Quite a few people asked me about tips re bicycle touring in South Korea, particularly the trip Seoul-Busan — some 600km on a bike path. It seems a challenge at first, given that English is not very abundant in this country. But with a few tips it’s actually, even if you don’t speak Korean, quite easy to survive the tour. And have an enjoyable time.
- Renting a phone
- Accomodation and Food
- List of Korean words
- What to bring
- When to go
- A word of warning
- The passport
First, to the path. As said it’s all bike path (either dedicated or shared with very-low traffic road), you won’t get run over by cars. Go and download the .gpx file of the whole path (right-click; “Save as…”). Then go to either Maplorer or to Gpsvisualizer and upload the file there. This will answer your questions as to climbs — there are, with the exception of the one south of Chungchu (some 400m climb), none that climb more than 50-70m at most. The path is mostly along rivers and, since water tends not to enjoy climbing hills, mostly pretty flat.
Assuming you are reasonably fit, you should be able to do some 18-22km/h on average, sustainable throughout the day. For every one hour of riding add 30 minutes break (lunch, water shopping, picture-taking, looking for the way) and calculate your daily distance from there. So, say you’re on the road for 9hrs (8:00-17:00), you are looking at 6hrs riding. That gives you about 120km per day. If you can go faster/further than that then you probably know for yourself how much…
Once you’re out riding, finding the way is actually quite easy. For one, the bike path is well indicated with signs. Beyond, I do recommend you bring a smartphone with data connection along. You will have 3G network coverage everywhere you go. And with the right apps (both Android and Apple), your life becomes way more simple. Do note that Google maps is not that helpful in Korea. For finding your way around, install the Naver Maps app on your phone (or go to the Naver Maps website if you are at a PC). As of writing this, when you start the app you will see an “eye” icon in the upper right. Tap it and then tap the 2nd check mark from the right (that reads 자전거. If you’re on a PC, instead check the 3rd rectangular button at the top right, labelled the same…). You now see all the Korean bike paths overlaid on the map. Red are dedicated bike paths, blue are shared sidewalks. Ignore purple, it’s an ugly hard shoulder on a very ugly 4-lane road… Whenever you’re looking for the way while out on the path, fire up Naver Maps and there you go, it will show your current location. Of course, again, navigating the paths without a smartphone is no magic either, technology just made it a bit more convenient.
If you’re coming in from overseas and are shying away from international data roaming on your phone, no worries. While, unlike the tiny rest of the whole other world out there, you can not easily buy a prepaid SIM card in Korea, you can actually rent a smartphone at the airport for pretty cheap. The booths are located in the arrival hall, they offer the latest Samsung&LG Android phones plus IPhones (if you’re lucky…). Rates and models are changing almost daily, so I’m not even getting into telling you what model costs how much; go check it yourself. Note that in lots and lots of places (as in every convenience store, at every bus stop, in most restaurants) you will have Wifi, so you won’t need too much cellular data, actually.
Now that you’re rolling, finding necessities and places to sleep will be the next task. Let me tell you first that I do not speak Korean. I know a few food items (such as Bulgogi, Kimchi and whatnot), but that is about all the linguistic skills I’ve got. Yet I found it very easy to get around, so you shouldn’t have no worries either 🙂 If you live in the country, may I strongly suggest you learn the Korean alphabet? Yes, it’s actually an alphabet with some 20-odd characters. Just like the alphabet you read right now. Turns out that you can master it in a day or two and, trust me on this, it’s time well spent. Example: 모 are 2 characters from top to bottom, resembling M and O. 텔 are 3 from left to right, then down: They resemble the roman T, E and L. Now when you ride and see a signboard 모텔 — guess what you just found? Many words are actually English, just written in the Korean alphabet. Spend 2 days and learn it!
With that possibly out of the way, dig out your smartphone again and install the Daum Maps App. Daum is besides Naver the other big search engine in Korea (think Google vs. Yahoo). Both Apps have their pros and cons:
- Only Naver shows you the bike paths. Daum is useless there.
- When you search for items (say Motels), Naver only shows you hits within a narrow radius around your current position. One km afaik. Daum on the other hand shows you hits wherever you scroll the map to. Hence Daum is way more convenient to search for eg. accommodation at a planned day’s destination
So, Daum installed (or you headed to the Daum maps website if you’re at a PC; note that in this case you will have to enable the small check-box next to the search field), simply enter your search term at the top and you’ll get all your hits on the map. If you don’t master the Korean alphabet, not to worry, here’s a list of search terms you’ll want. Simply copy them to a note on your phone and while on the road just copy&paste them into the Daum app:
|Note that none of them provide breakfast. More on that later.|
|Supermarket (large chains)||대형마트|
|Bicycle (finds bike shops)||자전거|
|Hospital (call 119)||병원|
|Police (call 112)||경찰서|
You may wonder why I’ve put “Paris Baguette” to the list. This large Korean bakery chain scouted the whole country and opened shops in every decent settlement. Meaning as long as you find a Paris Baguette in a village, you can be sure that there is a bunch of motels, restaurants, supermarkets and whatnot around. For my touring, I usually stayed the nights in villages with a Paris Baguette. Which coincidentally also provided breakfast on most days.
Which touches the topic of food. Note that neither Motels, Pensions nor Homestays usually provide breakfast. Motels (aka love motels, but they do make for a good night’s sleep for a tired rider) are really only a single room. They run some 40-60k Won per room per night. Usually they have a shed where you can safely store your bike or they typically (especially outside cities) allow or even “force” you to bring your bike upstairs into the room or the staircase. In any case, bring a light wire lock and you’ll be more than safe; theft rate in Korea, especially outside large cities, is close to zero. Homestays are, as the name says, usually just single rooms in the owner’s house. Haven’t tried them often enough to really give advise. Last in the list are pensions. They are typically multi-room floors or detached houses with a kitchen. Price depends on size (and number of occupants). I have yet to find one below 80k Won (for some 4 people). For the price-sensitive, there’s btw. also the option of sleeping in a Jimjilbang. This is a sauna which provides a resting area where people doze off for a few hours. These saunas are very common across Korea, many Koreans use them overnight (at a cost of some 10k Won a person).
Back to food, what I typically did when touring was having a light lunch somewhere in a small restaurant or more often than not in a convenience store. They sell both instant food (Korean and Western) as well as boxed lunch sets. They all have microwaves to heat your food and some tables and chairs.
You see, besides some water and a change of clothes, there isn’t really much you need to bring. As to clothes, btw. All motels have a fan (on top of aircon). If you wash your bike clothes in the evening and hang them in front of the fan, they’ll be dry within 3-4 hours. Don’t pack too much stuff, a 2nd set of clothes for the evening is all you need. Motels also provide toiletries. And in the worst case, just buy amenities at the next convenience store. Which raises a topic for foreign visitors: While most places accept credit cards, they usually only accept cards issued by a local bank! So your overseas card will likely get rejected. Motels, pensions and the like usually only accept cash anyhow. ATMs with global connections can be found at every bank though, so with your Cirrus, Maestro or other global ATM card you’re safe.
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced that the trip can be done easily, I guess you’re considering to do it one way only. Never backtrack! That leaves the question on transportation. Busan has an airport, so you could… Especially if you flew in from overseas, this might actually be a viable option. For the rest of us, there are trains and buses. Korea has an extensive network of inter-city buses. Especially from/to Seoul, they run into every corner of the country. Find a bus terminal anywhere and you’ll be sure to have a bus departing every 30-60 minutes into Seoul. Bikes can be put into the bus’ bottom luggage compartment for free. I’ve done this a multitude of times and yet have to see anyone putting anything else into the luggage compartment. So you’ll be sure to have a space for your bike. If you worry about scratches, pass by a grocery or convenience store nearby and grab a cardboard box. Your bike will be pampered. With buses running from/to everywhere throughout the day (6:00-21:00 typically) at a reasonable cost (some 7-25k Won depending on distance) this is my preferred way of travel with a bike. Then there are two types of trains — the ordinary and the KTX, with the latter being the high-speed “bullet train”. Bikes can be brought on board ordinary trains (free). But technically, bikes are not allowed on the KTX. “Technically” as in there are a few exceptions:
- it’s a folding bike, or
- it’s disguised as luggage (disassemble & put into a bike bag), or
- you’re lucky — full-sized bikes have been spotted on the KTX. But people with bikes have also been rejected, be warned!
Finally, to move within the greater Seoul area including Incheon and the airport, there’s the subway system. You are officially allowed to bring your bike on the subway (you guessed it, for free) on weekends. You’re supposed to use the first or last car though. On weekdays, most lines ban bikes however this is not strictly enforced outside rush hours. Enforcement isn’t actually necessary even during rush hours since there’s no way for you to haul a bike onto a platform or into a train any given weekday between 7:00-9:00 and again 18:00-19:30 anyway. Even the toughest of bikes would be stomped to pieces within seconds ;-). So yes, you can move around during low-traffic hours. Just remain polite, please.
Finally ready to go? You can essentially do the trip any time of the year, there are a few warnings though. Winter is bitterly cold and windy, if you’re really unlucky you may also hit some snow. So I’d exclude mid December to mid March from the recommended period. July and parts of August often see heavy rain. It’ll be warm enough for the rain to actually be refreshing, yet, well, your choice. Last week of July/first week of August is when literally everyone in Korea is on vacation, so you might not be the only one on the path by then…
Talking about not being the only one on the path… The countryside will provide you with endless stretches of deserted bike path and some road. Go knock yourself out! Cities are an entirely different animal though. The bike paths will likely be full of people and pets. Elderly riders swaying left/right, kids pulling over to the left when they please (and typically when you’re just overtaking them), pets jumping out of crossroads, joggers jumping at you from behind trees, you name it. Be aware that people don’t look out. And be aware that the Korean law is very simple: The weaker one has right of way. You hit a pedestrian while on a bike, you’re at fault. No matter what he/she did. You get hit by a car, you win. But may lose some body parts in the process. Behave in the cities, slow down when you see people. You’ll have plenty opportunity to go anaerobic for hours without end…
Did you actually read that far? I seriously doubt it. If you however did hang in, here’s a bonus: The Korean water authority ( which constructed all that bike path along their river ways) has established this “passport” thing. They have offices at both ends of the path, Ie one in Incheon and one in Busan. Plus some more along the way, but never mind. At these offices, you can buy a “passport” for some 3k Won. Then, along the path, you will see quite a few red phone booths. No phones in there but stamps. Stamp your passport. Once you arrive at the end of the path and produce your properly stamped passport, you will receive a certificate and medal for completing the trip. Nice memory to take home…
That’s it now, really. If anything is still unclear or if you have an idea for improving this guide, please shout out in the comments below!
PS: A couple of months after me writing this, you may have done the ride and feel like upping it a bit. Then here’s a few more rides “around the block” for you to consider.