Korea’s Cycling Paths & Will Power
“Hamechaye,” said my mother as she dipped her head in some hot springs on one of my many trips with her. She was a great traveller who actually scouted China with me for the inaugural Silk Route Cycling Expedition. She was always eager to see and experience something new, even in that late stage of her life.
‘Hamechaye’ – meaning pleasure, enjoyment and real joy – popped into my mind as I was dipping my body into the hot springs here in Korea. It was the second day of our Journey to the East Cycling Tour and we were in a town called Suanbo, which apparently means, ‘Fort Where the Water is Peaceful’. The pleasure and enjoyment were not only from the wonderful hot water enveloping my body. It was the whole experience of cycling in Korea. In all my travels around the world, I have yet to experience three days of riding with such excellent cycling infrastructure and impeccably smooth and clean surfaces.
Ninety percent of our journey so far has been on dedicated bike paths and though we had two rainy days, the wonderful joy of cycling this country, known as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm,’ have been, ‘hamechaye’. On the first day cycling out of Seoul along the Han River, there was a work crew cutting the grass near the cycling path. One person was cutting, another was holding a barrier to make sure that none of the dust and cuttings would bother the cyclists. Further down the route, we came across a tunnel for cyclists only. This was one of several we biked through on our first day. No need for red flashing lights, warning of coming vehicular traffic. To continue with my cycling culture shock, every few kilometres, we would come across clean, modern toilets where you can happily go in and reapply your butt cream. Not to mention coffee shops, which seem to be everywhere one turns in Korea.
Cycling infrastructure is not the only thing I am impressed with. While in Seoul I decided to check out one of famed architect Zaha Hadid works, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park. I spent a couple of hours walking around, admiring her work. It is definitely worth seeing, even if one is not an architecture buff. From there, I wandered just a few blocks north and found another striking example of public works, undertaken, I assume, by the local government.
Years ago there was a stream running through the city from west to east, providing water for people living on its shores. As Seoul grew, the stream become a dumping ground. In fact, during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, it was nicknamed the ‘city’s cancer’. In 1958, the authorities decided to cover the polluted stream and built an elevated motorway over it. The project was finished in 1976 and pictures show a highway jam packed with traffic. Alongside it were factories and markets including, in 1970, Seoul’s first 31 story office building. The highway became a symbol of the country’s industrialization and fifty years later Seoul has hundreds of buildings taller than the original.
The stream was concealed for 25 years. Then in 2003 the mayor of Seoul realized that building that highway was the wrong thing to do and work began to remove it and rehabilitate the stream. It was along that rehabilitated stream that I took a long walk, enjoying the calm amidst all the bustle of modern Seoul. The before and after pictures show what really can be done all over the world, if only the will was there.
And it is with the idea of ‘will’ that I want to finish this blog. What makes TDA tours special? Yesterday, our third day on the tour, was a long one with close to 1500 metres of climbing. What made the day particularly difficult was the head wind and the continuous rain. It was just for such occasions that we have support vehicles so that any of the riders who decide that they have had enough can get a ride to the finish. Yet one rider after another declined and declined, finally arriving at the hotel tired and soaked but smiling nevertheless . What a bunch! What will power!
Journey to the East
While Korea and Japan are close neighbors, their lands and cultures are completely their own, and cycling across these countries one after the other...