Cycling in Korea
Turning Wheels in the Land of the Morning Calm
The Land of the Morning Calm has many hidden secrets. Daybreak mist hovering above a lake, brilliantly colored autumn leaves in the late afternoon sun and blue cranes fishing in a serene river are several of those secrets. Cycling in the mountains of South Korea is a great way to discover the natural beauty of the Hermit Kingdom. It is not always easy, but it is spiritually rewarding as well as physically invigorating.
While living in Chungju for two years, I was able to have numerous cycling adventures through the back roads along rivers and lakes. Chungju, located in the center of the country, is a sleepy little town, surrounded by rice paddies and mountains. Although it has a long history, it remains a small town of about 200,000 people (feels more like 20,000). Since 2007, it has gained some notoriety for being the hometown of the current Secretary-General to the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. The city also hosts the very impressive World Martial Arts festival every year in late summer.
Misty Morning Mountain Ride
Biking on the Country Roads Around Chungju
For the avid cyclist, Chungju offers a number of day courses that vary in length and difficulty. Here are some descriptions of the rides:
Namsan Back Roads – This ride begins with a gnarly climb along a winding road so it is not for the absolute beginner. It takes about 30 minutes at a slow to average climbing pace to reach the pass between Namsan’s peak (636m) and Gyemyeongsan’s peak (775m). The leg burn from pumping the pedals during the climb is a healthy, almost pleasurable pain as the anticipation of “road peak” oozes. Counting down the last few pedal cranks brings the flat section of road at the top of the hill into view. Then, the whole valley and lake below are visible. Breathe. Breathe deep and savor the view. Savor the victory of the climb.
The top might be a good spot to rest and walk around. Just up a path to the left is a monument dedicated to the farmers who fought off the Mongolian invasion in the mid-13th century. It is quite amazing to stand by the monument, look down, see the road you just road up and then the road you are about to ride along and image that 750 years ago Mongolian warriors with armor, bows, arrows and other weapons were losing to a bunch of farmers with pitch forks and weed cutters.
Once rested, the choice is to go right or go left. Going right is the road on the backside of Namsan. It has been paved in recent years and goes all the way to Suanbo, a hot spring resort town. There are still off-road trails and dirt roads. The road rises and dips along the mountain. There are chances to build up some speed and fly around the turns. It eventually comes to a long downhill. At that point the choice is to go back or turn the ride into an all day tour. Traffic is light to none most days. The views of Chungju Lake and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking. Click here for a Google Map.
Tips: Begins on the east end of town; full course is 30 km with plenty of hills; riding time 3 - 6 hours depending on cyclist's level; take lots of water and snacks since there are long stretches with no shops.
Bike Route Around Namsan
Other Chungju Cycling Tours
Chungju Dam, Namhan River and Gyemyeongsan National Forest – This bike route begins with the same climb as the Namsan ride, but at the 1253 monument, the course goes left along a winding ridge for about 5 km to Chungju Dam. Halfway to the dam, there is a thrilling downhill the ends in a dangerously sharp right curve. There is often traffic on this stretch of road so take caution; especially on weekends.
To the left is the Gyemeongsan National Forest and to the right is the manmade reservoir lake. It is an incredibly scenic patch of road any time of the year, but autumn can be exceptionally wonderful because of the colors and the cool crisp air. The last 500 meters is a steep climb up to the dam, a good place for a break with vendors selling Korean noodles and other food.
From the dam, it is a downhill coast to the bridge over the Namhan River. Turn right and cross the bridge. You may want to stop for a view. Sometimes the river is full of huge carp. There are also white cranes and blue heron in the marshy areas. Across the bridge, you can go right toward the ferry dock and do a 20 km sprint around a peninsula that comes out again at the 532 main highway. However, the paved road ends about 10 km from the bridge and from there it is a steep road over a mountain. Many riders end up pushing their bikes most of the way up the steep grade. An easy alternative is to take a left at the bridge and ride along the Namhan River back to town. It is mostly flat and less challenging.
River Ride -- The other side of Chungju offers a more casual ride with fewer hills, but just as much natural beauty. Head south of the town about 2 km past the university and take the old road that goes under the entrance to the freeway. The old road follows the river for almost 2 km before hooking left. There is a bridge there. Turn right on the bridge and then another right after crossing the bridge. That road follows the river for longer than I have biked along it. There is a campground with a waterfall after about 4 km and then lots of choices for roads to explore going through the rural countryside. Rice fields and small Korean villages that will take you back in time are some of the scenes to remind you that Korea is a special place. Don’t get too lost, though. Take a map and a phrase book. It is unlikely anybody will speak English if you need directions. However, although seemly shy at first, the locals will go out of their way to assist you if needed.
Map of Chungju
Government Video Promoting Bicycling in Korea
Links for Bicycling in Korea
The above rides around Chungju are only a microcosm of the cycling possibilities that South Korea has to offer. Seoul alone has endless opportunities for a bicyclist to experience new two-wheeled adventures. Since the country is a peninsula, there are countless coastal roads for seaside touring. Korea also has plenty of islands to circumvent, the most popular being Jeju Island south of the peninsula. Here are some links that provide more information about bicycling in South Korea:
bikeOasis Korea – A Tour operator that specializes in bicycle tours in Korea.
Map My Ride – An international website where riders upload maps and details about their cycling tours.
Visit Korea – Government website with English information on biking in Korea.
Visit Korea – Additional information to above link.