The Rising Sun Cycle was never meant to pass through South Korea, and yet it was arguably the best country on tour. The original plan had been to cycle from Beijing down the Chinese seaboard to Shanghai, and from there to Japan. But after a conversation with Woo-Jae, a Korean university friend, we quickly ditched the idea of cycling through the world's largest industrial port region, and replaced this with a Utopian vision of cycling the length of Korea. Here Wooj's local knowledge was the key factor: he had told me how a recent Korean president had been universally unpopular home and abroad, but had driven through one flagship policy that even his most vicious detractors had conceded was a great idea well executed: the world's premier national cycle path.
The 4 Rivers cycle path begins in the North-West of the country near our port of arrival, Incheon. It quickly passes through the capital Seoul, before running alongside the country's 4 major rivers, before running out in to the sea in the far South-East of the country in the second city Busan. The route is consistently beautiful: the staggering skyline of Seoul was left behind for rice-paddies and river forests, the steep valley slopes acted as a great verdant cloak hiding aged shrines, temples and village idylls in the land's folds and ruffles. The section following rivers up into mountain streams wound us past waterfalls and hot springs, before descending to the flatter meanders where the river widened from a hop to hundreds of metres. Finally, the waters flow out into the Pacific in the direction of our eventual ferry to Japan.
No matter how wonderful this scenery was, it couldn't compare to the truly stunning achievement of public utility that is the Korean cycle network. Ignoring how this will turn into a case study of accidental Alan Partridgisms, I'll now try to describe this. To a cyclist tempered by Mongolian dust paths, marathon waterless Uzbek desert stints, or Kyrgz tunnels, cycling in Korea was not just luxurious but entirely alien. It started in Incheon, where the path first greeted us with colossal cycling cartoon statues, the purpose built rubber-asphalt path was wide enough for two cyclists abreast in either direction, and a constant array of cycle signs kept the nav apps in the pocket. Out in the country we enjoyed long wooden paths built on stilts into the river - these would wind around sheer cliff-faces, this minimising climbing.
The flawless cycle infrastructure was accompanied by every conceivable convenience: spotless public toilets punctuated the route every 20km or so, there were cycle-friendly cafes, mini-marts selling bike spares, designated camping zones with pagoda platforms for tents. Bike shops were numerous, but there were even regular 'Self-Fix Stations' with pumps and basic tools. What are the Koreans if not utterly meticulous, the attention to detail was astonishing: when crossing roads the cats eyes on our path had been specially dug flat into the road to cater for sensitive bike tires, there were fridges stocked with free mineral water, at times there were even lampost speakers playing Debussy and Chopin to serenade us on our way.
Yet the most memorable and indeed possibly stereotypical feature of the route were the blue phone boxes at each checkpoint. These contained an ink pad and a unique rubber stamp of a local landmark. These stamp-boxes exist throughout the national cycle network, and a verified full collection is rewarded by an official medal and certificate. This coupled with a Pokemon 'Gotta catch'em all' mentality explained the grown-men on road bikes in full racing gear sprinting between stamps. Around the cities, these superb cycle ways are well-wheeled by the weekend warriors, wobbly families, and couples on rental bikes. But in the countryside we would have these world-class cycle-paths to ourselves for hours at a time.
To anyone still reading these missives who may well be considering an exotic but introductory cycle-touring locale: Korea is the answer, before any question arises. It was for all these reasons and more that Korea was the ideal stint for a remarkable event: The Return of Asli - High Voltage.
She had been considering renting a bike an joining us for a few days. But In a Seoul rental shop, she made a spur of the moment choice and bought an E-bike. This tipping point of a decision was somewhat alike to me publicly stating the journey and its cause, for this purchase locked her into traversing the whole country by bike, rather courageous given the distance was more than double what she'd done on the Danube earlier in the trip.
But down the Korean rivers, Asli was a different cyclist. The most dramatic change stemmed from the ability to take her and her bike to a cafe and recharge both simultaneously with a coffee and plug socket respectively. In this manner, she disproved my Hungarian hypotheses as to the impossibility of 'sexy cycling'. For much of the ride and certainly on any incline she was the pace setter, and I would follow behind panting. Whenever people saw us on hills, they would gaze wide-eyed at Asli, effortlessly and glamorously spinning up a steep hill one hand on the handlebars, the other flicking her hair or waving. Only a tiny minority would think to look down for a battery. As I passed the next moment and they saw the kitchen sink on my bicycle; I occasionally received applause and wow's, or at other times pedestrians would burst out laughing in silent understanding of the nature of Asli's and my relationship.
Whilst the electric bike had opened up a raft of possibilities, Asli's own capabilities had also evolved. When I met her in Japan she had more luggage with her than when I had moved house for the first time, but now she was contained in a single if weighty backpack. She was becoming comfortable with setting out into an evening and not knowing where her bed would be. And when the guesthouse prices weighed too heavily one evening, she led us in squatting in an unattended off-season glamping site. She was no longer shrieking at insects, despite the size and plurality of the Korean offering. On the last day she cycled with me enduring typhoon rain, smiling and shivering in her white leopard print mac. Slowly but surely she was developing into a true cycle tourist.
Rob(ishko) was for the most part an admirable and gentlemanly third wheel, staying patient with me as always, and extending that patience and perhaps some extra courtesy to Asli. I think he relaxed and reveled in the dreamy pace of cycling, podcasting his brain onto a higher plane of Joe Rogan and other conspiracy theories. Occasionally, I would feel squeezed and pressed between two gears operating at different speeds, having to act like a bicycle chain made of elastic, stretching and pulling my insides tight in order to keep the mechanism moving without too many judders and squeals. But these occasions were rarer than the occasions where I was the necessary butt of the joke being the point of connection for both parties, but I was more than content to play this role if it maintained harmony.
In Busan, we were at the mercy of typhoon Lingling, she had threatened and trumpeted her arrival for several days. The hangover we had cultivated the night before was an extreme and rare an event as the typhoon itself, it was also paired perfectly, as there was little more to do than huddle up in the airbnb. When we did venture out for food and and supplies, there were no other pedestrians along the beachfront, just a mad pair running into the churning sea. Walking the street, one had to watch and brace for crossing the road, the streets formed wind tunnels for the gale to build up speed and pressure along. In wet and slimy flip flops, a determined and concentrated march was required for every crossing of the street. Holding on to one another we hoped the combined mass would be enough to weigh us down. After all these miles across the world, the only other comparable conditions were in Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula, where it all began.
The aquaplane high speed ferry to Japan that we had booked only allowed folding bicycles. With 15 minutes till departure we persuaded them our partially dismantled bikes could fit in this category, a supercharged two person gun run then ensued, hoicking three bicycles and all the panniers and equipment through security, customs and boarding in a dash for our ticket to Japan. For some bizarre reason no trolleys were permitted. This frantic and early morning transition didn't allow for much consideration or contemplation for reaching the final country in this long year of self-powered travel. But that is the way with this trip and life beyond, the landmark moments that you build up with great significance ahead in your mind are rarely the most truly impactful times. It is usually non-preconceived moments, that would prove unexceptional any other time, where the slow drip of meaning rises to drench you in existential reality.