IF YOU are feeling a bit stir-crazy these days, perhaps it is time to cautiously venture outside for some fresh air. Sure, social distancing must be obeyed—but if you are willing to venture outside of Seoul and sacrifice a bit of your morning sleep, you could just as well enjoy the outdoors while also observing your civic responsibility. 15 km east of Seoul is the Bukhan river bike trail, which is almost empty in the early morning save for a few cycling enthusiasts. In its entirety, it is a 70 km journey that begins from the mouth of the river and snakes into the city of Chuncheon. However, for those looking for a breath of fresh air and nothing too strenuous, it is always possible for you to turn around and head back in the middle. For this particular bike ride, I chose to do a 50 km round-trip journey from Paldang Station to the second checkpoint of the bike route.
The trains arrive and depart at irregular intervals in this station, so it is useful to always check the schedule. Near the station are numerous bike rental shops, with varying fees depending on the type of bicycle. Some open as early as 7:00 a.m., and when I arrived at 7:30 a.m., many of them were already in business. For \25,000 I was able to rent an unimpressive but functional road bicycle for the entire day.
Before departing, I stopped for a quick meal at a small mom-n-pops store near the station that serves instant cup noodles and kim-bap. Afterwards, it was time to begin riding to the starting point of the route. Make sure to stretch for a bit and apply sunscreen generously. As for me, I did neither. When I woke up the next day, my face felt flaky and my legs were practically immobile. Let’s try not to replicate that mistake.
The Starting Point
It takes 10 km to reach the first starting point from Paldang Station. It was a gentle decline, so I was hardly pedaling and was enjoying myself with the surrounding scenery. At this time of the day, the trail is steeped in early morning mist and the mountains presented themselves in beautiful tones of muted yellow, green, and pink. From the Paldang Dam to the repurposed Nung-nae train station, I hardly noticed time passing by. Part of it was the novelty of the experience, I suppose, for when it was time to head back the last 10 km could not have felt more bothersome. One tip is to have a pair of gloves on, as your hands can feel slightly chilly.
The starting point is called bal geun kwang jang, translated to “bright square.” The name was bit confusing, since the ostensibly “bright square” was actually just a shady patch of land with a small café and resting area located underneath a highway overpass. I got off my bike and went inside the café for a warm cup of black coffee.
But more importantly, checkpoints will have a small red telephone booth where you can collect stamps. This would be for your travel passport, a small booklet sold at the café, where you are able to collect the stamps and prove that you have indeed passed the checkpoint. If you collect all the checkpoint stamps from all six major riverside bike trails and send the passport to the local municipal office, they will send you back a small trophy in return. For those of you who would like to own a trophy but cannot bring yourself to complete the entire course, rest assured, the trophy is also available online for purchase from various private sellers. It’s a great conversation starter.
Garden of Water
The Garden of Water, or Mul ae jung won, as it is called in Korean, is a small but picturesque park located just a few hundred meters away from the starting point. The path is lined with cherry blossoms, and there is a small bridge in the middle of the park.
While they are cut down in winter season, forests of reeds grow alongside the riverbed during the summer months. I recall seeing the low forests of reeds when I visited the park last fall. There was a faint smell of woodfire and a chilly breeze then, but during spring and summer, you can instead smell the sweet scent of strawberries from the farms located adjacent to the park. The farm sold strawberry juice, though I did not stop for one during my journey this time round. I stopped for a moment to take some pictures in front of the farm and relished the sweet scent of strawberries. I still regret not buying that cup of strawberry juice.
From the Garden of Water, the ride to the second checkpoint became slightly more challenging. Exactly three sets of hills stood between the checkpoint and I, each more grueling than the last. For those considering making the journey, think of this section as your quad exercise for the week and pedal on. Despite the difficulty of this section, the raised concrete bike paths in between the hills were absolute joy to ride on. Cherry blossom petals snowed over the bike path, and the river glistened beside me. Just make sure to not get too distracted while enjoying the moment, as the path becomes quite narrow and faster cyclists are sometimes unable to pass by.
It was around 10:00 a.m. when I finally reached the checkpoint. The second checkpoint is smaller and cozier than the first, with yet another red telephone booth and a café. At this point, I had completed just about one quarter of the entire ride to Chuncheon. So, for many of the other cyclists, they were just getting started. Not me, though. I was ready to head back and was already thinking about the nap I would reward myself on the subway ride home.
Food and drinks
Anywhere in Korea worth traveling also has its local dishes. In this region near Gapyeung and Chuncheon, noodle dishes are quite famous. One of them is mak-guk-soo, a plain buckwheat noodle with spicy red pepper sauce. Unlike regular wheat noodles, buckwheat noodles are supposedly healthier and gluten-free.
Located around 5 km heading back from the second checkpoint is Buk han gang mak guk soo, a restaurant overlooking the river. This restaurant is famous for its noodles and marinated chicken, which are barbequed over charcoal. Just as a small note, this particular restaurant does not allow any additional orders, so I was immediately regretful when I only ordered the buckwheat noodles and not the marinated chicken. I mulled over that particular decision while watching other people eat meat. Thankfully, the buckwheat noodles were quite delicious—and only for \8,000. After eating, I quickly headed back without stopping. It was around 12:30 p.m. when I arrived at Paldang Station. I returned the bike and got back on the long subway ride to Seoul. Knowing that on any other weekend I would probably still be in bed, it felt good knowing that I had just completed a 50 km bike ride.
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With all of its modern entertainment and conveniences, Seoul is a fantastic city that can provide every imaginable form of weekend activity. But these activities can often feel contrived, and everybody needs a brief respite from the nonstop hubbub of the metropolis every now and then. What better way to do just that than to make a small half-a-day excursion to the nearby countryside? Even without the COVID-19, the countryside is always worth visiting. Grab a camera, a bottle of sunscreen, a girlfriend or a boyfriend (if you have one) and make that journey to Paldang Station.