Friday, 31 July 2015

into the fire

Busan docks
After an uneventful crossing to Korea we pick up our bikes from the baggage reclaim inside the ferry terminal and cycle out into Busan city.  The tourist information desk had no information about the bike path to Seoul but told us to head to the 'cultural centre' on the island at the river mouth where we'd get information.  Busan on a Friday morning seems rather lively.  It's Korea's biggest port - a fact that seems all too apparent when we set off along the bike path south of the terminal.  The bay is packed with cargo ships and wharfs.  There's not a gap in the coast line.  We consider crossing through the city but the geography looks daunting with big hills looming behind the buildings and dark, foreboding clouds gathering around their peaks. So instead we decide to follow the coast around to the river as much as we can.  The bike path runs out after 500 metres at the back of a shopping centre.  We walk through a busy fish market.  It all looks fabulously fresh until we spot a woman unwrapping a block of frozen fish from a packet to display on her stall.  We are probably not seeing the most attractive part of the city here - it's grimy and gritty and the buildings look mouldy and mildewed.  Suddenly we are faced with a steep hill.  There's no avoiding it.  Another bike path appears on the pavement.  It's crummy.  We push and then pedal up the hill and over to a main road where we join the traffic for the big downhill on the other side.  We stop at a supermarket for supplies and then cross the bridge to the island and the start of the Four Rivers Bikeway that will take us all the way through Korea and almost to the airport at Incheon.  We have only 12 days before our flight leaves, but only 640km on a riverside bike path.  A doddle.

At the information centre we pick up a map and a little passport booklet with it.  The idea is that you can collect stamps along the way and then get a certificate when you've completed the ride.  The certification points are in little red kiosks every 35km or so.  The map is only in Korean.  The woman helps us decipher our route and explain some of the map symbols.  The one that confuses me is the 'drinking water' sign.  We have an old guidebook that advises not to drink the tap water, but the Koreans we asked say that tap water is okay.  But on our map the next drinking water available is after 385km.  Interesting.   We eat lunch before starting and watch as young Koreans, all men, arrive on their bikes.  Most have come from Seoul and appear to be carrying very little - a small backpack, maybe a bag on their back rack, one water bottle.  All are wearing lycra gear, helmets, buffs, long sleeves.  It feels as hot and as humid as Japan to us, but these lads are dressed for a chilly day.  One youth tells us how hard the route is.  We laugh.  We've just come from Japan.  Don't tell us a riverside bike path is tough.  We ask him how long it took him and he replies "4 days and 3 nights".  Too fast.  No wonder he looks exhausted.  In fact, everyone looks exhausted.  They must be amateurs. 

The weather is sunny and there's a breeze off the river when we head off.   We follow the river on a newish path and by late afternoon have left the city behind.  There are rest places on route, with toilets and benches, picnic tables and little octagonal pagoda-style arbors.  We pass plenty of folk out on their bikes, some clearly finishing the long ride but others just enjoying the late afternoon.  The guidebook describes cycling on Korea's roads as almost suicidal so it's no surprising the popularity of the bike path.  We stop at a rest place and cook our evening meal.  An American cycles past and stops to chat.  The Koreans say hello, and smile at our loaded bikes.  Some almost gape in shock.  Hardly anyone seems to be carrying anything.  And then a father with two sons pulls up.  He has a trailer and from it they extract a tent.  So we're not the only ones camping.  After the sun sets the breeze off the river inevitably drops.  We have a flannel wash by the tent before getting in.  It's dark now, but incredibly there are still little groups cycling past, all heading to Busan.  They must be mad.  They have lights but it's getting past 9 at night.  Who's that daft?

Over the next two days the path gets busy with day riders out at the weekend.  But the river begins to wind it's way away from the towns and the cyclists we mostly see now have all come from Seoul.  They are all uniformly in full "Tour de Korea" cycling regalia, including long sleeves and buffs up to their eyes.  The aim is clearly to keep the sun from burning.  The effect is oddly alienating - we see no-one's face.  We have no idea if they are male or female, old or young, happy or grumpy.  They look like something from a crap sci-fi movie.  
these two lovely women gave us snacks

The path mostly follows along the dykes built on both banks of the river.  We sometimes switch banks.  At one point the path turns inland, around a hill and then climbs inordinately steeply into the forest.  The slope is about 20% and concrete.  We push and sweat our way to the top just to go down another steep path back to the river.  
On studying a map on a signpost it turns out that there is a detour via a road which would certainly have been easier but there seems to be a pathological desire to keep the bikes separate from the traffic.  The next day we have another awful climb which is thankfully not as long.  There's a young Korean couple just in front of us on new bikes and they quickly succumb to pushing before the climb has really begun.  I notice the man hasn't changed from his largest chainring and I wonder if he knows how to use his gears for climbing uphill.  It's our third day.  I'm not a huge fan of bike paths normally - I think there's room for bikes on the road if drivers are taught how to overtake sensibly.  Roads are usually kept in a better condition than bike paths and they don't take unnecessary detours.  Roads also pass through villages and towns and this bike path is trying to avoid them.  After three days cycling it's hard to remember we're in Korea.  But on the plus side, there is no traffic and we are free to gawp around us and let our minds wander. Holy Hannah! A snake!

Day four is a killer.  The skies are clear, the sun is high and bright and the river has just turned northwards so we have the sun on our backs.  We are making good time but the temperature is definitely rising.  We stop for a break by a rest stop with a drinking fountain.  The water tastes of rusty pipes.  We decide to have an early lunch and sit in the pagoda.  Despite the shade we are getting hotter.  To make matters worse, Gayle is not feeling too good.  Sunstroke?  We try to doze but it's even hotter if we lie down.  There's not a breath of air.  We know there's a certification point about 5 kilometres away, at one of the big new weirs they've built.  Often there's also a water company building with toilets and a convenience shop or space to sit in and sometimes the buildings have air-conditioning.  Gayle is hesitant.  She feels too ill to ride.  But she isn't getting any cooler sitting here.  Finally we make the move.  It's a painful 5 kilometres.  The sun is merciless.  But the decision pays off - there's an air-conditioned lobby where she can lie down and recover.  And there's a shop where we can buy ionising drinks. (We have taken to these drinks since our last week in Japan.  Normally we'd just be drinking big bottles of coke, but who could resist something called 'Pocari Sweat'??
Ionising drinks were first developed in Jamaica in the mid-seventies by Rastafarians looking to replace lost israelites.  Jamaican athletes took the drink to training camps in the States and their popularity spread.  Now we are hooked.)
searchng for shade
We sit out the rest of the afternoon inside.  Other cyclists come to cool off too.  After a while Gayle is feeling better and talking again, asking cyclists about the route ahead.  A man asks if he can help us - Joshua speaks excellent English and he translates Gayle's questions and the cyclists' replies.  He's with his brother and they ask to sit down with us and chat a bit and they bring us iced coffee drinks.  Joshua informs us that they're having a heatwave.  We'd never have known it.  He's intrigued and excited about our journey and wonders won't we be cold when we're sleeping in our tent.  What about the heatwave?!!, we exclaim. He tells us the bike path was built as part of a major development project driven by the last president to shore up Korea's water management and agriculture.  In effect they have built weirs and embankments to stop Korea's large rivers from flooding each year.  They get plenty of rain in Korea - as much as the UK annually - but 70% falls in July, the rainy season.  The bike path is an add-on, along with trying to restore the riverside areas which would normally be left with big deposits of sand and silt.  Now there are wetland areas and plenty of parkland for recreation.  All the farming areas we have passed through are no longer flooded out.

We set off again late in the day to find somewhere to camp, down by the water's edge.  It's peaceful and pretty but we're still too damn hot!

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