After a dry run of 15 km, from Mapo to Mangwan Hangang River Park, and back, along the Han; I thought I was sufficiently prepped to take our cycling to the next level. Honestly, I don’t think, I truly understood what I was getting into, when I chalked out a plan, for a day long activity along the Han — on the following weekend.
The Han River runs through Seoul city splitting it into two halves. The length of the cycling trail, along the river, is about 80 km (covering 40 km on each side). It’s probably the most popular activity to pursue in Seoul, other than hiking. The plan was to take the subway, bike in tow, to Oksu, and then, cycle along the length of the river to reach Jamsil Hangang Park (the venue of Shelley’s birthday celebration for her daughter, Naia), turn back and head over to Yeouido Hangang Park for the evening firework display. In hindsight, it does seem like an ambitious plan. One of the reasons, for opting for a bike over the subway, was to eliminate changing multiple trains to reach Jamsil. Also, reports said that the subway would be shut down for an hour after the firework festival. Turns out, things don’t always work according to plan.
Most subway stations will have a designated stairway for dragging your bike along the stairs. Elevators are reserved for pregnant women or the elderly. Bikes aren’t allowed on escalators either. We left our apartment at around 12 pm and struggled to figure how to transport the bikes to the track. In our confusion or frustration, we used the escalator. From there, taking the bike through a series of stairs (both up and down) to the Gyeongui–Jungang Line was quite the task. Finally, we made it to the platform and luckily, reached just outside the first compartment of the train (reserved for cycles).
Sometimes it isn’t necessary to speak the same language, to communicate with one another. And in Seoul as long as you can hike, walk or cycle — you will definitely fit in. As I struggled with my bike, in the compartment of a moving train, other cyclists arranged their bikes to make room for us, and one of them helped me align my bike and smiled at me.
Transporting the bikes eats into your energy. At Oksu, we had to drag our bikes along a long flight of stairs and fortunately, at the exit to the Han there is an elevator. With no instructions indicating otherwise; we took the easy route to the park below.
Finally, we reached the cycling track of Hangang park at Oksu. Judging by the graffiti and elderly women exercising on the outdoor equipment, I should have realised: I have yet to reach the fitness level of the average local in Seoul. By the time we hit the track, it was 1 pm, I was hungry, the sun was out, and I had to pedal away. It’s good to carry something to eat on such trips, as Hangang Parks with convenience stores and restrooms are spread far apart and the rest of the track is for pure cycling joy.
The wheels of my bike have a fantastic grip, unfortunately I have to also put more effort into cycling. Basil’s bike is lighter with bigger wheels and can cruise with minimum effort. I saw almost everyone, including kids on their bikes, whiz by me.
I tried hard not to let hunger or the sun get to me. We made our first stop for pictures at a crossing of a small bridge. It was tempting to just look around and do nothing.
We cycled further to another intersection, where a bridge above (the main road) forked in turns. Clicking photographs had never been my priority, maybe I always depended on Basil. With Basil loosing interest in photography, I tried clicking some shots of the banner above. The wind was so strong that my bike fell over. And that was the first thing to go wrong for the day.
Basil had gone ahead, and when I started to pedal, I realised my bike had lost its alignment. So, I had to walk along the track, hoping that Basil would eventually realise something is wrong, his wife’s not trailing behind. Honestly, I would never have been able to catch up with him anyway.
Eventually, he did realise, I wasn’t around, and he came back for me. He tried straightening the wheels, but I didn’t seem too confident with the bike afterwards. So, we continued walking, until I was too tired and had to cycle.
Fortunately, for me, the next Hangang Park was about 10 minutes away. After a meal of Gimbap and a burger, we spread our mat, and took a breather. It was nearing 2 pm and tired as I was, I knew we had to carry on. Jamsil wasn’t very far away.
At Jamsil, we had to cross the bridge to reach Jamsil Hangang Park — on the other side. I’ve never been good with heights and looking at the narrow railing and depth below, I preferred to cross the breadth of the river on foot, over the bridge. In the afternoon sun, that may not have been the right decision. What seemed like a never ending walk, with the bike in tow, finally ended after 20 minutes.
Down a giddying ramp and after clicking pictures of the water, we head towards the meeting spot. We had finally made it 2 hours later at 4 pm. After a round of games and pizza, we head over to Shelley’s place. And after a few more games and dinner; we canned the plan of seeing the fireworks. Eventually, we were so late, the subway was shut, and I didn’t have the energy to cycle back, so we crashed at Shelley and Agri’s place!
The next day, we woke at 8 am, said bye to our wonderful hosts Shelley and Agri, and jumped on our bikes and started cycling back home. We could have taken the subway, but changing multiple times with bikes would have been crazy. The plan for the day, was to cycle to Yeouido Hangang Park and cross the bridge — to head home. At that time, it sounded perfect! After having boiled eggs and coffee, at the local store, we began the next part of our journey.
En route, we stopped for a quick bike repair. We bought a mirror, flash lights, and gloves at a good price. The rockstar ajumma at the stall would give any cyclist a complex. She fixed the mirror with ease and was super fit for her age. And with my broken Korean (monosyllabic actually) and toothy smile, she was floored. She volunteered to oil the chains of our bikes without asking. Clearly, the effort of understanding local culture never goes unrewarded. Ahead, we saw a rabbit trying to hide between the blades of grass.
After pedalling for 20 odd minutes, taking in the gorgeous scenery on a warm sunday morning, I had to take a break. We walked for a bit and clicked pictures along the way. The vegetation along the river is stunning and does a fantastic job of compensating the rows of grey — in the far distance.
We reached Banpo Hangang Park at around 12 pm. I was really tired by now. And we altered the course a bit and thought of crossing the bridge and taking the subway back home. After a meal of noodles, I was so tired, I felt queasy, and wasn’t strong enough to pedal. So, we spread our mat (too bad we hadn’t carried our tent) and tried to rest.
Crossing Banpo Bridge, on the underpass, was quite a task, and I didn’t have the energy to pedal. So once again, we had to cross the breadth of the river. Upon reaching the other other side, we took the elevator leading to the road above. Another foreigner asked Basil if he was a foreigner as well, making me wonder, if only foreigners took the elevator to transport their bikes. Although, I did see another cyclist (local) using the elevator too.
We walked towards Seobinggo station on the Gyeongui-Jungang Line and never have I been happier to see the familiar sight of tracks leading home. We reached our apartment at 5 pm, ending what I would call a really long ride.