When I initially imagined moving to Korea, I envisioned myself strutting through a mega-city in a black face mask with clean pores. I would be the pinnacle of Korean fashion, dressed head to toe in the latest one-size-fits-all jumpsuits and a firm understanding of ten-step skincare.
Instead, most of my free time in Korea has been spent covered in sweat and grime on a ~stylish~ hybrid bike with nonexistent brakes. My trusted bike has taken me along four rivers, up five mountains, through countless cities, and to one hospital.
I’m not entirely sure how I conceived the idea of cycling across Korea, but it had something to do with enhancing my body’s physical capacity as much as intellectual capacity. Instead of joining a gym or something normal, I insisted on trying to bike coast to coast despite the fact I had zero cycling experience. In recent years, the Korean government had created an extensive coast-to-coast bike trail, stretching from the northwestern tip at Incheon, running diagonally down southeast to Busan. If that wasn’t fun enough, the trail is lined with red telephone booths roughly every 80km where you can stamp the location in your very own bike passport. Collect all the stamps for one route and you are bestowed with the highest of honours: a gold medal with your name engraved, worthy of bragging rights for years to come.
At the mention of being able to flex on the degenerates in our teaching program, my most loyal friends Shane and Dallas wasted no time in forming Korea’s most dysfunctional bike gang with me, AKA Shitty Bike Club. As soon as Chuseok vacation hit, we were soon soaring from the start line, our sights set 650km ahead of us in Busan.
The first rule of Shitty Bike Club is to never discuss our glaringly obvious faults until after we’ve already made a foul mistake. All the lessons we gained from our first disaster ride to Boryeong dissipated from memory, as we failed to properly adjust our bike seats and complete any training whatsoever, both of which led to my tragic downfall. Our logic was that each 120 kilometer day was training for the next 120 kilometer day, which only had to be repeated five times in a row until we reached Busan. Anyone with common sense could have foreseen the major flaws in this plan and opted for spin class instead, but we have never claimed to be all that rational.
If you research biking Korea’s cross country trail, you will find lots of blogs that insist the journey “isn’t hard” and “anyone can do it.” I will be the first to tell you that this is a blatant lie. Most of the people writing these blogs are experienced cyclists, not a couple of random fucks who bought $100 bikes off Gmarket, $1 bike accessories from Daiso, and $10 bike shorts from a Chinese warehouse that are two sizes too small and make my legs look like sausages ready to burst from their casing. It took us seven months, two painkiller addictions, and one torn Achilles to realize this, but when we did we felt liberated. Who cares if we ride slow and hold our bikes together using masking tape and Kakao bandaids? Does it matter when the average cyclist’s bike costs $1000 and can propel them to speeds triple ours while our brakes are pretty much stuck on the entire time? Shitty Bike Club is symbolic for the adventure and recklessness of the open road (or a mostly paved and well marked bike path), and that counts a lot more than crossing the country in five consecutive days.
But for real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day we biked from the western tip at Incheon to Hanam, a city due east of Seoul, which took a mere 10 hours. Only 15km after leaving the start line, Dallas’ front tire blew out, Shane’s back brake detached, and I left my bike bag open, spilling the contents of it into the middle of a busy intersection. The light turned red and I was too stressed to pick anything up so I just left it there. This error made Dallas rather angry, causing him to turn around two kilometers later to retrieve the lost items, only to discover that my extreme exaggeration of “everything falling out” just meant one granola bar and a bottle of Purell. He hasn’t trusted me since.
By the late afternoon we were cruising the Han River through Seoul, weaving between casual citizens just having a leisurely ride and ahjussi bike gangs covered head-to-toe in spandex. Riding through Seoul at sunset felt like I was some futuristic dream world as depicted in movies from the early 2000s. Trains soared overhead at lightning speeds, juxtaposed against a hazy pink sky that settled around the crisp curves of silver skyscrapers. People zipped along the boardwalk, laughing candidly on tandem bikes or lounging in the grass with an effortless calm, all of whom possessed a physical beauty I only thought possible in teen dystopian films. I have never felt as small as I did crossing the vast stretch of bridges that lined the Han, each time feeling as if I were traversing a border to a new country. With the exception of Tokyo, east Asian cities are underrepresented on the travel radar in favour of what Western-based organizations deem as worthy. I had limited intel on Seoul prior to setting my sights on Korea, but I was tragically in love as we cycled out of the metropolis and into Hanam.
The magic of Seoul faded the next day as we awoke to grey skies. Our ride took us straight through the mountains in these multi-million dollar tunnels pulsating with coloured lights that felt better suited to a bike rave than ride, cruising alongside Korean cyclists mostly over the age of 40 with thighs of solid steel. It was to none of their surprise when it started pouring rain. Shitty Bike Club, staying true to our name and values, consulted our rain plan: pray it doesn’t rain. Needless to say, our plan failed quickly with no backup, leaving us to cover our backpacks in plastic bags and push through the cold. Things went from moderately shit to really shit as my brakes wore out, Shane got high off Korean painkillers, Dallas blew his back tire, night began falling, and we couldn’t find a place to sleep.
Some people might credit coincidence, but I like to think it was fate that lead us to the Green Light Motel, a building that rivalled Dracula’s castle outlined in red neon lights on the very top of a steep hill. For full disclosure, we did push our bikes up the hill, because we were one downpour away from a mental breakdown, and I was beginning to feel a strange pull at the back of my left foot every time it hit the floor.
To this day we don’t know exactly where we were, but it was a tiny village of no more than 50 people on the outskirts of Gyeonggi Province. I do know that one room at the Green Light Motel cost ₩35000, there were no beds, the reception desk was covered in phone numbers and photos of naked women, and I felt like I was in a horror movie the entire time. Yet, stopping in this tiny village was the highlight of our entire cycling trip. After hiking down the hill we ate the best fried chicken of our lives, which says a lot for gluttons like us. I wish I could go back, but I genuinely have no idea where we were.
The next morning, Shane’s eyes did not open.
Not because he was dead. He awoke with the crustiest eyes in Gyeonggi, which was later diagnosed as pink eye. Ripping across the country without sunglasses isn’t really the greatest idea if you are prone to allergic conjunctivitis, so after failing to find a pharmacy (closed) or a hospital (closed down), we resolved ourselves to that fact that suffering must be Korean Jesus’ plan, and onward we went.
As we pushed through the countryside at 7am on our third and unbeknownst final day, I began to understand why Korea is dubbed the Land of the Morning Calm. The landscape was painted with a smokey palette and the air held an unparalleled peace. The only sounds for miles were my complaints about the constant sharp pain at my left heel and my melodic interpretations of “More Than a Feeling” by Boston.
As the misty morning dissipated into a sunny afternoon, the pain at the back of my foot only grew stronger, eventually peaking when we rolled into Chungju, the final frontier before our ascent into the mountains. After somehow ripping out a quick 80km, the painkillers I took in the morning had worn off. While trying to dismount my bike, I discovered I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left foot. As I cried into a plate of bulgogi at a restaurant in the bus station, my friends kindly suggested that this would be the best place for me to quit, as we were in the last city before riding at least a day into the mountains and unbound wilderness.
Giving up after I had planned to do this trip for months (ok, a month and a half) seemed foolish to me, but so was continuing to bike when I could hardly walk. I consider myself a rational thinker, so I did what any rational thinker would do and popped several pills, chugged a bottle of Pocari Sweat, and put Yeezus on repeat as we headed for the hills.
And by hills I mean mountains, the first of which was a straight 5km uphill climb. Flash forward about an hour and we had inched out of Chungju and into the countryside, past shining emerald lakes and lush forests, where began our first ascent. Cicadas hissed secrets at each other among the trees, hushed by the breeze that blew off the lake when I suddenly heard a pop, and felt every ligament in my Achilles tear apart.
I immediately began sobbing and rolling around on the road until a car came roaring at me and Dallas dragged me to the side, where I proceeded to roll in gravel until I was significantly crustier than I’ve ever been. Soon the tears and sobs began alternating with a hysterical deep-belly laugh, much to the horror of my poor friends. I could have spent my vacation in Seoul having a good time, yet there I was with a ruptured Achilles on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Convinced I was dying, I called my best friend Caitlyn, who proceeded to ignore my call because she was trying on perfume at Olive Young.
I call the Foreigner Hotline (1330 from any phone in Korea) more than I’ve ever drunk dialled any of my exes, so next I desperately gave them a quick ring and they told me to go to the hospital and delete their number. There was no way I could get back on my bike or even walk, so we tried hitchhiking, to which zero cars responded to. To be fair, if I saw myself in that state with snot running down my face, laughing and sobbing like a dying animal, I would not have stopped my car either. We were getting hopeless and I began reciting my will as I accepted my fate to perish on the mountainside, when suddenly the heavens opened up and beamed down Korean Jesus.
Korean Jesus pulled up in a red and white spandex onesie, matching his red and white bike perfectly, and asked if we needed help. Shane, our resident translator, explained the situation and just at that moment, an old Korean man driving an empty pickup happened to be passing by. With the force of just one pedal, Korean Jesus rode into the middle of the road and the truck stopped at his holy command. Exchanging no more than a few words with the truck driver, Korean Jesus loaded me, Shane, and our bikes into the truck and soon we were flying back to the hospital in Chungju. There was no room for Dallas, but being the only fit member of Shitty Bike Club he was fine with cycling back to the city.
However, when we arrived at the hospital it was closed for Chuseok, which we only discovered after I had already crawled on my hands and knees to the second floor. After a minor breakdown we hailed a taxi and ended up at a state-of-the-art orthopaedic clinic, where a doctor who spoke no more than a few words of English confirmed that my Achilles was ruptured and I would need to be on crutches for several weeks. As I cried on a glass table getting an x-ray, Shane, being the supportive friend he is, leaned over and whispered, “I’m glad you’re injured because now we don’t have to bike to Busan.”
After my hysterical laughter had subsided and the doctor was writing a prescription for heavy painkillers (which I never ended up getting filled because I mistook it for my hospital bill, not a prescription), Korean Jesus walked in the door with Dallas behind him. He saw me with the splint on my leg and crutch under my arm and gave me two thumbs up.
“All good?!” He asked with a big smile.
And as quickly as he had appeared, Korean Jesus was gone.
For those who are uneducated in the field of muscular trauma (unlike me, a doctor), pulling your Achilles is an extremely painful and serious injury that requires immediate surgery and carries the possibility of never being able to walk again. My injury came from my bike seat being too high, which I had raised because during our last trip to Boryeong my seat was too low, resulting in sore knees. Korean Jesus was looking over me that day on the mountainside because I only partially pulled my Achilles, meaning recovery would be slow but possible.
In three days I went from being the crustiest girl in Korea to the crutchiest girl in Korea. I had nothing to show for all my struggle, no gold medal to hang around my neck except for a single crutch because the doctor didn’t have two in my size. That proved to be fine though, because I had Shane and Dallas to alternate carrying me through the streets like an actual queen.
I wish I could say the trip ended there, but it didn’t. Fast-forward several months later, my Achilles had healed and I was back to tripping over the curb on any given day. Shitty Bike Club might be a lot of things, most of which are synonyms for bad, but one thing we are not is QUITTERS. We had gone through far too much leg, knee, neck, lower back, and Achilles pain to give up the chance for personally engraved gold medals, which could later be worn to the club and become the envy of all our peers.
Believe it or not, but we had pretty much reached the halfway point when I had my accident, which meant we only had 300km more until the finish line in Busan. With no more vacation days until the sweltering heat of summer, we decided we could “easily” finish the trip in two weekends.
Crust Country Take Two took place at the end of April, starting in Suanbo, a small town in the mountainous heart of Korea still reeling from its glory days as a honeymoon hotspot. Finally understanding how to learn from a mistake, we began our reunion tour by stretching our legs and properly adjusting our bike seats before setting off for 3000m of elevation under a clear blue sky. Busan lay ahead of us like a foggy paradise we’d only imagined in our wildest dreams, which involved biking straight into the ocean and swimming back to shore empty handed.
For real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day in Suanbo, we went up and down so many mountains that we stopped locking up our bikes at rest stops in the hopes that someone would steal them and save us from our misery. Some of these hills are so impossibly steep that there are road signs encouraging cyclists to try hitchhiking with any trucks passing through, but of course none wanted to stop for three crusty foreigners.
Saturday took us on a twelve-hour marathon that involved non-stop rolling hills, one mountain, six Ghana bars, water scarcity, several temper tantrums (me), two sobbing fits (also me), one flat tire, and the return of Korean Jesus, who this time took on the form of a sweet ahjussi who was well equipped to fix said flat tire.
Blinded by sweat and tears, we didn’t know that Saturday would lead us to one of the greatest wonders of the East: an English man attempting to cross Korea on a scooter to bring awareness to veganism. Like any white saviour in an Asian country, he informed us that locals ate dogs and it was bad. His main method of saving animals appeared to be wearing a shirt that said “Go Vegan” in English, which I can only assume is next to useless in a country like Korea. Shortly after we parted ways with him, we came to a stretch of the path that was flanked by factory farms on either side, cows mooing out at us as we flew by. I didn’t see any liberated cows so I think his message might have gotten lost in translation.
Some people might insist that the hardest part of the cross country trail is butt pain, but let me assure you that the worst part of crossing Korea by bike is not being Korean. Every time we went up a grueling mountain, we found it odd that we were alone, whereas we usually passed a few other cyclists on flat river trails. About 50km past Daegu, we were trying to recover from our latest uphill stint by eating churros on the side of the road. A 50-something Russian man pulled up beside us on a weathered-looking bike packed with camping gear and a Korean flag.
“Did you come over the mountain?” He asked in a thick accent.
He smiled and pointed to a road that went in the opposite direction of Busan. “There is a flat road that goes around. If you go back that way, you can go around. Are you going to Suanbo?”
“No, we did that already.”
“Oh, there are a few roads around the big mountains there too. If you do it again, now you know. This is my thirty-second time.” With a smile, Russian-Korean Jesus rode away, his flag flapping valiantly in the wind.
These hidden roads are a national secret held only by Korean cyclists and the occasional middle-aged Russian. Had we known this months ago, perhaps we could have avoided much booty pain, but I’d like to believe we are all the more stronger for it. But not that much stronger. I would never do this again, let alone thirty-two times.
That was enough for one weekend, but for some godforsaken reason we did the same thing the following one. Busan was the blinking green light ahead of us, always out of reach but still in sight, and we were a crusty version of Jay Gatsby with much less wealth and much larger thighs.
Our final ride to Busan should have been a glorious triumph full of laughter and a few happy tears. We should have all cheered and hugged and set fire to the deathtraps that brought us across the country, but instead we woke both days to pouring rain. The skies and weather forecast predicted between a 95-100% chance of heavy showers for the next eighteen hours. The end of our coast-to-coast journey would have the shittiest ending possible, which perhaps was only fitting for a bike club like our own.
The final 60km went by quicker than we expected. All we wanted to do was escape the rain, which soaked through our ponchos straight to the bone. Rolling up to the finish line was maybe the most anti-climatic moment of my entire being, involving a quick cheer then trudging into the bike certification center to apply for our gold medals, only to be informed that they would be shipped in 1-2 business months.
Any feelings of grandeur and endurance morphed into a desire to be dry and warm. Mentally and physically unprepared to bike any further, we checked our phones and noticed there was a subway station conveniently placed five minutes away from the finish line. These five minutes should have been a breeze after 633km, but naturally were filled with strife as a car flew through a puddle and splashed about six gallons of water right into Shane’s open mouth.
Yet we beat on, shitty bikes against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the path.