South Korea may not be on the top of people’s lists when it comes to traveling Asia, but for cycling enthusiast that should probably change. Without much fanfare South Korea has quietly built and invested huge amounts of money into some of the nicest and most extensive cycling trails in the world. The majority of Korea’s main rivers now have beautiful cycle trails that follow alongside them. Seoul, the capital, is famous for its parks and walking/biking trails along the Han river.
But there is one bike trail that is the crown jewel of asian cycling, if not world cycling. In 2011 Korea opened up the 4-Rivers (4대강) cycling trail. A beautiful bike trail that stretches across the entire country from Incheon in the Northwest to the port city of Busan in the Southeast. The entire trail is clearly marked with Blue signs and a cycling image on the road. The beauty of this trail is that nearly 70% of the trail across the entire country was built specifically for cyclists (= No Cars!). The other 30% are country roads that get minimal car traffic and provide a nice bit of variety. There are constant kilometer markers which tell you how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go. I can think of no other country in the world (not even the Netherlands) where you can ride so long without having to worry about cars or having to once look at a map.
At first i thought the trail might get boring as I imagined the whole road was along a riverside, but I was wrong; the trail stays diverse and interesting. It goes by little towns, farming villages, even a few tough hills (there’s one in the middle of the country’s mountainous spine that is a bit of a monster) and a couple larger cities. Some of the infrastructure investments for this cycling trail are awe-inspiring. There is a section from Paldang Dam in Seoul to Yangpyeong station that used to be a railway road, that carves through mountains and over bridges. There are places where bridges were built specifically for bicycles to go over a river. And there is some beautiful wood cycle paths built on the sides of cliffs and rivers that seem like a wooden roller coaster. Most stunning of all are the artistic dams/bridges that you use to cross the river along the way; each one is more like a sculpture than a bridge.
Food & Games
Along most of the trail, especially the northern part, there are ample food stalls to get delicious korean food like Mandu (dumplings), constant 7-11 connivence stores to stock up on Pocari Sweat (asian Gatorade), and plenty of nice parks to hangout and take a break (Korea actually has too many parks, never thought I’d say that, but they have some really nice parks in the middle of nowhere that will go unused). There are even plenty of well-maintained public bathrooms thoughtfully placed along the trail. There’s even some repair shops and bike gear shops along the way. Basically you’re as spoiled as could be when it comes to cycling amenities.
One of the other really fun aspects of this trip is you can turn it into a collect-them-all exploration game. You can get an offical Passport to Korea’s river biking trails and along the path you’ll find many British style red phone booths, where you can collect stamps representing all the main tourist sites along the bike trail. Fill up an entire route and you can get stickers and even medals to prove you’ve completed your Korean cycling odyssey.
While many travelers going to Asia focus on Japan and/or Thailand. Consider a trip flying into Japan, taking a ferry to Busan in Korea, then hopping on your bike and riding across the entire country of Korea to Incheon, where you can easily get a plane ride from Incheon airport (my favorite airport in the world) to complete the rest of your Asian travels.
The entire trip is around 620 kilometers long and could be done in 4 days if you really want to push yourself crazy hard, but I recommend a more leisurely 7-8 day long trip. I recommend camping along the way, then you have more freedom about where you start and stop everyday. I had no trouble camping in parks, even in towns under pagodas. While you can certainly stay in hotels along the way, and I certainly recommend you do it some nights, be aware you’ll have to do a bit more planning to make sure you’ll find an appropriate town come sundown especially in the southern part of the country which is more sparsely populated.
If you’re the type of cyclist who doesn’t want to worry about traffic, or having to stress out navigating the whole time, and just wants to ride and ride past lots of beautiful scenery in an interesting new culture, I whole-heartedly recommend cycling across Korea on the 4-Rivers path. It’s a great step beyond a weekend trip, to a more epic cross-country cycling trip, but it makes it super easy and smooth. And if you’re only in the capital of Seoul and don’t have time to ride across the entire country, I still highly recommend you get a taste of this river trail by riding from Paldang subway station to Yangpyeong subway station on the Jungang line, then taking the subway back. The trip should take about 3 hours. I know it sounds like I’m writing this for the Korean Tourism board, but I swear I’m just a person who enjoyed cycling in Korea and thinks more people should know about it.
Official website of the 4-Rivers Restoration project : http://www.riverguide.go.kr/eng/index.do
Wikipedia article about the 4-Rivers Project : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Major_Rivers_Project
Link to a PDF about Korean river cycling make by the tourist office : http://korean.visitkorea.or.kr/kor/greentourism/content/20121126_bike.pdf
Website with info about people experiences cycling in Korea : http://www.han-river-riders.com/seoul-to-busan-4-rivers-trail
Alternate route across the country if you don’t want to do things the easy way : http://user.chollian.net/~boonstra/korea/sebu.htm