Saturday, 13 August 2016

Back to the saddle: Potatoes in South Korea

Last summer, right before entering China, some sad events happened and we had to interrupt our trip.
After almost a year in Italy for Alessio, Italy, France, Poland and Tanzania for me, Potatoes finally got back on the road. 2016 July 2d, we landed to Bishkek, where Angie and Nathan from the very famous ATHouse, kindly stored our bikes and stuff during this "gap" year.  They were not there but we were happy enough to meet up with some other cyclists.

July 7th, we landed in Seoul, South Korea. The AREX train was not crowded, so we could put our two loaded bikes and had a pleasant ride to town.  Jieun, our Warm Shower host, had given us all the needed instruction to get to her apartment. On the spot, we found her welcome note with post-it around to guide us: food is here, to take a shower, push this button first :-) :-) Such a caring host!

For the evening, she invited us to a cyclists meeting at Bikely shop where we met a Swiss couple on their way home and Fallou family - a French family - also at the end of their one year trip. Two men from the group had offered 5 bottles of wine for cyclists guests (us) and we "won", after a tight match of "Rock-Paper-Scissors", 2 bottles of Chilean wine that we were happy to drink with Jieun.

(I won't tell you who was playing the game for the first time....)

We stayed a few days in Seoul, playing tourists, visiting palaces and temples, feeling lost in this megalopolis of 23 millions.

In the subway, we bumped into Sebastien,, a French guy on the road for 2 years already. After a while, we realized that he had cycled with Gilles and Anaïs, our fellows from The cycling world is really small :-) :-)
Gilles and Anaïs left Seoul one week before our arrival and it was pity, it would have been so fun to catch up again after one year....

July 12th, we left Jieun and her comfortable apartment, in direction of Paju: I absolutely wanted to visit the famous DMZ - Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

The cycling path along Han river is very comfy with regular resting places with toilet, water... We crossed lots of Korean cyclists, always with their super expensive bike, dressed with the latest technical stuff, for a daily ride.

 (Not a Korean cyclist but a Potato)

 (In a small town, outside Seoul)

(I love those "sausage" plants

July 13th, arriving to Jangpari, a small town near Paju, we stopped to look at the map. A beautiful woman past by, gave us her shining smile and a little wave. We smiled back, waved back. And she made a sign to invite us for a tea. That's how we came to "Last Chance", her house where she and oncle Youn, her husband, decorated with care and style.

With them, we had two wonderful days visiting around, meeting with interesting people, tasting traditional Korean food, learning how to make "maek so", the famous Korean mix of beer (maekju) and alcohol (soju)...

 (At the Joined Security Area, normally not very open for tourists, but uncle Youn is a famous personality in the region...)

 (On the other side of the river, lies the forbidden land of North Korea. Unlike Afghanistan, we don't dream to go there)

July 15th, we got up at 4:45, sat silently in the dark in the big saloon, waiting for aunty Soum who'd leave at 5AM to work. But we realized that she uses an another way out just only too late :-( We were so sad not to say goodbye to her.

After we left for Sokcho, for 4 days, it kept raining non stop.

Korean roads can be very stiff. And after some months of "rest" because of a ski accident, I was not in perfect shape and had some trouble to keep up with Alessio.

Around Palbongsan park, we took the small routes and discovered a beautiful area full of nice pensions, hotels... For the night, we stayed by the river where we could almost swim in the clear water. Such a great relaxing moment. We were happy to be able to wash ourselves everyday. Afterwards, we would know that it's super easy to find perfect bivouac's spots in Korea with toilet, access to water...

(we craved for some sun to dry our stuff)

July 19th, hesitating between 2 routes, we chose the one leading to "mountain" and "waterfall". We didn't know that road with 20% could ever exist.

(I smiled just for the picture....)

I couldn't even push my bike. And of course, when the rain stops, the heat and the humidity took over, we were constantly sweating like hell.

(Take this road ONLY if you want to know what a 20% is like. Pains guaranteed...

 It took us 2h to cover 4,5km (!) with a 15mn of downhill. At the end, the road split into 2 small roads. At our question, the only man there made a "dead end" sign to the left, an another to the right! This is it! No mountain, no waterfall but a "cul-de-sac". I didn't feel to go uphill again under this heat. We decided to stay there for a night

(Not a bad place to stay if you don't think about the stiff road waiting ahead)

Very poetic, Alessio claimed "you know what, we are really in the arsehole of South Korea".

And you know what, we had free wifi!!!!

The next day, we enjoyed so much those 6% and 8% (a piece of cake now compared to 20% or "finger in the nose" as we say in France) that we decided to pull "one shot" to Sokcho. 95 km and 1150km of difference in altitude, not a bad score for a "come back".

Sokcho is famous for Pokemon players (please, don't ask us what it is, we don't really know). Even in the rain, we saw people so concentrated on their phone, trying to catch "Pikachu". It is something really out of our understanding

But we are here for Seoraksan, one of the most beautiful Korean national park. And it's really nice. We had a 12h trek, 1600m of difference in altitude, to (almost) reach the top of 1707m. After that, we had to rest for two days at the camp site.

Camping is the new trend in Korea. And when it comes to trend, Koreans never do things by halves. We were surrounded by tents from huge to mega huge, with super comfy roof, tripod lamps, poles to hang everything, big bbq, complete set of (camping) kitchen, even film projector. We felt so "out of place" among them :-) :-)

After Sokcho, we continued cycling but the road, full of trucks, became quite annoying and dangerous. At Saemchok, we decided to take a bus directly to Busan, saving up two days of stress and pains. It's not fun cycling under 45C and 98% of humidity. And even much less when trucks past by at 20cm of you.....

At Saemchok bus station, for the first time ever of our trip, we met a Vietnamese. Kien had been working in Korea for a few years. He offered us some money "just a little help for you to fulfill your dream". We declined but was deeply touched.

In Busan, we had no answer from our Warm Shower requests. It was a bit disappointing because we were sure to have met Sehee last year, between Tadjik and Kyrgyz border, while she and her husband were on their cycling honey moon.
An another disappointment was not to be able to meet up with Charlotte and Eric, a French couple with whom we stayed (sporadically) in touch over 1.5 year - they stayed quite far from Busan and it was complicated to organize without a proper internet.

Talking about internet, you can get free wifi very easily here. But not always. And after we finished the 1GB on our korean simcard, it was impossible to buy a new one, every mobil shop gave a different explanation but the same answer: no new simcard, no recharge possible. Finally, the verdict came: tourists can have a simcard only at the airport!!!! So first thing after we left Busan was to go to the airport to buy a new one. Another (almost) 35 euros for 100mn calls and 1GB.

Talking about money, we find South Korea not at all low-budget-cyclists friendly. It gave us headache trying to survive. Food is extremely expensive, I had almost a heart attack to see a kg of rice in supermarket at almost 4 euros! Fruits, veggies were out of reach and we don't talk about meat. The weird thing is that, if you have a 50 euros daily budget, then you can go to restaurant twice a day and have great food.

With 15 euros, we could barely have some biscuits, instant noodles, one can of mackerel and a bottle of Coca as bonus.

In Kyrgyzstan, with almost the same amount, we had a big dinner with mountains of veggies and tons of lamb chop for 8 cyclists.

From Busan, we decided to take the famous 4 rivers cycling path to go back to Seoul. Without taking the "passport" because we were too lazy to get stamps :-) Anyway, we won't go till Incheon to get the medal...
The country had invested enormous money into this cycling path. The route was perfect, smooth, all is well indicated but only in Korean.

(We would have loved to understand....

(But sometimes translation can let us perplexed...)

We crossed lots and lots of Korean cyclists, the route is really popular.  Most of them greeted us back, sometimes even with a big wave and a "Helloooo" that warmed us up. It's just a saying huh, because we were already grilled by the burning sun. We had known hotter temperature before, in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, but the humidity made everything much more worse, especially to sleep at night. It was like a turkish bath inside the tent, and there were so many mosquitoes outside that we could not let the tent open. So we suffered! Every night! Day after day we wished, we prayed for some rain at night. Once, the wind started to blow, some lightnings brought back our hope. 1AM, we crawled out of the suffocating tent, almost naked, waited and waited for the rain. In vain.

So, the night just before our detour toward Andong to visit Hahoe, the very famous traditional village, that became even more famous since Queen Elizabeth had visited it, how surprised we were to find, in an empty parking lot, a kind of out of service toilet (there was no water on the women side) with working aircon. We dreamed about a cool night: it was very dry and clean inside and during 3 hours, we saw absolutely no one but just a couple of guys making bbq next to their car.

(warning!! Explicit content next....)

So, after dinner, we quietly moved in, closed the door from the inside, put the big plastic "mattress" that we used as tent's protection, inflated our sleeping bags, ready to sleep. At some point, the aircon became quite noisy so Alessio got up to look for earplugs. That's when a car came, stopped steadily in front of the toilet, a woman hurried out, grabbed the door. But it was locked. But she, probably in emergency, pulled so hard at the door finally swung open. And she found herself face to Alessio, bare-chested. Screamed. Ran away. Her man wanted to get in but we had to block the door again because I was naked!!!!
Total panic from both side. The car left quickly. We moved out in a hurry, completely bewildered. We stayed in the shadow of a detached resting house nearby to get ourselves together and to think about the next move: we could not stay, it was 10 PM, too late to move, there was no wind, lots of mosquitoes. An another bad night in perspective demoralized us.

We were there, hitting rock bottom when the car came back like a hurricane. Three men got out, jumped into the women's toilet with huge torches, searching and shouting. And we held our breath.

After that, we had no choice but to move. We had to cycle for maybe 10km with some uphill before arriving to a cyclists-only-bridge. Yes, they have plenty of those big bridges where no motorized vehicle is allowed! So great!!!
So we spent the night there, on the bridge. There was no sign of mosquitoes so we didn't set the sent but slept directly on the floor, with a little mattress and two pillows. And had a fresh and calm night. Wouah!

The next evening, after visiting Hahoe, in Munkyeong, following Stephane and Benedicte (Fallou family) advices, we went to a church and asked for a shelter. And got politely rejected. From the house of God. Just before the Sunday mass.

So, a bit put out, we went to a park and gloomily ate some instant noodles for dinner. At some point, I heard some people speaking Vietnamese nearby. It was such a pleasure to meet up with some of my compatriots and to speak Vietnamese in a faraway land. Bay, Hau, Hoa got married with Korean men and Tai had been working here for more than 10 years. After some good talk and laughter, Tai kindly invited us home and offered us lunch for the next day. He also let us use his bedroom and slept instead, in the friends' room.

(At half of the lunch. We didn't need much time to finish all that. And more...

His simplicity  and generosity touched us so much. We were so happy to have met him and wish very much to see him again soon in Vietnam.

We left him late in the evening, just to cycle some 20km to find a place to sleep.

August 2d. We were quite in shape after a good night, to conquer the highest point of the cycling path at some 500m. It was in fact quite smooth. We were surprised to see lots of very light weighted cyclists pushing their bikes. Maybe they are not regular cyclists, so a 8% could be too much for them. But then, we were stunned to see them all with super expensive bikes and materials. At some point, we thought maybe they just rent them all for a "sport and adventure" holidays along the cycling path. But, according to Mr Lee, 70% of bicycles in Korea are just "to show off" - again, the Korean obsession about being trendy!

(You have to believe in yourself, that's the secret of success)

As usual, we stopped for a nap. At our waking up, how big was our surprise and pleasure to hear "oh, here you are finally". It was Eric.
We talked and talked and talked for almost two hours. Just to ride to the next "Certification zone" to have Eric's passport stamped. And to talk and talk again.

We stayed there for the night: it was in a big park with a big resting house and comfortable toilet. After dinner, finally our wish came true and it started raining. Some late walkers got trapped and ran to "our" place. They were timid to "bother" us at first but the rain was so hard that they finally accepted our insistant invitation to get into the "house", some ladies got rather wet so we gave them towels to dry and jacket to warm them up. At least we could do something to pay back the kindness that people showed us.

We cycled merrily for the next two days. Eric is a nice, fun and very interesting person, which made our journey with him really enjoyable.

August 4th, we were all relieved to finally arrive to Seoul, to have a real shower, proper internet but a bit sad to see Eric go: he returned the next day to Busan to find Charlotte, his other half.

We spent more than one week in Seoul to chill out. It was great to stay away from the heat, meet up with friends, have good food.... We were happy to arrive to Seoul on time to spend a little bit of time with Jieun before she left for holidays. We feel very lucky not only because she let us stay in her apartment while she is away but above all,  because Jieun is such a sweet, intelligent, generous person with a remarkable philosophy of life, we were delighted each time we could have a heart to heart conversation with her.

And after Jieun, oncle Youn, Mr Lee......once again, Sandy, Sook, Jae-Won, Mate, Young... showed us the Korean hospitality and kindness. We were so happy to have met them!

(Playing UNO and drinking chilean wine with Jieun :-) )

Goodbye South Korea!

And you, our dear friends, stay tuned for new updates from Potatoes from China!


  1. i enjoyed reading you again. farnaz

  2. :-) Thank you for continuing following us :-)

  3. Seoul is beautiful. Can you recommend anything else to do when in Seoul because my body is not made for biking every day I am there.