Korea Motorcycle Road Trip – June 2003

                     “So, Ron, why  are you not married?” Aha! I had been anticipating the question. I guess the reason it had taken Suk-hyun this long into our conversation to ask it was more a measure of my own 'domination' of the sound waves, rather than any reluctance on her part. After all, she was at least the fifth  Korean lady I had talked to on this trip, and all the others had asked it!

                     I was delighted. I have lived in Australia for 15 years, and to my recollection, NO one there had ever asked me that question. Just another measure of the wonderful cultural education one gets by plunging into the midst of a society so different from one's own. This trip was definately turning into the cross cultural experience that I had hoped it would be.

                      Of course, by now, I had a pretty  practiced answer, and was able to distill down my response to only 15 minutes from it's original 45! Suk-hyun appeared rapt.

                     I was near the end of my 17 day circumnavigation of the South Korea peninsula, and as has been so often the case, so many things had just gone so right. When I was in Texas, I had received an email from Scott, my teacher contact in Seoul, that indeed he would lend me his 'spare' motorcycle, an older Dealim 125. Although a bit underpowered for a road trip, I knew it would do just fine for my anticipated maximum of 300km on a 'hard' day. I had found much to my delight that the road signs in Korea were superb, all roads and turns were clearly marked in English with lots of approach warnings. My  SERVAS (www.servas.org) contacts via email had worked pretty well, and my navigation and 'sign/body language' skills had resulted in me actually rolling up to three of my hosts apartments. Another had picked me up at the town train station, and my first host had sent his chauffeured limousine with my name on a sign to the pick up gate of  Incheon airport!


                     Portents had not looked so favorable when I first picked up the bike. Scott was out of town when I arrived, so he had left the key with his teaching buddy, Ben. As is my usual cautious self, I had gone to Ben's place the day before to 'check out the situation', but indeed had found all was kosher, and the bike started up easily. My retrieval of the bike the next day was a bit more frantic. I had been able to contact a Korean member of the Honda Pacific Coast internet club, in Seoul, a bike similar to the one I ride in Australia. Won Kim had agreed to help me navigate, and he would ride directly from work to meet me at a Seoul subway station. Good thing, too, as in the dark I was certain that I would have tremendous problems finding my place of stay for the night, Kim's Guest House. Ben led me to the arranged meeting place, and I waited. I decided to make a few checks of the bike. What? No rear light? No brake light? No LICENSE plate!!!? Suddenly this idea of borrowing a bike from a guy out of the country, with me having no proof of anything, no papers....well it looked a bit 'formidable.'

                      Soon Won arrived with his biker buddie Joh, and we moved off to the closest bike shop, me being carefull to use the two other bikes to 'mask' me from inquisitive constabulary. At least a new rear bulb returned light to the rear, if not the brake light, so for steady state motoring I felt a bit more secure.Won, Joh and I easily found the Hostel from there, where I was happy to lock up my bike and catch a lift to my first BarBQue feast, Korean style. Over meat, veggies and the inevitable Korean liquor, we mulled over the license plate problem, but both guys agreed that it may be possible for a foreigner to 'get away' with it. One of my virtues as a traveller is that I refuse to worry about something I cannnot alter, and there was certainly no extra license plates kicking around at that restaurant, so we had a great evening. In a few days the problem disappeared into the background when I got an email from Scott. "Oh, sorry, I had forgotton all about the plate, I have ridden 3 years without one. Just act foreign if any cops stop you." He also mentioned that the police, most of whom speak little or no English, LOVE to see an International Drivers License, and I HAD one of those! No worries, mate!

                     The next morning, I was on my own, attempting to head east across Seoul from Kim's Guest House early  Saturday . According to the map, my hosts' home in Namyangju appeared to be only about a 40km. ride, but it was to take me 4 hours! The main problem was the traffic. No, it was the lack of innercity signs. No...it was the map I was using. No...it was the cloudy day, resulting in my  quick loss of all sense of direction. OK, so I guess it was all of the above. In any case I got my first intense lesson in 'communication with pointing and gestures', a skill I would need often on the upcoming journey.

                     When I found myself completely lost at the dead end entrance to a train station somewhere in East Seoul about 2 hours into the trip, I got my first lesson into how helpful Seoulites can really be. I started by gesturing to a nearby fruitcart seller that I was completely lost and would appreciate it if he could show me on the Seoul map exactly where I was. By the time I left 20 minutes later I had a hand drawn map showing me the way, over a half dozen train commuters with English skills had stopped to help, and one had spent 10 minutes on her cell phone calling my host to let her know about my (lack of) progress and to verify my destination.

                     At least, now, I was on the correct road, and almost free of the Seoul boundaries, where the signs would change from indicating areas of Seoul, to the towns through which I must pass. I was not 'home free' yet, though, as I would soon learn that 'small' towns in Korea are not like other countries, and when I arrived in  Namyangju I was still faced with a concentrated urban metropolis in which my  destination of a single apartment complex was still a formidable task. Again, I phoned my host to tell her I thought I was close, but her English ability was not strong enough to help guide me. A half hour later, and 5 motorcyclist/passerby 'discussions' later I knocked on her first story apartment door. Her squeals of delight were easily recognizable when she recognized my 'western' voice. I was the first of all of Mrs. Sophia's SERVAS guests to actually 'arrive' at her home, and I was pretty proud of that! I had 'passed' my first navigation test. My confidence took a jump up. I was ready for the coming challenges.

                    I had read that Seoraksan National Park was Korea's most spectacular, so on Monday I headed out with my gear to see about camping and hiking. I got my first surprise when I found that at this most popular of all National Parks, with great camping facilities,  I was the only camper at the 2 of their 3 campsites that I used. In fact, at the second campsite right near the townsite of Osaek Mineral Springs, the ranger refused to charge me the $4 fee because the campsite was in a state of renovation. That does not mean they get no visitors, though. Before the school vacation period of late July starts, most users are day trippers. Or customers demanding the luxuries of the many nearby Hotels. I spent a day hiking to the top of Daeseungnyeong, a rise of 700 meters from my campsite. Although I quickly removed myself to an evening in the superb spas and hotsprings of the Greenyard Hotel, I'm afraid my muscles paid a four day price for that little overindulgence.

                     I had a long travel day along the East coastal road to the historical town of Gyeongiu. The weather was pretty good that day, I actually saw some sunshine. Also some nice beaches, though they were deserted. Many  very built up facilities, anxiously awaiting the late July rush. A curious feature of many of the beaches are the barbed wire topped fences and limited gate access. Also the machine gun toting patrolling soldiers. Watchful defences I presume, a legacy of ongoing 'negotiations' with North Korea. After a late arrival in Gyeongiu, I had a curious experience in what appeared to be a deserted Youth Hostel. The manager insisted it was full. Exasperated after the long ride, I went to an open room and pulled open the door. “Empty,  see?”

Like the guidebook suggested , I was being calm, but insistent. He called the 'big' manager, but really the only English word he knew, also, was “FULL.” I refused to leave. After 15 minutes of this he opened the door to the closest room, revealing a spotlessly  clean area with a TV and a number of pillows and comforters on a shelf along the wall. Gesturing to me that I could use it, I quickly spread out my air mattress and sleeping bag. After all that he never mentioned any payment, and in fact the Hostel may indeed have been in a pre-season state of dormancy. I had dealings with 4 other IYH Hostels on the trip, though, and none were very satisfactory. I suspect refusal to accommodate solo foreign travelers is not a rare occurrence in this organization.

                     The next day was full rain, so I was stuck in Gyeongiu. I tried the other Hostel in town, but he sent me to a Hotel, where I negotiated a rate of 30k Won and settled into the luxury of Korean TV! I soon discovered that  Gyeongiu  was one of Korea's foremost tourist towns , as a result of it's numerous Temples and other ancient cultural sites. In fact it was here I was to meet the only other foreign tourists I would see on my journey. Several of them had had difficulty trying to stay in IYH Hostels, also. The Tourist Office had free Internet terminals so I spent part of the day there, and toured the Bulguksa Temple when the rain let up.

                     So it was off for more SERVAS experience, as I had arranged hosts for each of my next stops in Suncheon, Gwangju, and Daejeon. As with Mrs. Sophia, I was the first foreign visitor to ever arrive 'unescorted' to my hosts'  apartment in Suncheon. But that was an easy one, only 160,00 people live in Suncheon! Again, I was treated like royalty, with special food, introductions to my hosts' friends, and tours around town.

                      On the trip across the interior from Gyeongiu, I was realizing that there were three main aspects to cross country motorcycling in Korea. Intense cut and thrust inner city traffic. And these cities seemed to be no more than 25 km apart. Rice terraces and greenhouses. Every piece of flat land outside of the cities is cultivated, either with sculpted and terraced rice patties, or other crops encased in greenhouse structures to enhance the growing season. Wonderful winding scenic, and deserted mountain roads. As soon as one left the towns inland, the roads started to climb, then drop down, inevitably to the next city. There was almost no traffic on these roads, courtesy of the off vacation season and the 'Expressways.' Oh yes, I have neglected to mention, there is a full countrywide network of 'main' roads that I, as a motorcyclist, was forbidden to use. Toll highways linking all major urban centers. Almost all cars, and all truck traffic are on these roads. The others are a motorcyclists paradise.


                      I had so many superb experiences with my last three hosts, that they tend to run together in my mind. Shopping late night in the city market with the smell of fish all around. Finding those special Korea bathroom slippers that you can enter in either direction. Watching the children on Sunday, their ONLY school free day, play play play at soccer , then guns, then outdoor computer stations, until they drop to bed at 11 pm to prepare for another week of 50 hours of school. Joining hundreds of workers at a local pool at SIX am for the requisite 1.5 km of laps before work. Getting our pictures taken at one of the computer enhanced booths that allow you to doctor up the photo to beyond your imagination for only $3. Having my beautiful English speaking college girl guide at the Folk Village ask me 'Why, in Western countries  do they think white people are the best, yellow people lower, and black people lower still?' Ah, international travel....no wonder I can't live without it!

                     The statistics of the trip worked out like this. I had covered about 1400km. over 14 days, with 8 being 'travel days.' I had stayed with 5 SERVAS hosts for 2 nights each, camped 2 nights in Seoraksan National Park, stayed in a Motel 1 night, and stayed in Hostels 3 nights. In the midst of the pre-summer monsoon season I had been stopped by the rain only one day, and had been forced to drive in rain only on the last day, a 60 km. ride back to Scott's place in Seoul. By luck and design I had found SERVAS members to host me in north, central and  southern provinces, in the cities of Wabu, Suncheon, Gwangju, and Daejeon. And what about my first host Mr. Roh in Seoul? Well, he had booked me into the Human Touch Ville Hotel, a 'Serviced Apartment for Foreigners', at his companies' expense! I guess you could say it all worked out pretty good, nest-ce pas?

    For a 'second string beater bike', the Daelim 125 worked out well, also. I never did get the brake light restored, and my attempts at repairing the speedometer/odometer only lasted 182 kilometers, when the slightly longer than stock cable I had installed twisted out of the instrument and deposited itself on the ground. But it started right up every morning even after sitting out in the rain, and carried me and my 25kg. of luggage up every mountain pass, usually at a speed ahead of any trucks and close to equal to most cars.I found the level ground 'happy  speed' of about 85 kph to be just fine. Best of all, I was so pleased to find that in city traffic, Korean bikers use the same rules as in Australia....NO rules at all! Weave to the front no matter the technique, even if it means winding around those fans and refrigerators on the sidewalk. One friend even showed me a new technique I had not seen before in all my  international motorcycling, riding across the pedestrian crosswalk when the 'walk' light turns green!

                     And oh yes, I did have my 'Police encounter.' It was on a Sunday, and I was on a nearly deserted rural road between Suncheon and Gwangju. Two policemen were stationed about a kilometer apart, just watching the odd traffic pass by. Of course the first cop saw the no rear plate after I had passed him, and it was an easy task to radio ahead. When the second one flagged me down, I was not surprised. The encounter was brief. "No plate?""No, officer, it is a friend's bike I borrowed from Seoul, and the plate just fell off." "Accident?'" " No, I think it just got old and rusty, but look here, I have an International Drivers License!" "Hmm..." he replied, as he took a quick look, then waved me forward, "Be careful!"

                     Korea was special, and it was made special by the quality of my interactions with the Korean people. Korea is not a primary world destination for international travelers. It has attractions, but they do not rate high on a world scale. Communication is often problematical. The cities are crowded and with less charm than many. The weather is often uncertain and sunshine scarce. Normally, going from town to town, staying in Motels and dealing with unfamiliar food in restaurants without English menus could be an unnerving experience. I can understand how, for many, it would not be a first choice.

                     My treatment by Koreans changed everything for me. There seems to be a rule in Korea, if a Korean speaks a little English, and he or she finds themselves in close proximity to a traveller that appears to be English speaking, well you MUST strike up a chat with them! And when I was in need of help, no Korean ever abandoned me to my own resources, they either found someone that spoke English, drew me a map, or they got in their car and led me the way.

                     The Lonely Planet guide recommends against driving in Korea, but I would not agree. The signposting is good, and even in the crowded cities traffic is orderly if slow, for a car. And there has never been any doubt in my mind that the independence of one's own vehicle allows a vastly more flexible and varied vacation.Perhaps this story may encourage others to try it.

                                                               Ron Grant

                                                               Brisbane, Australia

                                                               July 2003.

For more of Ron's motorcyle adventures please visit his website.

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