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“Busan?” the gentleman in his sixties standing across from me exclaimed in disbelief. His appearance reminded me of an older Korean version of Marco Pantani, the late Italian road racing cyclist superstar. The skin on his Korean pendant bald head glistened in the midday sun, his wiry body seemingly incapable of acknowledging the existence of fat cells. Like me, he was clad in spandex, skin-tight cycling apparel.
I had just mentioned where I was heading. We stood outside a cafe next to Yangsu Station, an above-ground stop on the Seoul subway system, about 50 kilometers from downtown. To bring my blood sugar levels back up I had opted for honey bread, a popular type of snack. I was about two and a half hours into my first day cycling across South Korea.
Sadly, my lack of Korean and his non-existent English prevented any in-depth conversation with my new friend. However, he seemed to be unhappy about something. After pinching my tires, he told me they would need some additional air. I acknowledged his recommendation and folded my hands to a prayer position to thank him for his advice. However, I decided to ignore it for now. I swallowed the last piece of bread and was soon on my way to Yeoju, my destination for this first day.
The Boeing 747 touched down at Incheon International Airport after a 13-hour flight from the United States West Coast, early morning local time. It was my first visit to South Korea. A few months prior, I had learned about the Four Rivers cycling path that lets one travel from the country’s northwest corner, through the capital, and to the port city of Busan in the southeast. The route spans 633 kilometers on a dedicated bike route without any motorized traffic. It sounded like the perfect way for me to explore this to me unknown part of the world.
Seoul is a densely populated city, and one would be excused for questioning the idea of cycling in a cacophony of private vehicles, truck traffic, and taxi cabs. Leaving my hotel in the Itaewon district early morning, I very much had the same thoughts. I eventually reached the Han River via a confusing network of one-way streets, where I got lost once. Soon after I spotted bike lane markings on the paved surface and breathed a sigh of relief for finding the path. Once I had crossed the Banpo Bridge to the south side of the river, I continued eastward. The Four Rivers cycle path follows, as the name implies, one of four rivers at any given time until its terminus in Busan.
I was far from alone on the path next to the river. Plenty of other cyclists were out and about, some on race-type road bikes, some on folding bikes, and getting exercise this early Monday morning in mid-May. Speaking of exercise: Every few kilometers, I whizzed by outdoor gyms with wiry seniors doing bench presses and pull-ups. Seeing convenience stores, bike rental shops, and, most importantly, toilets left me at ease. I would not have to dial down my acceptable comfort levels by much.
It took some time to leave the city behind, but once I was out of its reach, the countryside opened up. I started to enjoy this magnificent piece of infrastructure, taking me, without any motorized traffic, on a smooth, paved surface across the landscape. Seoul’s concrete and glass were soon replaced by endless views of the Han River and rolling hills covered in lush green forests. To make the bicycle journey as convenient as possible, even cyclists had their own colorfully lit tunnels through the hillsides. One can’t be bothered to labor uphill much while riding a bicycle in South Korea.
My first day ended with checking into a motel in Yeoju, a city-state with about 100,000 people, with all the amenities one can hope for, including air-conditioning and mood lighting. But even more satisfying than resting my tired body after a full day of cycling was my dinner. I found a restaurant across the street, which seemed to be the only one open within walking distance. As I pulled on the door handle and stepped inside, I noticed the greasy linoleum floors and slightly stained walls. A waitress appeared from a side door, and I was led into another room with a floor-level table. The menu was in rudimentary English. I eventually pointed at something, rolling the dice.
In the end, I was treated to Bulgogi, thin-sliced pieces of beef and pork meat, grilled on an electric grill unit built into the table. The grilled goods were accompanied by a plethora of side dishes, from kimchi to bok choy to tofu and fried cucumber pieces, tempura style. The waitress periodically checked up on the meat on the grill to make sure it was cooked to satisfaction. By the time I was finished, I was convinced that this had been the most magnificent dinner I had ever had. My hunger levels might have clouded my judgment severely, but nevertheless.
The online guide written by another cycle tourist who had traveled to South Korea previously promised me a not-to-miss mom & pop eatery in Buron-Myeon, a small hamlet flanked by the river in the west and rolling hills in the east. I had turned off the path onto the town’s main street but couldn’t find the place. Instead, I went to a convenience store to procure instant ramen noodles. The store’s layout confused me until I realized that the store was actually built as an extension of the owner’s family home. I sort of committed a cultural faux pas by making a wrong turn and found myself in the middle of their kitchen.
With nowhere else to sit, I made myself comfortable on the bench by the bus stop next to the store. I was almost ready to swing back on the bike when a woman emerged from the cafe next to the convenience store. “Sit! Tired!” the lady ordered me, pointing at my legs. Her dark hair was tied back to not interfere with her work. She wore a white collared polo shirt and blue jeans. In no uncertain terms and in a lovingly stern voice, she urged me to relax for a little longer. She disappeared briefly into the cafe and reemerged with a presumably homemade plate of kimchi, which she handed me. In broken English, she motioned that she was the cafe’s owner and without a doubt saw that I had eaten my noodles without any side dish, clearly a travesty.
Now, I would typically not go out of my way to order kimchi, fermented cabbage with a distinct taste and usually spicy. But in this situation, I mini-bowed about ten times to show my appreciation. After putting the first piece in my mouth, I signaled my approval with the international “thumbs up” gesture. Once I was done, she also filled up my water bottles before I went on my way. It was just a nice feeling being taken care of by a complete stranger. Soon I was back on the cycle path, finishing the day in Suanbo, a small resort town known for its hot springs and skiing.
The following day greeted me with fog and rain. Thankfully it stopped while I consumed my breakfast noodles at a CU convenience store around the corner from my hotel. A slight drizzle and high humidity remained as I took on yet another day of cycling. Unfortunately, three uphill sections waited for me within the first 18 kilometers. I felt my body protesting as I slowly inched upwards, profusely sweating underneath my rain jacket. A short tunnel through the mountainside at the top signaled the end of the last climb—a viewing platform with wooden benches and a large engraved boulder invited to linger for a while.
Alas, not much of a view was had, with fog and mist hiding everything in the valley below from sight. The green-covered hills eventually disappeared into a sea of grey. I sped down the mountain on the other side and soon after suffered what felt like a trip-ending equipment failure. A metal piece supporting my bike rack snapped, and I briefly dragged my panniers across the asphalt. They did not sustain damage, but I didn’t know what to do, fearing the tour was over. With the help of a local, who pointed me toward a bike shop, and realizing that I could fix the issue by simply shifting the position of the metal piece, I was back on my way.
The afternoon heat set in, clearing the moisture from the sky and bringing out the bright late spring colors in the landscape around me. I tried to make up for lost time, pushing harder than I wanted. An incline with a 10% grade, a rare occurrence, broke me, and I had to walk the remaining 100 meters to the crest. After a stop at the Sangju Bicycle Museum right along the path, an encounter with local domestic animal life gave me the final adrenaline rush of the day.
A pair of stray dogs, wandering along the trail as I approached, started barking incessantly and chased after me. They were medium-sized and not necessarily menacing-looking, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Despite running on fumes at this point, I pushed down on the pedals with force and eventually lost the furballs on a speedy descent. I made it to the village of Nakdong-ri early evening and checked into yet another unassuming motel right off the path and a stone’s throw from the river. The one downside of my accommodation was the climb up three flights of stairs to get to my room, my legs vehemently protesting in agony.
A few pesky and steep inclines awaited me on my way to Miryang, my last overnight stop before getting to Busan. The reward for the suffering was the best elevated views of the expansive scenery around me. The river meandering through the shallow valley with farmland next to the stream’s banks and forested, rolling hills.
The second of those ascents brought me past a Buddhist temple, the call to prayer blasting through loudspeakers already audible from the bottom. White statues flanked the path as I labored up the steep switchbacks. My breathing was heavy and I was sweating profusely, but I did not want to give in, get off the bike and walk. The fourth climb cut straight through a dense forest with hiking options signposted, veering off from the main path. It was the first time I felt somewhat immersed in nature and away from civilization since leaving Seoul.
My day ended in Samnangjin, the least appealing town so far on this trip. The hamlet’s layout was fragmented due to numerous highways and railway lines cutting through the landscape. The settlement seemingly occupied the gaps and triangles in between them. Contending with car traffic in town stressed me out after not even having to think about it for a while. I eventually settled on the first motel I had spotted from the bike path, with a dated exterior and not looking much better inside. I didn’t receive a room key but got a free toothbrush, which might have been a consolation, but I am not sure. With all other eateries closed, I had to revert to patronizing another convenience store down the road for a plastic-wrapped burger for dinner and free wifi.
This excellent cycling infrastructure impressed me one last time on the final day of my biking trip across South Korea. Instead of drilling tunnels, for a handful of kilometers, the path was put on a raised platform, akin to fishing piers, skirting along the left bank of the Nakdong River. Soon after, the suburbs of Busan came into view on the horizon. With them, the traffic on the bike path increased with every kilometer.
Dodging slow cyclists and walkers increasingly took the fun out of the adventure, and I now longed to reach the finish line. Past uniformly looking housing complexes, the signposts signaled a right turn across the river and onto Eulsukdo Island, a delta island where the Nakdong River meets the South Sea. I found the final checkpoint and official terminus of the bike path just down the ramp from the bridge and touched the marker indicating the “633km” total distance. With that, the journey was complete.
Well, not quite yet. I had planned ahead and booked an Airbnb close to Busan train station, which I thought to be a smart move. However, to get there, I had to find a way across a busy, densely populated port city of nearly 3.5 million people. It ended up being quite an ordeal. Both bike and tired body had to be maneuvered through busy multi-lane streets, along sidewalks, and across bridges. After what felt like an eternity, spent and anxious, I was finally at the train station. I found my accommodation only a couple of blocks away from it. All that was left was a day to explore and getting the bike ready for the trip back to Seoul.
Part of the appeal of cycling through South Korea was experiencing South Korea’s high-speed rail network, KTX. I splurged on a first-class ticket on an early afternoon train, which ended up quite full when we reached Seoul. The bike was stored in a relatively small but sufficiently sized luggage space, while the train shot through the landscape at up to 300km/h. In 2 hours and 40 minutes, I was back in Seoul, making my way through a sea of people at the train station and plotting my route back to my hotel.
The 4 Rivers cycle path and other dedicated bicycle trails in South Korea are magnificent pieces of infrastructure. It provides a low barrier for locals and tourists alike to experience the country on two wheels. One is never too far away from hallmarks of first-world comforts, like motels and hotels, convenience stores and restaurants, if one chooses to seek them. This convenience, however, is paid for with predictability, the nemesis of a truly adventurous experience. For those who seek an immersive off-the-grid adventure, this is definitely not for them.
The ones who decide to explore South Korea in this way will experience the natural beauty in the countryside as soon as the route takes them outside the densely populated areas. What stuck with me were those moments when nature occupied all my senses, on a paved cycling path next to a river, cutting through an endless sea of golden coreopsis flowers, looking like miniature sunflowers. It is those moments that this unique cycle path offers, experiencing a whole country from a bicycle saddle.
For this trip I followed the 4 Rivers Cycle Path, which is part of South Korea’s long-distance bicycle paths. The route takes you on mostly flat terrain and paved surfaces from Seoul to Busan.
As the name implies, it mostly follows the course of a river, which means mostly flat terrain. It is almost entirely paved. When I visited (June 2017), there were a couple of sections that were being repaved, so I had to deal with brief sections of gravel/dirt.
It needs to be mentioned that the high degree of established infrastructure makes this a fairly easy bike tour, not ideal for people seeking a more adventurous experience.
Incheon International Airport, about 30 miles west of Seoul, is well-connected internationally and consistently rated as one of the best airports world-wide.
From Busan, regular high-speed train service connects the port city with the capital Seoul in roughly 3 hours.
No issues or worries with regards to water and food. Traveling along the path, you will pass by settlements on a fairly regular basis. Additionally, a convenience store like 7-Eleven or CU to stock up on snacks and drinks is usually never far way.
For this trip, I used a regular aluminum-frame mid-level road bike with rear rack and a set of Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic Panniers. Since the path is paved all the way, the 700x25c Specialized Armadillo Elite tires (with puncture protection) were a good choice.
Depending on your preference and budget, you can obviously play around with the setup. I decided to forego carrying a tent in favor of staying at motels along the way. Prices ranged from ₩30k to ₩70k (between $27 and $64 USD). There are also reasonable camping opportunities along the way, however I haven’t explored them further.
If I were to do this trip today, I would again opt for a road bike, but with a lighter bikepacking setup.
- Bicycle Touring from Seoul to Busan on South Korea’s 4 Rivers Cycle Pathway. Detailed six-day itinerary that I closely followed during my own trip.
- Official 4 Rivers Path Website
- South Korea: Cycling Four Rivers Trail from Seoul to Busan. A retired couple’s account of cycling the route over ten days.
- A Practical Guide to Bicycle Touring in Korea. Useful information about South Korea’s bike paths, weather, money and accommodation options.
- Across Korea on a bicycle. “Survival guide” for foreigners with some helpful tips for cycling the path and South Korea in general.