Leaving Busan, I pedalled north to the cities of Ulsan and Gyeongju that together form a large urban industrial region in the southeastern corner of the country. The latter city was the original capital of the Silla kingdom, lasting almost one thousand years, it was one of Asia's longest dynasties and some of the most important archaeological remains and temples are found within the city and the surrounding hills. Most notable was Bulguksa temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the country and regarded as the crowning achievement of Buddhist art and architecture from the Silla period.
Bulguksa temple - the Blue Cloud and White Cloud bridges
With Chinese visa considerations in mind, I decided on a shorter, more direct route to Seoul than the meandering route up to the northeastern corner that I had originally intended to follow. Autumn had arrived as a stowaway on board the ferry from Japan, evenings now warranting a fleece or two and on the fifth night of camping in South Korea I found the fly-sheet had frozen inside and out with condensation and dew. It's hard to believe that it was just a couple of weeks since I was complaining to myself about the heat at night in the tent in Japan and now I am putting all the clothes I have on again. While there was only one day of rain in South Korea, with the rest being blue sky days, the yellow orb has lost its power and now merely serves to provide light rather than much warmth to compete against the Siberian winds blowing icy air down from the north. Nonetheless daytime temperatures are near perfect for cycling, still climbing up into the high teens at least and best of all a dry atmosphere with no humidity. Gone are the days of smelling like a wet dog after a couple of nights cycling and camping. Shivering at 3 a.m. in the maize sack, however, I'd take the wet dog days anytime.
With almost 500 people per square kilometre, one of the highest population densities in the world, choosing small roads off the busy highways was a priority and I spent the first four days from Gyeongju sticking to backroads that traverse the eastern hills, before cutting across to the South Han riverbank that would lead me into Seoul. On the first night of camping I saw several hidden possibilities before deciding to pitch in a park beside a small village. I asked a young girl if she thought it would be alright and she said yes, before giggling and running into the house. The park was kitted out with toilets, shelters and benches and shaded by towering trees. As darkness fell and I sat reading by torchlight before having to build the house and set up the kitchen, a man emerged from the house and walked slowly over to me, bearing eight eggs which he handed to me with a slight smile and bow before turning to go back and watch the television that flashed from behind the curtains.
An old man was doing laps of the park in the morning as I climbed out of the tent at the late hour of seven o'clock. He said something whilst looking at the tent and then let out a big chuckle before resuming his tortoise paced outing. As I packed up, rain drops started falling from the grey sky above and didn't let up for the rest of the day, although for the most part it was fine Irish mist rather than the traditional Asian bucket bath. I escaped the worst of it as I arrived into the small town of Cheongsong, happily spending a couple of hours at the lively little market, eating sweet bean buns and watching a couple serving fresh raw fish straight from the bucket. Point, slice and serve with a good shot of soju. Later the rain died down and I headed on, choosing to pitch the tent inside one of the many open-sided wooden shelters that dot the Korean countryside, for use in the hot summer days, or cold rainy ones too. I wasn't long settling into my sleeping bag, congratulating myself on the peaceful surroundings and roof above me, with only the odd car passing every quarter of an hour on the little-used road I was on. Across the river the lights of a jeep appeared, bouncing over the rutted track, presumably heading for the lights of a nearby farmhouse. A few moments later a very loud gunshot though had me sitting upright and looking over at what they were doing, just one hundred metres away. They had a powerful lamp to spot game and evidently they had just missed their first target, as they moved on up the valley. Over the next hour, several more fully-laden cars and jeeps rattled up and down the valley with their lights searching for prey. So I laid low and hoped the soju-fuelled hunters wouldn't spot any animals popping up near me. Later on a police car came down the road with the lights on and allowed peace to return.
Rural South Korea, like rural Japan, seems to exist in a temporal vacuum in contrast to its hyper-urban settings that the young have been fleeing to since the 1960s in search of work and the perceived better life on offer. Almost all of the relatively small plots of rice, chillis and other vegetables, as well as the plentiful apple orchards, were tended to by hand by their aging owners. In many faces, the lines of hardship run deep, as these people survived the Korean war, which when it ended in 1953 had left both Koreas utterly devastated, with no economic infrastructure, millions of displaced and many orphans. The United Nations ranked South Korea as one of the poorest countries in the world at the time. Yet this Asian tiger has climbed since the 1960s to have the 14th largest economy in the world today. And all this as well as maintaining watch over its side of the most heavily armed border in the world today and a military that ranks, per capita, only after its northern neighbour in size.
Approaching the capital from the east, it's possible to traverse the entire city along excellent bike paths that line both banks of the Han river as well as surrounding tributaries, meaning that I only spent about one kilometre cycling along roads in one of the largest urban areas in the world. Earlier in the week I was escorted off the highway as a I circled the city of Wonju by a couple of concerned but sincere police officers who appeared to be much more of a hazard than I was, stopping suddenly in the middle of the highway with no warning lights to get out and tell me I couldn't ride the shoulder of the rather empty highway. Monday was a public holiday and crowds were out on the bicycle lanes in astonishing numbers, mostly lycra-clad and looking like a rebel pedalling invasion as it's the fashion to wear full-face cloth mask with dark sunglasses that are regarded as protection from the sun and pollution. I found my way over to Toki and Park's place in the satellite city of Gwangmyeong. Nestled down the end of a lane with a colourful traditional market that gradually gives way to semi-naked busty girls behind glass doors and neon-lit love motels, their flat has their bikes hanging from the ceiling that they recently rode through eastern Australia and New Zealand on a six-month tour of Oceania. I wash in warm water and then we go out to eat grilled seafood. On the way home we pick the best swimmer from an open tank and he's sliced up unceremoniously, headless and still flipping, into a bag which we take home to eat.
No more dog meat
Seoul, South Korea
Pedalled: 50,734 km