SOUTH KOREA – Touring beautiful Jeju Island on a bicycle gives one plenty of time for reflection.
Thoughts that cross my mind include “yellow fields of canola, wow, brilliant splashes of colour”, “skyscraper-size windmills, jutting out of the misty waters, majestic” and “my lungs – they are about to explode”.
Forgive me for being dramatic. It is just my middle-aged body talking. It is angry at the wet sea gusts, blowing the bike backwards. My legs have not shut up since we hit the hills a few kilometres back.
I notice that on the southern island, the members of my tour group are the only ones on bikes, because the locals and domestic tourists are not insane.
Instead of fighting the coastal wind and rain, they are inside the coffee bars that proliferate along the coastal route, each looking cosier and more adorable than the last. I make a mental note to come back and do a cafe tour. In a rental car.
I am on a cycling tour of Seoul and Jeju at the invitation of the Korea Tourism Organization. A small group of participants from around South-east Asia is here to see if cycling can be a tourism draw.
My answer is: Absolutely, but go at the right time of the year. And if you meet an unexpected hill or strong gusts, do not kill yourself keeping to a schedule.
In contrast to Jeju’s rough-going rides, the cycling paths along Seoul’s Han River are a dream.
There are over 100km of dedicated bike lanes along the Hangang Bike Path network. A cyclist could not ask for more. In March, the air is a crisp 15 deg C, there is no wind, the tarmac is pristine and the terrain is mostly flat.
The river path, an infrastructural wonder built in 2012, rarely intersects with street traffic.
Most of the time, riders are cloaked in nature, hearing only insects, the click of the bike chain and, occasionally, the boomboxes of hiking retirees. Like in Singapore, the auntie and uncle hikers use them to alert distracted adults and teens on bikes.
To encourage ridership, the South Korean government offers a certification book, unofficially called a passport. It costs 4,500 won (about S$4.50) and is available at several centres on the trail.
Along every path in the country, there are red structures that look like telephone booths. Inside, there is a stamp unique to that spot. The passport holder’s job is to get the stamps, then exchange completed passports for certificates and medals.
I scoff at the idea at first, but as we move along the river, the passport unleashes a compulsion within me. And, like others in my group, I turn into a red booth-obsessed, stamp-collecting monster.
Our four-day tour includes two to three hours of cycling after breakfast and lunch. The first two days are in Seoul and the remaining two are on Jeju Island.
Our meals are taken at tourist locations frequented by tour buses.
For example, one lunch spot is at a cultural centre for gochujang, the red chilli paste ubiquitous in Korean cuisine. We have a hands-on gochujang-making session, then move to a dining room where we are served bibimbap, the one-bowl rice dish that features the red paste.
The food at these dining spots, each featuring a regional speciality – seafood hotpot, black pork, freshwater snail, raw fish – is uniformly excellent.
But we are on an organised tour and personal flexibility is curtailed. For example, if you and a pal want to stop cycling to linger at a scenic place, you might hear a respectful but urgent “stay with the group” and “catch up”.
We have a schedule to follow, a restriction that self-guided bike tourists do not have to deal with.
On Jeju, our guide must have whispered “catch up” to my panting face a dozen times, as if I were only pretending to be ashen-faced and wheezing.
After fighting the wind and rain, I finally give up. Midway through the afternoon ride, I throw my bike into the recovery van and hop into the warm, cosy safety vehicle, which takes me to the next rest stop.
The best thing about a guided bike tour is that someone is there to keep you honest and force you to pedal. The next best thing? You can always get away from him by taking the recovery car.
Tips for going to South Korea for a bike tour
Join a bike tour group or rent bikes for a self-guided tour – either option is doable. One offers peace of mind and the other, flexibility.
For group tours, companies to consider are Shangrila Cycling Tours (str.sg/iook) and Travel Wander (str.sg/iooZ).
Shangrila has a six-day round-island Jeju cycling package that starts from $2,290 a person. It includes accommodation, airport transfers, meals, a safety-support vehicle and a cycling guide. The company also offers cycling tours of other regions in South Korea.
Travel Wander offers a six-day self-guided ride of Jeju Island, from $898 a person. As cyclists are self-guided, there are no guides, support vehicles or meals, but the package does include accommodation, bike rental and hotline assistance. Cycling tours of other regions of South Korea are also available.
For those who prefer a self-guided cycling trip, consider Biketotal (tel: +82-31-977-6147), a bicycle rental company. It has various locations, such as at Jeju Airport and key subway stops in Seoul.
When calling, ask if it has English-speaking staff or contact the Korean Tourism Organization in Singapore (tel: 6533-0441 or e-mail email@example.com) before leaving.
Short-term rentals from kiosks at the Han River park start at 3,000 won (about S$3) an hour.
Companies like Biketotal offer longer-term rentals for those seeking to do a tour. Fees range from 25,000 to 30,000 won a day, depending on the style of bicycle (mountain, road or e-bike).
When renting bicycles, ordering food or speaking to shopkeepers, try using an app for English-Korean translation. There are some bilingual navigational signs on the bike routes, but they do not cover every contingency.
Popular app choices include Papago for translation and Naver for navigation.
Take note of general safety rules before and during riding, such as staying in the bike lane, riding single file, keeping a safe braking distance from the bike in front of you, and familiarising yourself with the brake and gear system before starting.
Losing control of the bike when going downhill is a common and dangerous problem.
- On The Road is a series on the freedom of road and rail journeys.
- The writer was hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization.