When Ben talked us into going to South Korea instead of China, one of his selling points was South Korea’s amazing biking paths. Eric had told him about our bike trip from Maine to Minnesota, and Ben said we had to bike in South Korea. Some initial research suggested this could be a pretty expensive prospect with lots of people recommending bringing a bicycle from another country or buying a bicycle and trying to sell it later. This all sounded a bit complicated, but then Eric found a bike rental company, Bike Nara, that does one-week rentals, and we were in business.
Most people who rent from Bike Nara do one way rentals and bike from Seoul to Busan. It is 396 miles which many people say is possible in a week. That seems pretty crazy to us. That would be 57 miles a day for seven straight days on a rental bicycle without bike shorts or bike gloves! Since we had already been to Busan, we elected to bike the East Coast instead. The East Coast trail is slightly longer so you would have to keep up an even more grueling pace to get from the starting point to the end, but we figured we could stop whenever we wanted. The guy helping us in the bike shop told us even 70 year olds could do it in a week, but we are pretty sure there is a severely biased self-selection process in that case.
We rented two hybrid bicycles and one set of panniers for $240 for the week and traded our big backpacks for only the essentials. To get to the East Coast, we had to take a two-hour bus to Sokcho, but first we had to bike from the bike shop to the Dong Seoul bus terminal. The guy in the bike shop told us it should take 40 minutes to get there. We are clearly slow because it took us almost an hour and a half. The bike path runs along the river in Seoul and is beautiful. It was Saturday afternoon, and there were lots of people out enjoying the sunshine, including many in tents in the park which seems to be a popular way to be outside.
We got to the bus terminal eventually, purchased tickets to Sokcho, and waited for the bus. We had to load the bikes in the belly of the bus which turned out to be a more challenging puzzle than we had imagined. Luckily we were there a bit early, and we had plenty of time to figure it out before the bus was supposed to leave. A few hours later we were in Sokcho and in search of our home for the night.
Eric had booked a shipping container apartment on Airbnb which said it was on Yeongrang-dong road. Google Maps claimed the container was on a road facing the beach, but after biking around in a few circles, we confirmed it was definitely not there. A surprising number of things look like they could be a shipping container home when you start looking. We had experienced this problem of things not being where the map said with Google Maps in South Korea before, and we were also using the transliterated address instead of the Hangul characters. We tried typing the Hangul address into Google Maps and eventually found our home down a small alley with a sign transliterated as Yeongnang. Success!
We had never stayed in a shipping container before. It was described on Airbnb as a campsite, so we were not really sure what we were getting into, but it ended up being a very cute studio apartment with a heated floor! The kitchen was tiny and only had a microwave, so we had to be a bit creative for dinner. We went to a nearby grocery store and Eric went in to choose food. When he came out, he suggested Jess choose some more vegetables if she wanted. Jess went in and found twenty quail eggs for breakfast and a package that, from the picture, appeared to have a delicious-looking salad inside.
When we got back home, we started preparing dinner. Jess opened the salad package to discover it was seaweed encrusted in a thick coat of salt. She tried a bit of it and it was extraordinarily salty. Google Translate translated the words on the package into a strange series of sentences that sounded more like incantations than a description of food and did not help us identify what it was. We decided to soak it in water to remove some of the salt and try it again later. Even after 40 minutes of soaking, it still tasted pretty bad and was pretty tough, so we decided to leave it to soak overnight in the fridge.
In the middle of the night, we noticed there were mosquitoes flying around. Half asleep, we tried swatting them with our hands, but we could still hear them squealing. Finally Jess turned on the lights and went mosquito hunting. There were a lot of mosquitoes! Jess got many of them, but there were some sneaky ones she only managed to find by pretending to go to sleep twice! We found an open window in the bathroom where they were coming in and locked them out. It turned out to be more like camping than we had expected.
The next morning, the seaweed did not taste any better. By now Jess had figured out that it was salted seaweed stems which you are supposed to rinse and soak for a while and then saute with sesame oil, spicy peppers, and other things to make them delicious like the picture on the package showed. We did not have any of those things or a way to saute, so we had to throw it away. When we opened the fridge, it smelled like the sea in a bad way, and we were happy to say goodbye to the seaweed.
The guy from the bike rental shop had told us there was a unification observatory north of Sokcho, so we set out with that as our goal. The bike path runs along the coast for much of the way north from Sokcho. There are blue lines painted on each side of the road that mark the bike path. Since we did not have a bike map, it was really convenient to follow the blue lines, and we could quickly tell when we were off track. In the beginning Jess could still smell that nasty seaweed smell, and she thought she must have gotten some of it on her clothes until she realized the ocean smelled just like the seaweed in some places.
There were a lot of places where the beach was blocked by a rather ugly barbed wire fence stretched between guard towers. There did not seem to be any active guards, and there were definitely places where it would be possible to get through the fence, so it was not obvious what its purpose was. Apparently it was originally put in place to prevent incursions from North Korea, but many residents have complained it is ugly, so South Korea is trying other methods to keep people out.
After 23 miles, we stopped for lunch in a small town called Geojin and went into the first restaurant we found. The menu was only in Korean and Google Translate did not help much, so we ordered two dishes. One turned out to be kimchi stew, which was delicious. The other was something we did not recognize called « altang ». It was also a hot stew with a very flavorful broth, but it had what looked like intestines and a veiny sausage floating in it. The sausage thing was particularly unusual because it was comprised of lots of tiny white balls and tasted chalky. It turns out this is pollack roe, and the intestine-looking things are, in fact, fish intestines. The intestines were fairly good, but we could not really get into the pollack roe and its unusual texture because the roe itself had no flavor. The stews were accompanied by lots of little banchan side dishes with various types of kimchi, apples, seaweed, etc.
After lunch, we continued our journey north to the observatory, but it started to rain. We put on our ponchos and continued on for four more miles, but eventually we decided we were making little progress towards the observatory and it was too wet to go further. We returned to Geojin and found a coffee shop in which to rest and get warm.
Afterwards, we needed to find a place to stay for the night. Eric had read that this symbol that looked like a bowl with steam coming out of it meant jjimjilbang. Ben had told us jjimjilbangs were public baths with saunas, that you can sleep in them, and that there are many along the bike path, so we went in search of one for the night. It turns out almost every building has this symbol, so we did not think it would be too hard.
We stopped outside one place with the symbol, and Eric went inside to see how much it would cost. He reported back that it cost ₩4,000 ($3.38) per person. That seemed remarkably cheap, so cheap in fact that Jess asked how he had confirmed the number. Eric said he had typed it into his phone and showed the woman behind the desk who nodded. With that in mind, we went in search of dinner which we found at the 7/11 – Korean convenience stores have surprisingly good ready-made food and usually offer a microwave. We ate outside on the bus stop bench which conveniently had a roof.
On our way back from dinner, we decided to check out another place nearby that might be a jjimjilbang. Jess went inside this time to ask how much it was. The woman was grabbing towels for us which seemed appropriate for a jjimjilbang, although what did we really know? Jess typed « how much does it cost? » into Google Translate, but the woman was unable to read the small text. Jess took a screenshot, and then zoomed in on the photo so she could see it better. The woman held up three fingers. Jess typed « 3000 » into her calculator and the woman nodded. Then Jess used the translator screenshot method to ask, « can we sleep here? », and the woman nodded. Jess went outside to report to Eric that this place cost only ₩3,000 per person ($2.54). Crazy! The woman showed us to her shed where we could safely store our bikes for the night and then took us upstairs. When she opened the door upstairs, there was a room with a bed, but no public bath in sight. She must have thought « can we sleep here? » was a very odd question. It was dawning on us that the symbol we thought meant jjimjilbang might just be a symbol for motel. Oh well. We tried to pay the woman ₩3,000 but she indicated it was not the right price. Eric pointed out it was ₩3,000 per person, so Jess tried giving her a ₩10,000 note, but she shook her head. It was only at this point that we realized three fingers meant ₩30,000, not ₩3,000. Since this was not a jjimjilbang, and we thought we had found one for ₩4,000 per person, we decided to leave and go back to the first place. We had to go back to the shed to get our bicycles while the woman stood there watching us. We are sure she thought we were crazy.
When we got back to the first place, it quickly became clear the price to sleep there was ₩40,000 ($33.80) total, not ₩4,000 ($3.38) per person. This place looked like it had a separate public bath facility, but when we used the translator to ask about a communal sleeping place there, the woman shook her head, so we left. Now we had passed up a nice cheaper option, but we were too embarrassed to go back and bother the woman with the ₩30,000 room again, so we set off to find a third option.
We walked down the street a bit until we found another place with the steaming bowl symbol. It was next to a convenience store, so we asked the guy running the convenience store if we could stay for the night and how much it cost. He said ₩30,000 ($25.40) and we gave him three ₩10,000 notes right away to confirm we understood the price. He gave us the key and told us to go upstairs while he figured out what to do with our bicycles. He seemed sure they could not spend the night outside in the rain, so he figured out a way to bring them inside his shop for us.
We walked up the stairs, swapped our shoes for slippers, and found our room. When we opened the door to the room, we burst out laughing. After all our attempts, this room did not have a bed in it! We sat down on the floor and realized the floor was heated! We were wet and cold, so the heat felt great, and pretty soon the fact that there was no bed was entirely unimportant. We had some thick quilts to put on the floor and we were definitely not going to be cold; it was a very cozy room. Besides, one perk of a room without a bed is there is plenty of space for yoga. Since meeting Rory and Gen in Gyeongju and hearing of their daily yoga habit, we had started one too, and this spacious heated room was perfect!
We retrieved our bicycles in the morning, got breakfast at 7/11, and continued north to the unification observatory. We biked 9.5 miles before stopping at the visitor center for the observatory. The blue lines of the bike path ended here mysteriously. Eric went into the visitor center to ask if we needed to register, but the woman said, « only car ». It was not clear if that meant only cars had to register or only cars could continue. It did not look like we could go the way the cars were going, but Maps.me showed the bike path continuing, so we decided to follow it.
Without the blue lines marking the path, we felt a bit uncertain about continuing. Eric was a little concerned we might accidentally end up in North Korea, and this feeling was supported by the many alarming signs we could not read and the concrete walls painted in camouflage. However, a brief stop to use the translator on the big red sign indicated it was warning us of a collision risk which was considerably less worrisome.
We biked another mile and a half before we found our path blocked by Korean soldiers who told us we could not continue on bikes. We were roughly four miles from the de-militarized zone, and we guess we understand why we could not go further by bicycle… but why does the map show it as an option and why does the bike shop recommend it?! It must be a recent change.
Stymied, we decided to head back south to Sokcho where we had started the day before. The biking was easy and uneventful now that the sun was shining. The only real excitement was when we stopped to use one of the many toilets along the bike route and Jess accidentally pushed the « I’m being attacked » button instead of the flush button, in the process setting off a loud alarm. Luckily, since there was no emergency, it stopped blaring after a few minutes. As a side note, Jess is amazed how difficult it can be to figure out how to flush the toilet in Korea. Often there is a place to wave your hand to activate « flush », but it is only to turn on flushing sounds, not to actually flush the toilet!
We made it back to Sokcho and finally found a real jjimjilbang. After our adventures of the previous night, we had sent Ben a message asking him to tell us if this place was the real deal and he confirmed it. Jess went in to ask the price, and the woman at the counter was not interested in playing the Google Translate game, so she called her daughter who spoke English to find out what Jess wanted. Jess conveyed that we wanted to use the public baths and spend the night, and also that we needed a place to store our bicycles. We paid ₩11,000 ($9.30) per person for the night rate (it is only ₩7,000 ($5.92) if you don’t want to sleep there), locked our bicycles in a storage closet, and we were ready to try our first jjimjilbang.
We put our shoes in a shoe locker and brought the key back to the counter where we exchanged it for another locker key, a towel, and a set of pajamas each. Then we went downstairs to the changing rooms. We agreed we would spend thirty minutes in the baths and meet on the other side wearing our pajamas. We showered and then entered the gender-segregated baths. The baths were great! On each side, there were two hot baths, a cold bath and two saunas. The hot baths and saunas felt amazing after two days of biking and 80 miles.
When we were finished in the baths, we put on our pajamas and met on the communal side for dinner. On the menu we identified two dishes that included the word 찌개, « jjigae », which we were starting to figure out meant « stew », so we ordered them and two beers. After dinner, we enjoyed the dry saunas which you enter in your pajamas. There was a large room with a row of warm saunas all at various temperatures. We did yoga in one of the cooler saunas and then found a place to sleep.
At the jjimjilbang, there are no beds. Everyone takes a mat and a pillow brick and finds a corner to sleep in. There are usually a few gender-specific sleeping rooms. When we were looking for a place to sleep, all the lights were on in the main hall, so the women-only and men-only rooms looked the darkest. We split up and went to sleep in our respective rooms. At some point, the lights in the main hall went out and the women-only room ended up having a light on all night. Jess had to move into the main hall where it was darker in the middle of the night.
The next morning, we took another dip in the baths before getting dressed and went to find breakfast at the nearby convenience store. We had a beautiful 41-mile bike ride, which was pretty uneventful, although the bike path was not as clearly marked south of Sokcho as it had been north.
That evening, we arrived in Gangneung and found another jjimjilbang. This time, we knew what we were doing. The jjimjilbang in Gangneung was slightly nicer than the one in Sokcho. It had more hot baths and more dry saunas. The saunas had elaborate mosaics; there was a beautiful mosaic of a deer in one of the saunas in the public bath area.
For sleeping areas, this jjimjilbang had a few gender specific rooms, some coffin-like caves, and two large halls. We tried to sleep on a platform on top of the coffin-like caves, but someone in the large hall nearby was playing music very loudly and Eric could not sleep. We moved to a small room mixed-gender room, but there was a person snoring like a walrus there and Jess could not sleep. By this point, Eric was already asleep, so Jess went into the women-only room across the hall where it was blissfully quiet. In the morning, we did our dip in the baths again and ventured outside.
While in the baths, Eric made some friends – first a guy who helpfully rubbed salt all over his back in the salt sauna, and then a man who recommended we eat breakfast in the nearby soondubu (soft tofu) village. There were tons of restaurants in the village and we chose one near the entrance. We got a delicious tofu and mussel soup, a tofu porridge soup and, of course, lots of banchan dishes.
By this point, it had become clear that we were not going to make it all the way to Pohang in the south, despite being what we consider relatively fit. Those seventy year olds must be very dedicated to biking! Instead, we decided to aim for an intermediate point where we could be a bit more leisurely and still catch a bus back to Seoul at the end. With this in mind, we stopped at the Coffee Cupper Museum in Gangneung. It was a pretty fun museum that had displays of old coffee brewing equipment and the history of various coffee brewing techniques. It also had some cute coffee making gadgets, like this cool train engine coffee maker. The ₩8,000 ($6.76) entrance fee included a voucher for a ₩5,000 ($4.23) coffee, so we enjoyed a nice cappuccino after visiting the museum.
We got on the road around 1pm, and a short while later we passed a South Korean military airport where three fighter jets were getting ready to take off for what must have been training exercises. We watched for a while, until they had all taken off, and then continued on. It was a short day of biking – only 30 miles – and we arrived in Donghae around 5:30pm.
There was no jjimjilbang in town, so we stopped at a bunch of motels on the way into town and asked the price. Most were ₩40,000, but we found a motel that cost ₩35,000 ($29.58) tucked away in an alley. This woman helpfully indicated the cost by writing 35000 on her palm with her finger. She suggested we take our bikes up to the room in the elevator and bring them inside. She also offered to do our laundry – maybe because Eric smelled bad. She took a handful of clothes and came back with them clean and damp a few hours later so we could hang them up to dry. We think the floor was supposed to be heated – there was a steaming bowl symbol outside – but we could not figure out how to turn it on. The bed was comfortable though, and we had enough room to do yoga despite the presence of the bed.
On the way in, Jess had noticed a couple of places across the street that looked reasonable for dinner – in Korea, menus are often posted on huge boards, so you can see what you are getting into before you go inside. Unfortunately, they told us they were closed. Closed? Jess was sure they had been open just a short while ago, and 6:30pm seemed like an unusual closing time for a restaurant. Instead we walked around the block and found a guy offering meat sticks for ₩3,000 ($2.54) each, but it was not much food, so we would be $5 in and still need to find dinner. We went to the now familiar convenience store on the corner and had some delicious microwaveable meals.
The next morning we went to Paris Baguette to get coffee and breakfast and sat on a bench in town enjoying the sunshine. We had a beautiful 34-mile bike ride during which we found the mountains! The bike rental guy had mentioned that the northern part of the East Coast bike route was very hilly, but we had not really experienced something we would consider hilly (at least not by New Hampshire and Vermont standards) until now. There were many places where there was clear evidence of landslides or sinkholes and a lot of construction along the way. We later learned that Typhoon Mitag had caused a lot of damage in this area just the week before.
We arrived in the small town of Imwon around 5:30pm and wandered around looking for a motel, but most of the ones we found were closed or not staffed. The first one we found with someone to greet us cost ₩40,000 ($33.80). Eric was tired of asking around, so we stopped there. It was another comfortable room with a bed, although also without floor heating which we had started to miss.
We decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner since this was the last night of our bike trip. We went to a restaurant a few doors away that advertised two dishes for ₩11,000 ($9.30) each. We had no idea what they were but Google Translate suggested they were both pork, so when the owner came to ask what we wanted, we told her one of each. She immediately said no and tried to explain something to us which we definitely did not understand. There was another couple in the restaurant who helpfully also tried to explain whatever it was to us. Eventually Eric used Google Translate to say we wanted what they had, and they communicated that to the owner in Korean. She came back a short while later with a plate full of boneless pork ribs and many banchan dishes. This was the kind of place where you grill the meat on a grill at the table, and we think we figured out everyone at the table had to order the same meat. We are not really sure why that is though. A little while later, the waitress came by and gestured to ask if we wanted anything else and then held up one finger and then two. We were not really sure what we were talking about but decided the right answer was probably « yes » and « one ». She brought us one bowl of jjigae (stew) and one bowl of rice.
The next morning we went out to find breakfast and coffee and discovered the coffee shops in Imwon do not open until 11am! We found the local convenience store and got breakfast and coffee there. Afterwards, we decided to walk to the bus station to figure out what time the bus back to Seoul was. The « bus station » turned out to be a small convenience store that did not sell advance tickets. They told us to come back when we were ready to take the bus.
We went back to the motel to pack up our bicycles, ate a second meal at the convenience store, and walked back to the bus station. We bought two tickets to Seoul for ₩26,000 ($21.97) each and caught the 12:49pm bus. We were now experts at loading the bikes in the bus, so we did not have any trouble this time. We were in Seoul again just a few hours later. We biked the 13.5 miles back to the bike shop where we returned the bicycles in exchange for our backpacks and set off in search of a jjimjilbang for the night.
We loved biking in South Korea. The bike paths are well paved and very easy to follow, and we were able to enjoy a beautiful part of Korea we would never have visited otherwise. Biking through small towns gave us the opportunity to see more of the local culture than we would have experienced in the larger cities. It also resulted in a lot of funny episodes we will laugh about for a long time.