The path skirts the city and is busy with locals. We continue northwards, the valley opening out and then narrowing again. Everywhere is lush growth, green rice paddies and plenty of wild flowers. We are definitely going against the grain heading northwards and when we get a headwind I begin to despise the youngsters who are belting southwards. Lucky sods. There would be more camaraderie between us perhaps if we were able to talk to them. Neither of us are inclined to spend time learning any phrases and most of them are too shy to start a conversation. So it's with older cyclists that we generally chat. There are a few parents riding the route with their children. Most stay in cheap motels along the way or at 24 hour public bath houses which have a communal 'rest' room where you can lie down for a snooze. Accomodation is only a little cheaper than Japan.
In one town we stop to visit a temple and find a supermarket. Come evening we are struggling to find a good place to camp. The evenings are relatively cool and we are happy to continue cycling whilst there's still light and the route is straight forward. But still no good spot. Gayle is eternally optimistic - there's always somewhere to camp sooner or later. Later. It's now dark and we are using our headtorches. We are pedalling along in the half-dark. The moon is nearly full and the sky is clear so we have some extra help. And then we have one of those annoying diversions away from the river, up a ridiculously steep road and through some sort of theme park, past a museum and, oh, an even steeper hill into a forest. We find a spot but are put off by the mosquitoes. Then we emerge out of the trees at a vantage point overlooking the river. There's a raised viewing point and we climb the stairs to check it out. Weary from the climbs we have all but agreed to stop here when I hear the hum. It gets louder and louder. I look up. The sky has darkened with a cloud of gnats so large I take a step backwards. We carry on.
We realise that we too have now become idiot nighttime cyclists. And we're actually enjoying it. There are fishermen down by the shore and we pass a group of villagers sat on the path enjoying the cool air off the river. Rattling along a dyke Gayle traps something between her wheels. A small animal squeals and yaps angrily. Neither of us see it. We reach a certifcation point but all there is is a kiosk and a big platform. We can camp on the platform but some other cyclist would be bound to arrive in the night. On our first night we were awoken by one at 1am playing his radio. The older cyclists especially like to have a radio playing. Then at 4.30am the same night we had another one peering into our tent. So we are determined to get away from the bike path. Luckily, just around the corner, we find an unused field.
|nice family - Gayle's gone Korean|
At some point our river turns east and we leave it. The day begins sunny but then turns cloudy and it rains. This feels like a huge relief. The old road we are on winds up through a steep valley, weaving in and out of the concrete legs holding up the new expressway. While that disappears into a tunnel, we climb through the trees and up to the highest point of the ride - a pass through a short tunnel just below the ridge. The climb is graded quite well, much better than the many ramps we have to take to get on or off embankments, and the view at the top is very gratifying. There are bodies at the top. Young guys in lycra lie prone. More come along in the opposite direction, pushing their bikes before collapsing at the view point. Ahh, the energy of the young. Our just reward is the freewheel down to the valley floor below us. The road then climbs a much lower pass, but now we're tiring. However, our legs feel stronger each time we see the look on other cyclists coming the other way. They look harrowed. They have just climbed the biggest climb of their lives - coming from Seoul - and they know there's still the Big One to come. It's usually on the climbs that I'm glad we have mountain bike gearing. These nice roadbikes look cool on the flat but not so cool when you're pushing them up a hill.
|"it's all downhill from here Gayle!"|
Our aim now is to find air-conditioning at siesta time if possible. Most of the time we settle for somewhere with a breeze. The weirs sometimes have a place right over the river and on our second to last day we come to one with an inconspicuous tower at one end. It turns out be a big fridge with comfy seating and toilets. Delicious. Anything to help those swollen feet and heat rashes. We continue to consume litres of ionising Gatorade and Pocari Sweat but still no dreadlocks.
|somewhere we passed the 20,000 miles marker|
At the end of one day we find ourselves on a little island in the river, inaccessible to cars. In the middle, surrounded by trees, is a large grass clearing with a few benches, which is perfect for us. We are just enjoying the cooler air after dinner and looking at the stars when we hear a strange buzz. We feel like we've wandered into an episode of M*A*S*H. Over the hills on the far side comes a huge Chinook cargo helicopter. And then another. And another. Four go over us. Later we hear them returning. It's a reminder that not everything is normal here. The Koreans still have American army bases all over - there's one in the centre of Seoul - and technically the North and South have never signed a peace treaty. Many Koreans want their country reunified but this has seemed less likely since Bush Junior included North Korea in his "axis of evil". It came as a surprise to us how close Seoul is to the 'Demilitarised Zone'.
It's a Friday and we're getting close to Seoul. The river leads us to one town after another and the bike path is increasingly urbanised. There's a great stretch along a disused railway with a series of tunnels which feel air-conditioned when we pass through them. We can't find a good place to stop and camp though, so we continue and by sunset we have reached the outskirts of Seoul. The city has 10 million inhabitants so it ranks in the top 20 largest in the world. But how many of those have a riverside bike path running through them? We cross the first bridge we come to, as recommended by another cyclist, and follow the path through a park, stopping to cook and eat before continuing. There are loads of locals out exercising. Not just strolling but power-walking and running and cycling. Whole pelotons fly past at top speed. It's wonderful and annoying at the same time. Where can we camp? We pause on a very long stretch of path that seems to be little used. Gayle follows a track off into the bushes. The path is lit, but beyond is total darkness. As I watch a walker slowly approach a deer leaps out across the path between us. A deer. In such a city.
Finally we opt to sleep on the benches of a pagoda/arbor. It's about 10pm and there's hardly anyone passing now. Just the mosquitoes to contend with. Until about 4.30 when a man walks past and starts shouting. We stir. A cyclist comes to a halt for a cigarette break. It's dawn and the city lights across the river in the high-rise blocks are slowly going off. Shouting Man returns, clapping his hands. He is drinking from a bottle in his pocket and is probably mad. We start packing quickly. He shouts some more and starts to rock back and forth against a tree. We scoot off before he starts shouting again and find a quieter spot for breakfast.
There's some relief at reaching Seoul mixed with regret because this is really not how we want to travel. We have crossed the country in 8 days but we certainly haven't seen much of it beyond the two central river systems.