The Hardest Thing is to Leave…
The stress was building up before this trip with endless lists of things to do, things to buy and things to finish before we took off. This time we had to think more carefully what to pack, especially for Neil. Did we pack too much or too little? Does he have enough toys, books or clothes? How about diapers? In the end you realize it doesn’t really matter. He will grow out of his clothes any way, the bag of toys will become useless at some point since anything is a toy, we make up stories as we go and we make do with the diapers of course. So once we were finally at the airport with our two bike boxes and two orange plastic bags with the rest of our gear for the months to come, we knew we were ready to go. Finally we could relax and let the adventure begin.
Seoul: A Modern City with Lively Markets
After a long flight west, in which we chased the sun all the way, we finally touched base in Seoul. We got the royal treatment from Korean Air – we had plenty of room since they gave us the bassinet seats, and the flight attendants fell in love with Neil. Still, it was a relief to land, and with a 16 hours difference from Vancouver we knew we were bound to get some jet lag issues with Neil. In the end it wasn’t too bad and he got used to the new clock pretty quickly.
We were surprised how smoothly things went. We caught the bus straight from the airport, and it was no problem getting our huge bike boxes and trailer inside, and we even got off at the right station. We almost found our Airbnb place easily, but it turned out that we had been given the wrong directions. It all worked out eventually and we all collapsed into bed for a good night’s sleep.
We spent the next few days exploring Seoul using its massive metro system. It’s a city of 10 million people with amazing public transportation. No doubt that cities in North America have a thing or two to learn. After a few days we became experts on the subway, which line to catch, where to get off, even how to pay the right amount… Once on the train, everyone was busy with their cell phones: texting, watching movies, playing games, not a single person was reading a book or looking out of the window.
Another impressive thing about Seoul aside from the metro was the number of markets and how lively they were. Almost everywhere we threw a coin we landed on a different market. In Namdaemun Market we found the ‘noodle alley’, a narrow alley with 30 or so stands all serving noodle dishes. Then not too far away, another alley with only fish stands and restaurants. On our last night in Seoul we checked out Gwangjang Market at night. It was so hectic and busy and yet full of positive energy and of course delicious food like bindaetteok, a Korean style pancake made of freshly ground mung beans, mayak gimbap, Korean style sushi, and a plate of still wriggling octopus tentacles that we didn’t dare to try.
Cyclist Paradise: Cycling the Four Rivers Trail
We had heard some vague mentions of a dedicated bike path which runs right across South Korea, from Incheon in the northwest to Busan in the southeast. That was the reason we chose South Korea as our trip destination to begin with. However, gathering further information (in English) was a bit of a challenge. Eventually we decided that it sounded hopeful and we should go for it. We weren’t disappointed.
We left Seoul on a Sunday afternoon. I still have vivid memories (nightmares?) of the time we cycled out of Panama City at the beginning of our Central America tour. Leaving Seoul was nothing like that. After five minutes of cycling on the road, we connected to the trail along the Han River. Seeing the trail from above, we had to stop to catch our breath. For a moment we could not believe our eyes. For years we’ve been dreaming of a “bicycle highway” and it turns out that it exists, and it was right there in front of us, for us to ride on for as long as we want.
Once we connected to the “cyclist’s highway” we discovered that it was indeed very similar to driving on a highway. You cannot make sudden stops or you’ll cause an accident and you need to stay alert all the time. Once we passed Seoul things calmed down considerably and on long stretches of the trail it was only the three of us with an occasional cyclist passing by.
The whole trail was built and designed for cyclists. We crossed endless bridges, most of them only for cyclists, and many were actually huge dams, seemingly competing for first prize for the most futuristic design. Near Paldang, we crossed a few tunnels – yes, just for bikes! We basically followed the “Four Rivers Trail” signs all the way, and with more arrows on the pavement itself the trail was easy to follow.
If people think that South Korea is only modern cities and huge buildings they should get on their bikes and ride the trail. Much of the trail runs right next to rice and soy fields, apple and persimmon orchards, grape vines and many greenhouses. On several occasions, we enjoyed grapes, apples, persimmons, tomatoes and even a milk carton that were generously given to us. It also seemed like the whole country is overflowing with persimmons, Neil’s new love. The persimmon trees in the fall are a beautiful sight, many of them having lost all their leaves but still full of the bright orange fruit.
This was also a free camping paradise: most nights we camped near the trail, and for free. On our first night we literally set up camp just beside the trail, in the outskirts of Seoul. Although people still passed by the tent at night and early morning, no one seemed to mind. We camped by the side of the river, in public parks, close to bridges, in a free campground, and on one occasion on an exceedingly hard concrete slab, just off the trail.
We also found out that motels in Korea are reasonably priced, and their quality is on a different scale than sex hotels in Central America. We spent a few nights in Suanbo, a hot springs town, where we checked out Woraksan National Park and of course some hot springs. Unlike hot springs we know from Canada, here men and women bathe separately and you go in naked. Most of the women were actually busy scrubbing themselves, rather than actually enjoying the hot water. It started to rain when we were there, and I sat in the outdoor pool thinking it was the perfect time for some rain.
The trail had a few uphill sections, the biggest one was after our few days of rest in Suanbo. It started raining again just as we arrived to the summit, perfect timing, so we spent a few hours at the restaurant where the staff even took care of Neil for us. When the rain seemed to stop we rolled downhill quickly, and it started raining again just as we arrived to the next town, where we booked into a motel to dry off.
Then the weather was perfect again for the rest of the ride. Our next rest day was in Yaksan, a tiny village off the side of the trail. We stayed with a family in Korean style accommodation, which means thin mattresses on the floor, which was heaven for Neil – he could roll around and practice crawling to his little heat’s content. A homemade Korean breakfast and dinner were included, and the family completely fell in love with Neil, fed him and held him lots, and asked if we could stay an extra day…
Reaching Busan two and a half weeks after leaving Seoul, on a humid and hazy day, was anticlimactic. Unlike the trail near Seoul which was beautiful and by the river, for some reason the trail entering Busan just runs parallel to the highway, with four lanes of traffic on either side. Although it was still completely separated from traffic it felt unpleasant.
We reached the end of the trail with a feeling of accomplishment. We had ridden 630 km from Seoul with a seven old month baby, who was a true champion. Since we realized we didn’t want to ride across Busan, a city of over two million people, we caught the subway instead. It was surprisingly easy to get on the subway with two bikes, a trailer, a baby and all our gear. with a bit of help and a few elevators – we made it!
Everyone Speaks the International Language of Babies
Often people ask us if not knowing the language in places we travel to is a problem. After landing in South Korea we soon realized how spoiled we we had become in the last few years, travelling in Spanish speaking countries, where we could hold a basic conversation. Now we were faced with having absolutely no idea what people were saying to us. In any case one gets by, and sign language and gestures often do the job. These days people often pull out a smartphone with a translation app, which often leads to some amusingly wrong translations (such as “meet me with prose and literature at 10 o’clock”). However if you really want to find your way – bring a baby along. And if he or she are as cute as Neil (impossible, of course) then you’ll have no problems whatsoever.
The amount of attention we got is unreal. Everywhere we went people just couldn’t get over how cute Neil is. They wanted to hold him, touch him, kiss him, feed him, dress him, and even change his diaper. He is a true ice breaker, and even opens doors for us for discounts or getting things for free. It also turns out that eating at restaurants in Korea comes with free baby sitting services. Almost everywhere we ate the staff held and played with Neil for some portion of the meal while we enjoyed the delicious food. The fact that most meals here are eaten at a low table while sitting on the floor makes it very easy with a baby too, so he can practice his crawling skills (not quite there yet) or cobra poses (a true expert) throughout the meal.
A Learning Experience for All of Us
It’s been almost a month since we left Vancouver and Neil has grown and changed so much. The fact that we can be with him 24/7 to see him go through those changes is amazing. He babbles more and more, almost making some real sounding words, he’s more mobile and his eating skills have improved dramatically. He is interested in anything and everything. He likes being in the trailer, and now even helps us get him in and out of the trailer by lifting his head and pushing it forward.
And we also learn as we go… We learned that cycling with a baby means a different pace. We’re averaging about 50 km a day, which is totally fine with us. We learned that our breaks are longer but fewer and a lunch break can easily take over two hours to give Neil enough time and space. We learned when we need to stop for the night and find a good camp spot. We learned that we need to be clear on who’s with Neil at every given moment, since being more mobile also increases the chances for some small accidents.
We learned how to get along as a family of three who is travelling by bicycle. Although we know it’s out of the ordinary for most, now it seems so natural for us, and Neil is adjusting so easily to new situations and environments. Despite some challenges and more effort from both of us it’s a true pleasure.