While being an exchange student in South Korea for 4 months, I hardly saw anything of the country. Too busy exploring all the soju & hof places around campus and finding out which cinema has the biggest screen. I knew that with my return to the ROK, I could use my time to really get to know more about its surroundings and people.
When I saw Taek Woo’s message on Couchsurfing.com – Does anyone want to cycle through Korea with me? – I knew I had to do it. After some KakaoTalk back and forth, we decided on doing the east coast from Sokcho (속초) to Busan (부산).
My new partner in crime honestly told me that he liked every sport, but was not particularly good at it. Well, same here! Both of us have never attempted a challenge like this. People called us foolish, but we made it!
So this is the ultimate guide in how to cycle 500 km in 5 days, with no prior training, no high tech equipment and a very small budget!
The perks of going together with a Korean, was finding the way easily with Naver Maps. But even without having someone there who speaks Korean, it’s difficult to get lost. We followed the Heparang Route / 해파랑길, that covers the entire east coast. About half of it is finished and has brand new bicycle roads. The other half will take you along Asian Highway 7.
This was the first time for me to experience South Korea in a different way. For me Korea is huge, urban, fast, with infinite coffeeshops and convenient stores. Overall; an extremely comfortable place to be.
For this trip I was hoping to see something of Korea that I haven’t seen before. Apart from the physical strain, the level of comfort was still high. Every 15 kilometer or so, you will find a toilet, convenient store, restaurant and sometimes air pump. The most viewpoints have seats and shelter.
You can get a free map at the tourist information center, and collect stamps in these red telephone booths, all along the east coast.
Sokcho (속초) – Seorak Mountain (서락산) – Gangneung (강릉)
10 km hiking – 90 km cycling
After waking up in a mediocre Korean sauna (jjimjilbang = 찜질방) in touristy Sokcho, we were filled with energy to start our epic cycling trip. More information about sleeping in the sauna – the cheapest accommodation in South Korea – you can find here.
Because this was my first time visiting Sokcho, I couldn’t leave without doing a hike. It’s around 12 km to reach the Seorak-San Tourist Information Center from the harbor of Sokcho, where we stopped for a few games of table tennis and a hike map of the area.
If you are cycling to the information center, don’t cycle in this tunnel. Cars are going too fast, so use the sidewalk.
At the Seoraksan Park entrance we were asked to park our bikes and pay an entrance fee of 3,000 KRW to get inside.
We hiked to Bi-ryeong Falls (비룡폭포), which is only 2.4 km and takes about an hour. The first half is flat and not strenuous. The second half is a lot of rocks, stairs and two suspension bridges. It’s a pleasant hike with nice views from the bridges. Definitely recommended if you don’t have much time on your hands!
This is the waterfall! Lovely cold, fresh water – unfortunately with a ‘no swimming’ sign.
After returning from the falls, we took the cable car up to Gwongeumseong (권금성) which is located at the Seorakdong Information Centre. It costs 10,000 KRW, but saves you a 5+ hour hike. After exiting the cable cart, it’s about a 10 minute walk up stairs and rocks to reach the actual top.
The view from up there is as gorgeous as it is on the pictures. Weather was great. When we reached the top, stormy clouds began forming and the wind almost blew us of the cliff.
The highlight for me was the Ajeoshi (old man) selling climbing equipment, with SUPER loud Arirang music blasting from his speakers. No better way of enjoying stunning Korean scenery.
Starving and tired after reaching the coastline again, we found a restaurant that sells cold noodles, Naengmyeon (냉면) outside the National Park. These cold noodles were served with semi-dried pollack and grilled pork. The name is Kodari Naengmyeon (고다리 냉면). The perfect food for cooling you down after exercising in hot, humid weather. Inside is icy broth, buckwheat noodles, an egg, cabbage and other veggies in red pepper paste. All of this is covered with sesame seeds or oil and ground peanut. I always love adding wasabi or mustard and vinegar to spice it up.
At 5 pm we had 70 km left to reach the next big city with a jjimjilbang: Gangneung (강릉).
The newly opened bicycle road in this province (Gangwon-do) is amazing! It’s clearly indicated with a square blue sign every few hundred meters. Also road marks will help you find your way. If you can read and write Korean, you can use Naver Maps, which shows all the possible bicycle paths in the country.
This day the road was relatively flat. Some ascents, but nothing crazy. The percentage and duration of the ascent is often also indicated with signs! It’s a very relaxed road with the sea on your left and mountains on your right. You’ll have the road to yourself most of the time.
Gangneung (강릉) – Samcheok (삼척)
Cycling is never fun much fun if the weather sucks. This was a very tough day with a lot of long climbs and rain, rain, rain. Also, I had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, I dropped my phone in a toilet and it died, and we had to look 2 hours for accommodation. You need these kind of days to appreciate the other days better.
I remember reading on a blog that the east coast route was “relatively flat”. I was cursing this guy while struggling up a 500 meter 8% ascent many times. The scenery however was really great!
It changed from swirly coast paths to rural areas with rice fields and foggy mountains.
When I got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere I realized: I’ve never repaired a flat tire with such an awesome view before.
With our matching blue and yellow rain coats we looked like turtles most of the day.
Because of the many climbs – I swear the last climb was 15% and would have made a perfect ski jump – we only managed to get to Samcheok 삼척. This was around around 70 km. The only jjimjilbang in the area had decided to shut down forever from that day onward. Tired and shivering, we sought warmth and beer.. Trying to find out where to sleep.
We ended up in a Yeogwan (여관) which is like a motel but way worse. Located right above the bustling red light district of Samcheok, a room goes for around 20,000 KRW. It has a bathroom attached. Don’t expect much, it’s cheap for a reason. Interesting though, to see the red light district in a different country (being from the Netherlands).
Samcheok (삼척) – Yukbyeon (육변)
Two massive climbs to start the day, lead to a gorgeous beach near Solseom (솔섬). We happily went for a swim, and napped in the warm sun afterwards. The water is cold and wild, and a large piece of the beach is off limits for swimming.
The water is clear emerald blue, and the scenery is again marvellous! This is where you go in to a different province – Gyeongsangbuk-do. People’s accent changes, so at this point I really can’t understand Korean anymore.
Along the way you will see lots of different industries. Surprisingly I didn’t see a single cow in five days – where do they hide them?
Physically this was the hardest day with the most – long – climbs. This was the moment where we wanted to throw away our bicycles. Halfway!
Yukbyeon (육변)- Pohang (포항)
When entering a different province, we also had to say goodye to the luxury of shiny new bicycle roads. From this point we rode on the Asian Highway 7 where maximum speed is 80. There is about a one to one-and-a-half meter space for you and your bicycle.
Cars are speeding, buses zip by you with hardly room to spare. The views were so-so, because the most you see is just asphalt and cars. The highway did make us ride 120 km and reach Pohang (포항) in one go!
If you are concerned about safety, you might want to skip driving on the Asian Highway 7. Cars are passing by really, really fast right beside you. Make sure you have your lights on at dusk and preferably some reflective clothing or reflectors on your bike.
These kind of routes make for such a pleasant ride!
Pohang (포항) to Busan (부산)
The last day! The end is in sight! We wanted to skip the highway as much as possible, because we weren’t enjoying the views that much the day before. Luckily this part leads you through some small villages, in between hills and rice fields, along a river. Another big part is on the AH7. This day was really tough, probably because we were physically exhausted and riding 50 kilometer seeing a sign with ‘Busan 69 km’ sounds too far.
Make sure to get those three nutritious meals a day! For someone who doesn’t eat meat, like myself, I can enjoy all the different stews and side dishes thoroughly! This dish is called Dwenjang-jiggae or soft bean paste stew (된장찌개). It came with loads of side dishes like mushrooms, mackeral, kimchi, spicy potatoes, dried salted ansjovis, seaweed, cucumber and different types of cabbage.
Sheer joy upon arrival in Busan at night. We went to noraebang (karaoke), sang our hearts out, drank too much soju and beer and found a sleeping place in jjimjilbang for the last time.
I can not be more happy that we made this trip. It was an unforgettable view on a part of Korea I haven’t seen before. It left me sort of depressed for a few days, wishing it could have been longer – apart from the saddle pain. I enjoyed the first part the best because of the breathtaking scenery and the feeling of being the only one cycling there. Most roads are very empty. Going around 40 km/h with such a gorgeous view : maximum adrenaline kick!
Feel free to ask me anything!
Useful links for your own South Korea East Coast Adventure: