Korea's 4Rivers trail system is nothing short of a revelation. Imagine being able to cross an entire country on a route made just for you, the Cycling Everyman. A route that takes you through the highlands and lowlands, countryside, villages and the biggest cities of this small-but-great, ancient Asian nation. The one generally referred to in the West as South Korea, but here it is Korea: the Republic of Korea.
The scenery is beautiful and varied, the infrastructure nothing short of impressive - actually, totally OTT - and the concept really simple, with a fun aspect thrown in for good measure: follow a connected series of well-marked and paved trails, with accommodation and sustenance aplenty, and mark your progress by collecting stamps in your SA-green 4Rivers ‘passport’.
You'll find these stamps at bright red phone booths that will have you thinking you're Superman. And you'll be following the country's major rivers, crossing fantastical bridges and weirs that will have you wondering why the rest of the world does not know about this.
Actually, I suspect I do know the reason: Korea is such a developed and self-confident nation, with an air of superiority, that there appears to be little imperative to market themselves to anyone else.
Two of the four rivers of the trail, the Han and Nakdong, enable you to leave Incheon, near the country's premier airport on the north-east coast, and then to cycle south-west through Seoul and onwards, over a central mountain range and watershed, and all the way to coastal Busan, the country's second largest city.
While it traverses pretty much the entire country, this route covers a distance much like that of Cape Town to Knysna, with Garden Route-type scenery in places too. This is the most used part of the ride, and offers you the chance to not only fill up your passport with stamps, but to get the much-valued “Cross Country” medal and stickers for helmet and passport. Gimmicky, absolutely. But it works.
The two other major rivers and their trails, the Geum and the Yeongsan, unconnected to the main north-south route, head east-west, as do a few other smaller ones that provide route diversions to the main trail. Gems, from what I've heard.
The quality of the cycling infrastructure - the route choice, the road surface and segregation, and the signage - are like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Certainly not even imaginable in South Africa.
Almost always partitioned from vehicle traffic, usually diverted far from the world of cars and the danger of traffic accidents, we wound our way through countryside on a paved biking highway made just for us. No, this is not a mountain bike trail.
Long straight paths on raised river levees would give views of Korea's intensive agricultural economy on the one side, and wetland and river on the other, while winding climbs would see us through mountain and forest, and elevated boardwalks would take us around cliffs and dipping over the river.
It can get hot out there though.
Koreans, as a rule, cycle completely covered with masks and shades and long sleeves. I was certainly one of the only women out there, but BS and I were two of the very few riders to bare our faces. We went though a lot of sunscreen!
It will be interesting to return in years to come to see how the levels of shade have progressed, for mile upon mile of the trail has trees planted alongside - trees that will come of age and cut the sun exposure. In one memorable section, we rode through a plant tunnel hanging with ripe gourds of yellow and orange fruit.
Closer to Seoul, and very much a highlight, the route takes one through mountains via old converted railway tunnels. No sunscreen required there. In fact no headlights either, as I can vouch, having ridden that section alone at midnight! It's a long story that involves poor navigation and high ambitions; a great adventure. And one that really hit home to me the levels of personal safety and lack of crime that come standard in some other countries.
That man-made infrastructure! Dramatic, statement-making bridges and weirs aside, the actual route infrastructure was only ever less than totally impressive in the bigger towns, where it was clear that the merging of jurisdictions meant the bicycle was not necessarily the top priority.
Everywhere else, boardwalks and ramps and railings and signage, signage everywhere. Signage almost entirely in Korean, of course. So these foreigners just followed those universal icons: the arrow and the picture of the bicycle. And the numbers painted on road, on bollards and on signposts, with the 4Rivers logo.
The route's accompanying map and smartphone apps must be pretty damn good. Every cyclist we met was consulting these meticulously. Unfortunately, they're entirely in Korean. Even the map does not have the place names in English. Though it had useful icons to indicate where to find food and accommodation. If only you could find yourself on the map!
But find myself I did. Six days of riding through a country that is as ancient as it is modern, foreign as it is friendly, along a bicycle highway made just for you will do that for you.
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