Cycling in the Korean capital is not for the faint of heart, but on a demanding ride from the city centre to the beach, Matt C Crawford discovers the many frictions – old vs new, rural vs urban – that make it immensely rewarding
Images: Dylan Goldby
For cyclists, Seoul is a boon as well as a bane. On one hand, there are 900km of street-level bike lanes criss-crossing the city. On the other, nearly three-quarters of these are shared with motorists, with a mere line on the asphalt keeping the roiling traffic at bay. Furthermore, while there’s a recreational cycling network that spans the entire country and pathways along the Han River are often buzzing, riding a bike downtown is something most Koreans avoid.
Things do seem to be tipping in favour of cyclists, though. In April 2018, a 2.6km cycling lane opened on Jongno, Seoul’s historic main street. It’s the city’s first bicycle-only lane, with vehicular intruders liable to be fined. The city government has also announced bold plans to create an elevated network of bicycle paths inspired by bike-friendly cities like Xiamen and Copenhagen – though a timeline for this game-changing project is unclear.
For the moment, Seoul remains an ever-changing work-in-progress. And to survey its dichotomies – both bike-related and otherwise – I’ve decided to undertake a day-long ride. I’ll start in history-laden downtown to see if it’s as perilous as it’s made out to be. Then I’ll coast along the Han River – a haven for Seoul’s bikers. I could end the journey at the western city limits, but there’s much more to explore. The world’s fifth-largest metropolitan area, greater Seoul is part of a huge urban sprawl that includes 20 or so satellite cities, surrounded by ocean and embedded with mountains. To see more of it, I’ll continue on through bustling Incheon and hopefully end up on Dongmak Beach, on rural Ganghwa Island, for a ride totalling 74km.
Unless I lose my nerve, fail mechanically or end up lost, I’ll be able to start with the dawn and finish with the sunset – and hopefully appreciate more of the city’s contradictions.
In the heart of the city
It’s 7am when I emerge from the underground in Gwanghwamun, the heart of Seoul since the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). The three massive doors of Gyeongbokgung palace’s gate are securely shut, and above an imposing tiered wall rises Mt Bugak, like the head of some giant green beast.
I wait for the traffic light to change, and then I am off, coasting through brisk air under a grey, moody sky. The bike lane on Sejong Boulevard is part of the sidewalk, largely empty of pedestrians this early in the morning. As I cycle past Namdaemun Gate, I reflect that if this were 100 years ago, I’d already be outside the city. Back then, few buildings were higher than two stories, and the city was contained by the peaks that form a natural defense in the four cardinal directions. Since the 1970s, though, the remaining sections of the once-imposing city wall have become dwarfed by a jumble of skyscrapers, and the population has swelled to nearly 10 million souls.
For most of the way, I share the road with lumbering buses, but they keep a respectful distance from cyclists – which is more than can be said about motorists in many other urban centres. Feeling relatively secure, I’m able to admire the landscaping on my right – gingkoes, American sycamores, azalea bushes and ornamental pines. At times, the splashes of green almost trick me into forgetting I’m still in the city.
Whizzing past Yongsan Station, I spot a stand on the roadside selling bungeo ppang (carp-shaped confection). Hungry for breakfast, but with no time to duck into a café, I screech to a stop and approach the bemused stallholder, who plucks five bungeo ppang from a cast-iron mould and hands them over in a paper bag. With their crispy, waffle-like exteriors and piping-hot adzuki bean fillings, these fish-shaped snacks are a perfect breakfast on the run. I bite off a crunchy tail and congratulate myself on a smooth beginning.
A riverside haven
The tenor of the trip changes when I reach the Han River, a slow-flowing watercourse that divides the city into north and south. I intend to head towards the 63 Building, Seoul’s unmistakable 264m-tall skyscraper, but I end up dallying on the north bank exploring Hangang Art Park, a set of sculptures and art installations unveiled less than a year ago by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. From a lunging fanged bear crafted from strips of tires, I move on to supersized snails and pink flamingoes made from plastic bags.
I notice several runners using the bike lanes when I head back, then a group of them. It dawns on me that a marathon is underway. To avoid the stampede, I cross the Hangang Bridge, only to discover another marathon kicking off on the south side. It’s a vivid display of Seoulites’ taste for active pursuits, from rock climbing, synchronised dancing and skateboarding to running and of course cycling.
As I bike along at river level, lawns and plazas come to the fore and the megacity fades into the background. Stopping to apply sunscreen near Yanghwa Bridge, I get into a conversation with one of the many riverside cyclists, 60-year-old Hong Seok-hee. “I used to have diabetes,” Hong confides. “But my condition has turned around since I started cycling three times a week. I guess that’s the joy of staying active.”
Upon reaching a bustling cyclist hang-out, I decide to take a break. I claim a bench and scan the scene. The bike tracks along the Han River total some 260km, and are separated from vehicular traffic, making the area an unparalleled epicentre for cyclists in the city. On view here is a thorough and diverse cross-section of that population. On my left are the middle-aged members of the Jamsil MTB Club, wearing matching yellow-and-white jerseys, and on my right are the members of the Geumcheon MTB Club, decked out in flashy red jerseys. In the middle are young guns with elite bikes, families, lovestruck couples and eccentrics with recumbent bikes. Judging by their gear, most take their sport very seriously.
A countrywide challenge
It’s around noon now, and at the end of the Han River Bicycle Path, I see a couple stepping out of a cherry-red booth with what look like passports in their hands. They introduce themselves as Alexi Goutore, from France, and Lee Sae-bom, from Korea. As it turns out, they’ve just collected their first stamp along the Cross-Country Cycling Road, which I’ve also been riding on since arriving at the Han River.
The Cross-Country Cycling Road is the main artery of the Four Rivers Path, an initiative that grew out of former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s ambition to turn the country’s largest rivers into canals. When the scheme faltered, Lee scaled it down to the erecting of weirs, dredging of river bottoms and building of over 1,800km of bicycle paths that span much of the country and are designed for recreational riders. In this way, an environmentally questionable boondoggle has become the most attractive piece of cycling infrastructure in Korea. And while it’s virtually unknown outside the country, awareness among visitors is growing.
If Goutore and Lee stop at every stamp booth en route to Busan, over 600km to the southeast, they’ll get a certificate and medal from the government. By comparison, my day-long journey is little more than a ride around the block. “We’re planning five days for the trip, but we’re a bit nervous,” Goutore says, with a laugh. “Until now, we’ve only done small rides on the weekend.”
I wish the ambitious couple good luck and start down the 21km Ara Bicycle Path, which follows the Ara Waterway and ends up in the city of Incheon and the Yellow Sea. The placid canal, which cost about US$1.9 billion to build, was initially attempted in the 13th century by military leader Choe I and only finished in 2011, one year ahead of the Four Rivers Path. While the canal is much narrower than the Han River, its bike paths are generously wide. For the first time all day, I’m able to build up some speed and ride for long stretches all on my own.
I’m nearly 45km into my grand day-long adventure, and my legs are wobbly from fatigue when I stop near Geomam Station at a multi-storey complex containing restaurants and a convenience store. The structure looks surprisingly sleek and modern considering that the landscape above the canal is dominated by rolling hills and clusters of high-rise apartments. When I step inside, I discover a small fish market. The stallholders wave me over, and soon I’m chatting with a prim, bespectacled vendor named Shim Jun-eui.
“Why don’t you try this?” she says, gesturing at a large pink glob. “It’s skate liver – caught locally, off Daecheong Island.” When she tells me that it’s great for stamina, I’m sold. I enjoy the rich, creamy liver at an outdoor table together with a can of energy drink. It wasn’t the lunch I was envisioning, but unexpected discoveries like this are typical of bike meanderings around Seoul and beyond. And so are friendly encounters with people from all walks of life, like Ms Shim.
I’d like to linger, but huge grey clouds have massed in the sky, threatening a downpour. I hop back on my bike and sprint the last 6km, to the terminus of the Seoul-Busan bikeway.
A scary stretch
To go north along the coast, I now venture into a zone of boxy factories and cargo trucks. The sidewalks have cycle lanes, but it’s lonely going here. I follow the road signs pointing to Ganghwa Island and end up riding on the edge of a shoulderless lane, with dump trucks rumbling past one after the other. I steel my nerves and concentrate on the gravelly road surface, steering ever so carefully to avoid toppling into the ditch.
Relief washes over me half an hour later when I reach Choji Bridge. Beyond the channel of swirling taupe water is Ganghwa Island, where the Goryeo dynasty royal court took refuge in the 13th century as the Mongol hordes invaded the mainland. As I chug my way over the bridge and begin to coast down, a low plain unfurls. In the distance are fresh green hills and peaks.
As the scenery turns mountainous, the road becomes a series of twists and turns. One particularly long hill tests my perseverance, but upon clearing the top I see the finish line: a curve of yellow sand backed by a windbreak of pines. Looming grandly above it all is Mt Mani, its flank cloaked in soft green clusters of oak.
For three-quarters of the journey, I passed through one of the world’s largest urban areas – first Seoul, then Incheon and Gimpo. But very little of the ride felt typically urban. Car traffic was usually close by but hidden from view. And the cityscape always played second fiddle to the public art, park infrastructure and abundant greenery. The city centre may not be a cycle speedway, but with a dose of care and precaution, it’s certainly bikeable.
Just as satisfied with the nine-hour journey as I am with the destination, I take my shoes off and dig my feet into the sand, happy to know that I have a front row seat for the sunset over the Yellow Sea.
Top places to eat, drink and stay, recommended by Seoul resident Matt C Crawford
The free side dishes alone – including intensely flavourful kimchi – are reason enough to visit this proud purveyor of traditional Korean fare. Open since 1963, the restaurant specialises in bulgogi that is grilled at your table. 19-1 Chungmu-ro, Jung-gu; +82 2 2267 0955
The main libation at this nationwide chain is makgeolli – an alcoholic, carbonated, rice drink. The branch near Gangnam Station has the feel of an upscale beerhall. B1/F, 7 Woosong Building, 73-gil Seocho-daero, Seocho-gu; slowbrewpub.com
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
This cutting-edge facility houses some of Korea’s art treasures across two buildings. The exquisitely presented Goryeo-dynasty celadons are a must-see, as are the abstract tones and textures of painter Kim Whan-ki. 60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Yongsan-gu; leeum.org
Altitude is the hallmark of this hotel, which occupies floors 76 to 101 of Lotte Tower, the world’s fifth-tallest building. Its two main restaurants are accredited with a Michelin star. Stay serves French contemporary, while Bicena puts a fine-dining spin on Korean cuisine. 76–101/F, 300 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu; lottehotel.com/seoul-signiel
The Westin Chosun Seoul
The likes of Douglas MacArthur and Marilyn Monroe have stayed at this stately hotel just across from City Hall. Lounge & Bar, in the lobby, looks out on the curved eaves of Hwangudan, a 19th-century altar for performing the rite of heaven. 106 Sogong-ro, Jung-gu; twc.echosunhotel.com
IMAGES: SHUTTERSTOCK (LEEUM, SAMSUNG MUSEUM OF ART)
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