Overview of off-road cycling in Korea
Korea is 70% mountains, I read back in 1994. So I thought there MUST be some good trails and moved to Seoul from Atlanta in October of that year. Since then, I've been searching Seoul's surrounding mountains for singletrack. Until recently, many Korean off-road cyclists preferred to stay on dirt roads. This is changing, and some Koreans have shown me some great trails I didn't know about before. Now, in 1999, I think I've finally ridden everything in the Seoul area, and am creating this website to provide an off-roadmap to the wonderful riding opportunities in Korea. Korea is traditionally a mountain nation; Korean hikers are some of the nicest in the world, and seem genuinely interested in mountain bikes and visitors' experiences in the mountain culture. Don't be surprised if a Korean hiker offers you some alcohol or food during your ride, or even more surprising, cheers you up (or down) a steep pitch ("Fighting!") where their Western counterpart might curse at you, if only under their breath.
Off-road cycling in Korea is a new sport that is nowhere near as mainstream as it is in the West. In the Seoul area, which is what this site largely deals with, bicycling of any type is not for the faint-hearted, due to two main reasons: the difficult traffic and the difficult trails. The traffic is a nuisance, and on heavy pollution days it can be very discouraging. The trails, however, are very nice, and Korea's climate allows for near year-round riding. What's more, you can ride to most of these trailheads from your doorstep. Recently constructed is the Han River Bikeway, which follows the southern bank of the Han River and provides a seamless paved multi-use recreational path from the extreme west side of Seoul to the extreme east side, some 35 km. You can use this to get within legshot of whatever mountain you want to explore. This development alone is a huge improvement over recent years, and has added immeasurably to my own quality of life in Seoul. The city government is currently (1/99) building a similar path on the river's north side; much of it is already completed. You could also take the subway, although it's technically prohibited. Just get on the first or last car, and don't linger by the ticket office (buy your tickets ahead of time). You may also want to remove your front wheel. If someone does actually say something, just play dumb or do like many Koreans do: ignore them.
Korea consistently has among the highest traffic mortality rates in the developed world. Also, if you are a visitor, you can't always expect to be treated fairly by someone who hits you, by the police, or by the legal system. This may produce ire from some readers, but it's the black-and-white truth. Notably, a motorized vehicle that hits a ped or a bicyclist is considered to be at fault. Perhaps that explains why I get more space while riding my bike than I do riding my 90cc scooter. That said, there are routes you can take that, while they aren't pleasant by any means, are safer than it seems. And once you're in the mountains, the pushiness and speed of the city are quickly left behind. Before I get to the trails, though, here are a few rules for riding in Korean traffic:
1) Expect and allow for extreme risk-taking. This truism is from the Lonely Planet. Even though their book on Korea is full of errors and missed opportunities, they're right about this.
2) The bigger vehicle always wins. This is true throughout most of Asia. Even on trails, walkers will usually give way to bicycles, which sometimes makes me feel guilty.
3) Aggression will get you everywhere. I was a bike messenger for three years, so perhaps I'm biased. Watch how the motorcycle messengers ride in Seoul and learn from them. Do whatever and go wherever you must to stay alive.
4) Flattery will get you everywhere. Choose your weapon. I prefer the former, although will use this one in a pinch.
5) Not every bridge over the Han River is rideable by bicycles in both directions. The lower part of double-decker Panpo Bridge is easily negotiated off-traffic, and it connects to Yongsan-gu, which is the district that includes Itaewon. I use this one almost every time I want to go to the southern half of Seoul (Kangnam). You can hop right off the bridge and onto the bikeway.
6) Avoid tunnels. There typically isn't much of a shoulder to ride on, although there are exceptions.
7) Avoid metal roads. In Seoul, entire roads can be made of metal, which is like riding on ice when it becomes wet. Luckily, it rarely rains in Seoul. Outside of the 6-week summer rainy season, of course.
8) Expect the most absurd street behavior you can imagine. Children, dogs, old people and even beautiful young princesses will run straight into the street without looking at all. This happens countless times on each and every ride. Watch out for careening forklifts running red lights at 10 kph, buses running red lights at 70 kph without touching the brakes, taxis stopping in the third lane for no apparent reason or swerving across 4 lanes in front of your path to go up a down street, motorcyclists crashing and no one helps or stops, industrial equipment sitting in the middle of the street . . . . You get the idea. All of this happens under the watchful eyes of policemen who do nothing.
9) Bicyclists get more respect on the road than do motorcyclists. This is a rarely known fact in Seoul.
10) Traffic jams are your friend. If they aren't moving, they can't hit you. At least not very hard.
11) No matter what happens, there's always a bathhouse and food nearby.
Although these eleven points of advice might scare some readers off, I should add that in 4 years of riding in Seoul and 4 years of riding in Atlanta, I'd have to say that I've had many more life-threatening incidents with motorists in Atlanta while riding bicycles, including having a gun pulled on me, having things thrown at me, etc.
On to the trails. In direct comparison with riding in Seoul's traffic, Korean trails (and the Koreans on them) are fantastic. The riding around Seoul isn't exactly backcountry, but there are few major cities in the world (especially in industrialized Asia) where you can ride to some 100 kilometers of trails from your doorstep. In Atlanta, I used to dread loading everything up in a car for a two hour drive to Appalachia. Although I miss backcountry -- and there are opportunities for more remote riding in Korea -- I can fill two weeks with different trails in the Seoul area.
Most trails are steep and many are very rocky. Seoul has been built on every available piece of land except the most precarious slopes -- and even then the green belt around Seoul is being violated. To ride in Korea you've got to learn how to ride up and down steeps. The only exceptions to this are the Umyon-san network, and parts of Namhan Sansong, which are still very hilly with a few steeps thrown in to keep you honest. Umyon-san is also the closest serious riding area to Itaewon. Beyond that, the main riding areas are Namhan Sansong, Kwanak-san and Acha-san. Kwanak and Acha require some extended (15 minutes) carrying, but the downhills and views are worth the effort. All three areas are more ambitious than Umyon in terms of needed time, skill, and fitness. You simply must avoid Kwanak and Acha on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, due to hikers. There are other places to ride. My first year in Korea, I rode mostly on Ansan, but I haven't been back there in almost 3 years. Susaek is o.k.; it's an aerobically challenging out-and-back that isn't very technical -- but it's far away from my house. Borum-san is a very technical descent that requires walking up the entire 4km/500m trail and then riding/falling/hucking back down. U.S. Soldiers have developed or found trails here and there in the country. Pyongtaek, Tongduchon, and Osan are three places that come to mind. I've found out about a few others over the years, but none are as good, in my opinion, as the three areas around Seoul that I love so much (Acha, Namhan Sansong, Kwanak), and they're also more difficult to get to. Other areas to ride singletrack include: Sobaek-san National Park, Togyusan National Park, Suwon, Yong-in, Pundang, Daegu, Busan/Kimhae, Chonju, Uijongbu, and Phoenix Park Ski Resort (only one 4.5 km downhill singletrack). I'm sure there are many other places; you'll just have to find them. Remember that almost all trail networks in Korea follow a pattern: there is usually a ridgeline trail that serves as a backbone, with ribs winding down in most directions. It's just a matter of finding the best trails and linking them up in a coherent way. That's what my friends and I have done with the trails outlined on this website. Also, on nearly every mountain you can find yaksoo, which are supposed to be springs where you can refill your water bottle.
For more info on the DH scene, click here.
If you'd like to get in touch with some local riders, click here.
Cycling-related things to bring.
--Steve Danyo (1/1999)