Exploring South Korea by Bike

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Jong-Won Heo / Getty Images

With more than 1,000 miles of dedicated bike paths following the country's four major rivers, the Republic of Korea claims to have the most advanced bike-touring infrastructure on Earth. This paved network of paths not only takes in South Korea's best scenery — some 70 percent of the nation consists of fields, forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains — but also some of its most noteworthy culture. The paths intersect Buddhist temples, a half dozen rivers, and UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Andong Folk Village. Here's the perfect weekend ride from Seoul to Chuncheon.

Day 1: Seoul to Namyangju, 42 miles
Pick up the Hangang (Han River) Bicycle Path in central Seoul at Yeouido Hangang Park, known for its multitudes of cherry blossom trees. Yeouido is also a bike tour checkpoint, one of 40 in the country, which are designated by old-fashioned phone booths painted bright red. Buy a bike tour passport (a $3 souvenir) and get your first stamp. The path heads out of town, becoming a two-lane bicycle "highway" along the Han River, with stunning views of the cityscape. After 12 miles, you'll hit the next checkpoint at the Ttukseom Observation Station. Get a stamp and stop for lunch in the town of Paldang. The restaurant with all the bike racks and the white "Smoothie King" sign on its roof makes a great bowl of Chogyeguksu, a chicken and vegetable noodle dish served chilled in a tangy vinegar sauce.

Back on the bike, pedal a couple miles to the Neungnae checkpoint, located at the confluence of the Han and Bukhan rivers, for a stamp. From there, pick up the Bukhangang Bicycle Path (which heads north) and take it to the Dasan Heritage Site, at mile 32. DasanJeong Yak-Yong (1762-1836) is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of Silhak, a realist school of Confucianism, as well as a renowned architect, inventor, and author. It's worth it to stretch your legs and poke around the heritage site, a treasure trove of Dasan's works, and the location of his grave and memorial. Next, you'll take an ultra-modern cyclist- and pedestrian-only bridge across the Bukhan River (a good photo spot), and then it's a short ride into Namyangju. The bike path conveniently leads straight to the town's main drag, with a series of reasonably priced accommodations on one side, and restaurants serving Hanjeongsik — the traditional Korean meal with steam-cooked short-grain rice and a table full of meats and vegetable side dishes — on the other.

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Day 2: Namyangju to Chuncheon, 44 miles
This stretch is one of the most scenic sections of the entire bike path network, especially in May when the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. It's a 15-minute ride from town to the next checkpoint, SaeteoSamgeori. From there (after getting another stamp), follow the path along the river to the village of Chung Pyung where you'll encounter older men fishing from the river bed, and a two-story wooden teahouse where it's possible to spend hours sipping and reading the magic-marker graffiti that guests have scrawled all over the interior (and perhaps adding some of your own). Then it's back on the bike to Jaraseom Island, located at about the 18-mile mark, and a popular camping and picnic spot, complete with botanical gardens. Stretch your legs here, and then get back on the bike and ride a mile out to the main road for a selection of lunch spots. In this region, Makguksu ("rough noodles") is a must. It's similar to the archetypal Korean cold noodle dish, but uses unhulled buckwheat, a staple crop in the area.

Next up, the Gyeonggang Bridge checkpoint, a short 10-minute ride from lunch, followed by a long, peaceful stint of paved lanes beside the turquoise river, with green forested hills on one side and open fields on the other. You'll pass through Gang Choon, a South Korean adventure town specializing in bungee jumping and four-wheeling. When you start seeing cherry blossom trees along the path, you're getting close to the Animation Museum, located about 35 miles into the ride. Plan an hour to walk through the museum, a first-of-its-kind in Korea with exhibits that highlight the origin, birth, and development of animation. Even if you're not into museums, hit the second floor café for a snack, drink, and picture-perfect view of the bike path and the river just beyond, with your final destination, Chuncheon in the background, set against emerald green hillsides. Then it's the home stretch, stopping at the Sinmae Bridge checkpoint for a final stamp, and riding a unique catwalk-like section of the path on stilts over the riverbed.  

Chuncheon is a sizable city with a wide range of accommodations and dining options. Take the opportunity to participate in a favorite Korean national pastime: karaoke. Not ready to take your act public? The Hotel Chuncheon has a private karaoke room that rents by the hour.

Getting Back to Seoul
Take the ITX (Intercity Train Express) back to Seoul the next morning. The high-speed train ride takes 74 minutes and costs 9,800 won (about $9).

More Information: The paths are truly DIY, thanks to the comprehensive 4 Rivers Guide. But considering the steep language and cultural barriers in South Korea, it's not a bad idea to go with a guide for longer multi-day trips that venture into the more remote areas farther from Seoul. Bike Tours Direct offers 8-day guided tours that take in some of the path's cultural highlights, including the historic Andong Folk Village where guests stay in a minbak (fire-heated inn). Otherwise, local operator Bike Oasis can help with bike (and pannier) rentals, shuttle services, and recommendations on where to eat and stay. 

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