Monday, July 21, 2014

Travelling by cycle

I just aborted a ten day, 550 km trip by cycle from the capital of Korea, Seoul, to the second largest city, Busan, in the opposite corner of the country.  There is an amazing and perhaps globally unique system of car-free trails that shuttle the cyclist along two major rivers, keeping the trail mostly flat.  Lee Myung Bak, the last president, left it as a legacy to the country which shouted him out of office after a scandal involving free trade and American Beef.

All along the trail, I kept meeting people who seemed to think that the only important thing was completing the whole trail, or arriving at the destination.  I rarely met people who were allowing the weather, the terrain and the sociocultural interest level to dictate their pace of travel.

The Bicycle Museum is right on the actual path, but many cyclists arrive when it is closed.
 I stayed the night so I would be able to check it out, as last time I arrived after its opening hours.
I too, am guilty of not following my own travel ideal, which is sort of epicurean, maximize experience, and if possible, pleasureable experience at the cost of completion or thoroughness.  Honestly, if I had done it right, I would have completely skipped "LG valley, the entire city and outskirts of Gumi, which is 60 km north of third-largest city, Daegu, and serves as a giant Detroit full of flat screen makers and associated industry.  The skyline is mostly smokestacks and there are entire blocks along the river without a single dwelling or corner shop or anything, actually, except factories.
Abandoned factory in Gumi, on the bike trail
It's a spooky sight, especially on a Sunday, and I should just have taken a bus or train from the last good spot, Sangju, to the next, Waegwan, which is mostly interesting because of the tide-turning battle that took place there.  But as Ju-Won ("Juan with an American accent, he told me) put it, Korea is more often efficient than reasonable.  To translate that back to a cycling tour, there was no way to avoid the industrial ugly that is Gumi, without crossing a mountain range or two, because one of Korea's largest manufacturing centers was built along the second longest river in the country, and upstream from perhaps a fifth of its food producing regions.

I had hoped fervently to lead a tour of American cyclists on this miraculous trail from city to city, but it was in Gumi, looking at it honestly with a marketing eye, that I realize I would need some serious tweaking to make this happen in a pleasant way.  Most Americans, though we certainly have worse canker sores like the chemical processing areas in Louisiana, would be decidedly turned off to see where their LCD TVs were coming from.

For the most part, though, the trail winds through some pretty virgin and unspoiled areas, as witnessed by the fishermen we saw fly fishing in every quiet bend of the river, and as confirmed one night when we heard an Asian barking deer, which was barking pretty aggressively after having swum across a 900 meter wide river with a pretty decent current.  Dragonflies and sluggish grasshoppers were our constant companions, and small, annoying gnats which only seemed to exist in the shade, and only became a problem when laboring up a steep grade, which could approach 20%, about the same as most stairways in public places.

So what I'm trying to say here, is that maybe 'Muricans would be as impressed as I am, that nature still managed to struggle through the cracks left it by rapid Korean industrialization, and that despite all the out of control development in places like the endpoints of the trail, Seoul and Busan, there are still plenty of lovely rocks-and-trees-only type vistas, plenty of sleepy towns where the country mile/hour/effort system of guestimation applies.  (In fact, we gave up asking local people distances because they would vary as much as 4 times from person to person.)

So when I aborted my trip at the 350 km mark, still over 200 km short of the 'destination', it was with some sadness and even sort of partial capitulation to someone elses idea of 'victory' and 'defeat'.  I did it because quite simply this marathon of heat was becoming more and more an issue of survival and shrewd discipline and planning, and less about enjoying the countryside.  Even the gorgeous vistas became steamed up with haze so thick as to obscure nearby mountains before 11 in the morning, so that effectively, if one wanted to do this trip, it meant going to bed upon arrival in a town, ideally 8 pm, then getting up at four and hitting the road at 'civilian dawn', which means when ordinary people perceive that the night is ending.
Many people in a hurry miss all the great art center only meters off the trail...

Not my idea of fun, and with all the restrictions, you are only likely to meet really Type A, spandex-breathing Serious Athletes, who have no time to stop and shoot the shit, share a non-reccommendable bottle of booze or other performance killing things like cookies and whatnot, and actually, this will turn your lovely Vacation of Experience into a Grim Army of One.
Nothing quite like coming in sweating buckets to this cool museum

On the bus on the way back, our driver apparently cut off a trucker and really, really pissed him off.  We spent the next hour on the edge of death, as the truck in front tried to box us in the slow lane, swerving dangerously every time our driver attempted to get in the fast lane, and the driver in front consistently drove 20 km under the speed limit, so as to rub salt in our driver's wounds.  It went from being an obvious vindictive revenge, to a very very dangerous game of cat, mouse and chicken, from which I actually started believing was going to be my very last experience in this life.

It all came out well in the end, but it reminded me that I had at least attempted another of my bucket lists, to ride, ride ride until the very end, whether real or fake.
bundled against the x rays of the sun, posing for a shot with the mothership

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