staying 3 months here, although we haven’t met anyone who would travel in Korea that long. Worth staying, because only in that way you can stop and see more.

SEOMJINGANG

149 km, Baealdo Waterfront Park – Seomjingangdam

Right here we started our adventure with 4 River Paths and our ‘struggle’ to win the bike medal. At the beginning of Seomjingang river we bought special passports, to which for the following weeks we were collecting stamps placed in the red booths by the trails. We became the citizens of 4 River Republic of South Korea 🙂

What was Seomjingang route for us? Wintry! The landscape was monochromatic, dark green trees contrasted with grey bushes, last year grass and polluted air. These were our first days in Korea, that evoked mixed feelings in us. We left Japan with cherry blossom and going back to winter aura simply killed our enthusiasm.

It was good to learn that… in Korea they have wonderful, wooden shelters that gave us protection in rainy days and comfort for second (or third) breakfast. You should never enter neither shelter nor Korean house with your shoes on. Probably, this is one of the worst faux pas of foreigners to enter housing area with shoes on.

The meeting that will stay in our memories, was taking part in Shaman ceremony and treat from them by the river. Women sang, dance and energeticly waved colorful flagues. There was a lot of food brought, vegetables, fruit, kimchi for everyone, drinks, rice cake and meat. That was one of those rare moments when we had to eat what we were given.

The night nominated to be THE BEST one: With no hesitation, that was our office, camping and bathroom, all in one. By the traditional Korean pavilion were toilets, tap and benches. It was quiet, cute and traditional. Travelling gives you chance to see the joy in places you would never expect to find it 🙂 Bench always makes us happy, because even after half of year travelling in Japan and South Korea, we haven’t got used to sitting on the floor for long time.

The place that shows that anything is possible in Korea: Hyangga Park with highlighted bridge and tunnel with music. And only two cyclists there. Unbelievable! That was all for us!

Disadvantage of this route: no drinking water and repetaing signs of drinking water availability; some toilets in very (very!) bad conditions.


YEONGSANGANG

133 km, Damyangdam – Yeongsangang Estuary Bank

That was our second cycling lane, connected with Seomjingang with yet another lane (if someone is wondering about that). Still monochromatic, but it gave us hope for spring to come soon! There, for the first time in Korea, we cycled with t-shirts, Piorun even with shorts! More mountainous pictures appeared but also short and steep uphills, that were more surprising than tiring. Additionally, we mark the route with number 3, we cycled there our 3333 km of the trip 🙂

Who came up with an idea of … putting on a cycling lane 4 km of a soft running mat! Piorun was happy anyway, as he finally cycled with shorts on, but our heavy bikes fall into the mat like into the sand. This surprise happened only once fortunately, although the fear stayed till the end 😉

The night nominated to be THE BEST one: Two nights in a row spent under a beautiful Korean shelter, as the days were really rainy. It was wonderful to have rest in a tent, drink beer in the evening with river view and visit neighbouring Juknokwon, bamboo forest in Damyang.

Juknokwon – bamboo forest, beautiful place, the green colour of bamboo trees is unique. The garden is artificial, with Korean traditional village inside where soap operas are produced, artificial waterfall (with panda bears) and designated trails called: Road of Friendship or Lovers Path. Sounds grotesquely, but we believe it is worth seeing, especially for someone who live in non-bamboo country.

Disadvanteges of this route: similarly to Seomjingang, no drinking water and good toilets.


GEUMGANG

146 km, Geumgang Estuary Bank – Daecheongdam

Between Yeongsangang and Geumgang we visited Jeonju city, that became popular thanks to traditional part of the city with well-maintained old houses. The Korean visit it willingly and take pictures wearing hanbok. After three months of travelling in Korea, it is not unusual for us any longer, but at the beginning we liked the idea of prolonging the tradition in that way. Jeonju is also famous for rice wine makkeolli, that is served with side dishes covering literally whole table! After one copper pot of wine, we were even able to stand snow that covered the roofs of Jeonju that night.

Going back to the trail itself, it would remind us of foggy mornings, last frosts and giant duck-observatory, with which the route started. Korean people, except hiking, love bird watching. We have seen countless places prepared for bird watching, you can hide behind a wooden fence or in a booth and through small window peek over reed grass.

The night nominated to be THE BEST one: right next to the giant duck, among the reed grass of Geumgang Estuary Bank observatory an ideal shelter was hidden. Night walk to the toilet through wooden platforms in wetlands belongs to those memorable.

The lunch nominated to be THE BEST one: Oden and omug: fish cake stuck on a wooden stick, sold mostly at small stalls by the roads. First you eat and then they count the sticks to know how much you should pay. And…Korean pancakes, with sunflower seeds and sweet filling. Yes, fried in deep oil and sweet but so delicious and so crunchy 🙂

Korean way of camping is quite interesting, we saw it for the first time by Geumgang river. First of all, it is competition of the best and latest camping gear. I thought of Polish camping places immediately… Polish people can find a way to fix everything with a string, foil and stick. Whereas in Korea, there are special items to every purpose. Chairs, barbecues, hooks, vessels, roll roofing and electric scooters to ride 50 m to the toilet. Secondly, camping places there need reservation, you cannot appear there just like we tried to do, straight from the cycling lane. We couldn’t camp there (the same situation happened 3 times) because, all the places were ‘fully booked’, they even didn’t allow us to take a shower, even though we wanted to pay for it. But, as we have Korean river camouflage tent and actually who can tell at night if it’s a Korean or Polish, it is easy to guess that we avoided their rules a little 🙂


OCHEON

105 km, Hapgang Park – Haengchon Crossroads

The route was rather short and monotonous. Anyway, we wouldn’t see much the first 20 km 🙂 The fog only.

Meeting of the path: a Korean family helped us with another problem with ‘a campsite master’. Again, they wanted to kick us out, but 12-year-old boy (speaking almost fluently in English, yes, these are Korean children) came to help us. He engaged his family, who allowed us to pt the tent at their place (previously booked) as they couldn’t stay over that night anyway. Campsite was theoretically ‘fully booked’ again but in the morning there were only 4 tents…

Disadvantages of the trail: confusing, old and sometimes hard to read/see signs of the trail, additionaly in Korean language only. It seems that the route isn’t that busy.


SAEJAE

100 km, Chungju Tangeumdae – Sangjusangpoong Bridge

Saejae route connects two main rivers, Han and Nagdong, and meets Ocheon trail from which we arrived for the first time at the end of March heading to the east coast. First time, because the second time we cycled Saejae in the middle of May going to Busan from Seoul. In that way, we could observe how the landscpae had changed from its winter image to the summer one. The route hides beautiful mountainous sections with the highest point of 4 River Paths that is actually quite easy uphill.

Meeting of the path: the one we will remember is the long evening we spent with the first cyclists (pannier cyclists) we met since we left in December 2017. We missed cyclist with whom we could share similar stories, so the evening with beer and bike stories was just perfect for us!

The second meeting, in the summer was a Kanadian couple. We met them along the trail, we all stopped, as usually foreign pannier cyclists do, to talk. They travelled a few months in Japan and Korea, slept in a tent, sometimes in hostel, nothing unusual, except that they were both 71 years old! We feel inspired for the next 40 years! We felt enormous enthusiasm and energy from them. The most important is your own attitude towards your abilities, as that attitude creates the boarders in your mind.

The Canadian couple we talked to, and Korean couple who was just passing by, and Australian cyclist who was also just passing by. Why shouldn’t we take a photo all together then?

The lunch nominated to be THE BEST one: we love small, local, Korean restaurants in which they usually serve just a few dishes. Often we chose something from the picture menu or tried to explain in our basic Korean sentences that we don’t eat meat. Women (as they usually run these places) were usually surprised with foreign guests and tried hard to create vegetarian dish out of their kitchens. At local market we found wondeful little restaurant with raman (not Japanese ramen), gimbap and udon in Korean version.
We have changed our diet for the summer version as well. Instead of pasta or convenient cookies and chocolate bars, we choose colorful salads, inspired be current sales in the shops 🙂

The night nominated to be THE BEST one: the night we called oasis among the fields. As it really was the oasis of green and peace, where we discovered new recipy for topoki, that in Korea is prepared only in one version with spicy chili sauce. Our version included rice cake of course, we love it, but with spicy pumpkin sauce. We cannot reveal the details, all we can say is that the Korean friends who we served the dish to, were impressed 🙂


That was the summary of the first part of trails we cycled in Korea. We will work on describing the rest of the routes, also about east coast up to the boarder with North Korea. We would like to defend South Korea as a country that has much more to offer, than just a place where you can go to renew the Japanese visa. It has many beautiful places, some of them with military burden of the past, but it all mean that Korea needs more reflection, a chance and understanding and it can give more than it primarly appears.

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