Cycling South Korea on the Four Rivers bike trail
Courtesy of http://cycletraveller.com.au/australia/features/review/bicycle-touring-on-the-4rivers-bike-trail-south-korea
There’s a bike path running the length of South Korea and hardly anyone knows about it.
Cycling from Busan to Seoul along a route that traces two rivers was 600 of the easiest, most relaxing kilometres we’ve ever ridden. The bike path network is called the 4Rivers and is part of a massive infrastructure project the government finished in 2011, which cost around US$17 billion.
Most of that money went to building dams, but an incredible amount must also have been spent on the bike path and its facilities: there are toilets nearly every 5km, drinking water, free campgrounds, bike maintenance areas, snack and wifi stops about every 20km, and a passport stamping system which earns you a gold medal if you complete an entire path.
All of that and there’s hardly a tourist to be seen.
Into the unknown
Jorja and I rocked up from the ferry terminal in Busan on Korea’s south coast with open minds and low expectations. South Korea was never a dream destination; neither of us knew much about the place or what it would be like to ride there. We were there because it was on a line between dots, allowing us to avoid flying between Japan and China.
We had started dreaming up this trip years ago when we met while working as bike messengers in London. Since then we’d moved to Sydney, still bike messengering, saving up and dreaming of cycling around the world.
Japan, our first stop, had knocked us out. It was full of such interesting contrasts with Australia. We met many generous and kind people and rode through dozens of sleepy towns and misty mountain passes. So when we boarded the Fukuoka ferry to South Korea, it was with mixed emotions; we were grateful for what we experienced and sad to be leaving.
Reaching Korea, Busan was a rowdy city with rowdy traffic, but this was fun to be amongst after sedate Japanese roads.
Autumn settled in as we rolled north along the 4Rivers. It was the perfect time to be there: the rice harvest was finishing, reds and oranges emerged through the deep greens of Oak and Pine trees alongside the rivers; small fires of gathered twigs and brush burned along the dykes and fields, their thin smoke lines rising in the dusk.
The evening and mornings cooled as we rode north, with the sun slowly burning through the mist each day. We’d sit in the shade at lunch making embroidered maps of the country, feeling zen.
Starting along the Nakdong river we took our time, appreciating the bike path’s mindless navigating, smooth surface, and flat riding while hundreds of masked and sunglass-wearing Koreans rode past us on mountain bikes, maybe smiling, often waving.
We saw deer, eagles, and some wild pigs; it was a nature-treat good time. While we had some stunning natural views along the river we were happiest when the path briefly crossed through a town and we could speak and mime with locals and see some human life and culture. Most of the rural areas were vacant of young people, with only old women and men left harvesting rice and tending gardens.
The cyclists on the paths ranged from PB-setting Strava dudes to grannies and grandkids on tandems and everything else you can imagine. Mostly it was the high cadence mountain bike riding crew with their speakers playing K-Pop.
For anyone wanting an easy first cycling tour, this is your country. If you haven’t ridden your bike in years, have no fear, you don’t have to think about traffic or difficult surfaces or hard climbs.
It’s easier and more relaxing than you can imagine. And if you want to smash out 250km a day with nothing but arm warmers and a credit card that could easily fit here too.
Around Seoul there were lots of roadies training hard and they weren’t a danger to the tandem grannies or dangerously impeded by them.
Home for the night
We camped every night but one of the 10 days it took to get to Seoul and never had issues finding great places. There are small shelters along the path which seem like lunch and shade spots, but fit our four-man tent perfectly.
One night we camped on a shop roof while another was spent on a croquet field; it was just a matter of either asking or deciding we liked the look of a certain spot.
We were told by a few people that camping anywhere within reason is fine and didn’t hear anyone having problems. There are hotels in almost every small town too, so if camping isn’t what you’re into, you’ll be fine.
Along the path we met less than a dozen tourists, which doesn’t fit with what’s there. It can only be a result of people not knowing. It bothered me after a few days that I couldn’t work out why more tourists didn’t know. Surely it would make sense to encourage tourists to come, right? Even accounting for people thinking it wasn’t exciting enough, there must be loads who’d enjoy a smooth, easy ride with amenities.
Korea by bike
We met a Swiss couple in Fukuoka who told us about a man called Brad Kirby: ‘If you need a Korean address, or have any questions about cycling in South Korea talk to him.’
Brad is on a mission to spread the word about cycling in South Korea and to help any bike tourists who are already riding through. He has a Facebook page called, Korea By Bike where he posts pictures and gives information, but the real service he’s been providing has been to answer the messages of dozens of people riding through the country.
He very kindly accepted a parcel for us and meeting him made me realise how generous and warm-hearted a guy he is. Look him up if you’re planning a bike trip and have questions or if you are cycling in Korea and need help.
Brad mentioned that the current government had partly come to power by criticising the previous administration for overspending; they used the bike path network as a prime example. So maybe that’s the answer: South Korea doesn’t promote its wonderful cycling network because the current government criticised it.
Our only minor complaints about the 4Rivers, considering how easy it was, are mostly to do with how easy it was.
The first day was a total novelty and then after a few days the hours blended together without having to navigate or think about cars or do a big climb. The solution is to get off the path and onto a road, find some hills and link back up with the path when it seemed like a good idea again.
Having said that, we didn’t; we stuck to the path almost the entire way. It was like a train track and that made us zip beside towns we couldn’t see to instead look at yet another bend in the river or out over the orange-brown floodplain. A problem easily solved, but very tempting to not solve it.
The only other small annoyance was that for some reason when the path would go down a short slope, it was full of bumps. Mountain bikers didn’t feel a thing, but we bumped and rattled down each one on our touring bikes. I don’t know what made them bumpy (and of course, it’s whinging) but we found it annoying. Other than these downhill sections, the paths are so smooth your saddle could be made of knives and you’d be fine.
There were a couple of shocking 17% short and sharp hills that were like being hit with a frying pan in the face, but it would only take a few minutes to walk up them.
South Korea is a damn fine place for an easy tour – put it on your list.
About Dan and Jorja
We have a website – Jambi-Jambi – where we’ll be putting up short videos, stories, and photos about the people we meet and the places we ride through, as well as embroided maps of the countries we cycle through. We made a short video of a day on the path. Come by and have a look and get in touch if you have any suggestions of places we ought to go.