Soon we were both back in Seoul and before riding out we had quite some decision making to do on which route we would take. The ‘standard’ route is to follow the river on the cycling path from Seoul to Busan. We were up for a challenge and to take on some Korean hills. We also wanted to discover part of the DMZ by bike and to head to the coast. This made for interesting riding, so read on to find out more!
Riding out of Seoul was great just following the Han River to the east. We soon felt that we had some issues with our bottom brackets. We had exchanged our bottom brackets, which we had been carrying since Bishkek, at the Bikely shop in Seoul. When we exchanged these we found out that the fit was 1mm off, we had fitted a spacer which proved to be too weak which made for an unsteady ride. We rode back to the shop refitted the old worn out BB’s. The guys at the shop helped us out and soon we were back on the river. At least the feeling was better. When riding along the Han River we were among the 100’s of riders of Seoul. This is a bit of a status and fitness show along the river as most are dressed up and on the most fancy bicycles. This said most people were greeting us and we enjoyed the kilometers along the river. We had chosen to leave the river at Guri and cycle north towards the famous or maybe infamous DMZ zone. Why we wanted to go there is for several reasons, it is world history a 65 year long dispute or war. This zone splits the region in two and has the biggest military presence on each side of the DMZ in the world. Therefor sometimes called the militarized zone. With some of the biggest army’s in the world South and North Korea are both still alert.
The region around the DMZ is known for its remoteness and natural beauty.
We were able to follow a river north from Guri this was only for some kilometers and before we knew it we were in busy traffic. The thermometer was telling us that the temperature was 32c and we could feel the heat. The first day and a half were not so interesting. Roads were busy, navigating was a little complicated at points and we were looking forward to some nice backroads. But on day two, after we had passed Pocheon the scenery slowly was getting more scenic and from passing Gimhwa we were almost by ourselves on the road. We had taken some detours to find some quieter roads but weren’t very lucky in the process. Twice we turned back, once because the small road we were aiming for was in a valley down below we couldn’t reach and the other time we came across a fence that blocked the road for military reasons.
We had noticed that slowly military presence was increasing. Bunkers and small defense posts were hidden in the hills. We had been told that there was a military presence but that camping still should be very possible. After cycling 80 kilometers we decided to do a loop to get even closer to the DMZ, also having in mind that soon we should be on the lookout for a camping spot.
We stayed on route 43 towards Cheorwon. The road was so quiet and the river next to us beautiful. We were daydreaming of the perfect camping spot on the river but wanted to be just a little bit further for the day. We turned a corner and saw a great military set up with blocks that are connected to explosives. When set off the blocks fall down so the road is blocked from access for the North Koreans. Just behind these blocks barb wire separates the road from the bush behind and signs warn us for mines. We learned later that this is the third line of defense against North Korea.
We looked at each other and suddenly had the feeling camping might become a bit complicated. We cycled on and came to a crossing. Signs told us to stop. We waved at a guard and slowly drew closer walking our bikes. Finally the guard acknowledged us and we asked if we could turn right. The road that we had planned to take.
The guard says: “border to North Korea”. We knew we were coming close but didn’t want to turn back because the right turn was free on our map. After talking and waiting a few minutes a car with military passed and joined us. They were of higher rank and after discussing our destination told us we could go right.
The guard on charge told them to escort us. This is how we got a three kilometer escort through highly guarded terrain with North Korea just a few kilometers from us. After passing through another checkpoint and saying goodbye to the escort we were on a beautiful road. We said: “a little further and hopefully we can camp”. Just then a normal checkpoint appears. They are clearly spooked because we enter the checkpoint from a road that is closed to the public. We need to register and get advised that the final checkpoint is 30 minutes by bike.
We are back on the main road and have our track in the GPS with elevation data. We know a pass is coming up. From the information of the guard the checkpoint should be coming soon and we can’t camp before because we are registered. We cycle on, by now it is 17:30 and we have cycled 90 km. we get closer to the road up to the pass, we see many military stations. At one point we see 10 military men laying at the side of the field as if we are being ambushed. Quite an intense experience. Slowly the road steepens and no checkpoint in sight. We climb the 350 meters up to the pass being somewhat stressed and relieved when we reach the well defended top of the pass. We head down and finally come across the checkpoint where we check out. What a day. We go down the pass meeting multiple military installations (which is quite shocking to us) and finally after 107 km find a place to sleep underneath a porch behind a sports hall with a private toilet.
The next day we head down and down, take an old road and because of this road we can take a detour to the peace dam. On a small pass crossing a mountain we are invited by a friendly couple to eat some noodles and kimchi. We decide on the longer route towards the peace dam and again enter a checkpoint zone. This time it is beautiful and there is a nice natural park in the area which is dammed.
From the peace dam we carry on on small roads, add some climbing meters and call it a day in a small village close to Bangsan. There is a beautiful river where the locals search for shells, even in the dark. We camped early so having the time we decided to make a snack, Pancakes! Made from oatmeal, water, eggs and milk powder. They are delicious! It is a great starter before our trustworthy pasta dish.
Slowly we are getting closer to Seoraksan National park. We figure out that our GPStrack actually follows the main road which is busy and has a tunnel. We decide to go for the quieter small road with a pass at 950 meters. On the way we find a supermarket where we stock up on some food. Korea is very expensive and here we can find kilo bags of raisins and dried bananas. So we’re heavy on the start of the climb. We are positive on finding a spot to sleep on the road leading through the mountains but soon realize that everything is fenced off. After saying “one more turn” a few times we finally head back. The camping which we had seen is of course paid so we head up to a small road where we find a hidden place to sleep.
The next day we have cycled 200 height meters up the pass again and see that the next turn had a 1 km sign to the rangers station with place to camp. We’re a little gutted bug that’s life! We have a nice cool climb as we were on the biked at 7am. 100 height meters from the top Susanne has a puncture. A long metal piece stuck into the tire. Martin does a quick fix and we make it to the top. On the downhill we take some photos and soon we are on our way to the East coast careering down. Susanne with only the back brake because her Magura brake is leaking again.
The coast is another story for the books of wild camping. Where we had planned to find a lovely secluded beach we experienced all the cute little beaches to be barred from access by military barb wire and control points. The East coast bike path has only opened shortly and it provides quite a nice road along the coast. Finally we find an acceptable beach and have in mind to take a swim. The water is sooo cold, so only the feet get a dip 🙂 we have a lovely nights sleep on the beach.
We had arranged a Warmshowers host the next day and were only 20 kilometers out. So we had a very relaxed day of cycling, checking out villages on the coast, a fish market and spending some time with WIFI. We then head to Hotel November where manager Mr. Kang would host us for the night. We are totally overwhelmed by the experience. A lovely hotel and a great experience even with breakfast included. The hospitality of Warmshowers is endless!
From Gangneung we head back to Seoul because Susanne’s parents are coming to visit. We leave our bikes with Mr. Kang and head back by bus for two weeks of holiday and sightseeing of South Korea.