Four Rivers Project, South Korea: The best place to ride bikes in Asia

On the banks of the Yeongsan River, the day is moving in slow motion. Fishermen cast lazily into the water, autumn leaves rain over the path, and only the distant pop of baseball bats on balls breaks the silence. Local cyclists pass me in clouds of tinny Korean pop that play from their phones. A Sunday in South Korea rolls on as slowly as our progress.

I'm cycling on a bike path beside the Yeongsan, which I will follow from near its source by the southern town of Damyang to the port city of Mokpo. The path is flat, the rice fields are in harvest and the wind pushes at my back. The easiest 75 kilometres imaginable spools out aheads of me this day.

The path is filled with bikes and weekend cycling warriors, but still we stand out with our panniers and our ambition to pedal for days. Local cyclists wave as they pass, and a young boy calls out "Welcome to Korea", a greeting as gentle as the gradient.

"The concept of using a bike as transport for a holiday is quite unknown to Koreans," says Beom-Seok Choi.

Three years ago Choi began exploring South Korea's network of bike paths on weekend rides from Seoul. He soon racked up 1200 kilometres and a realisation of the country's potential for cycling tourism. In 2014 he established South Korea's first dedicated cycle-tour company, bikeOasis Korea.

Cycling tourism may be in its infancy in South Korea, but already it's clear that this may be the most bike-friendly country in Asia. Outside of the cities there are now more than 2000 kilometres of dedicated bike paths.

The centrepiece of the network is the Four Rivers Project. Completed in 2011, it was primarily a $26 billion scheme to restore and green the banks of four major South Korean rivers, but it also resulted in bike paths being constructed along the four waterways. One of them was the Yeongsan River.

From Damyang the bike path runs across the top of flood levees for most of its journey, and I'm reminded of towpath cycling beside European canals, except with kimchi for lunch.

Staked beside the path are freshly planted trees. In a few years this will be a glorious shaded corridor, but compared to the traffic-jostling cycling in so many other Asian countries it's already pure delight.

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It will take us two days to ride the 130 kilometres from Damyang to Mokpo, and we stop this first night in the riverside town of Naju. Our hotel is the oddity along the Naju riverbank, sitting as it does among a string of restaurants specialising in the local "delicacy" – raw, aged (ergo, rotten) skate, a fermented dish that apparently makes durian smell like perfume. Even the out-of-town Koreans I meet won't brave this Naju dish.

"I've worked in a lot of Asian countries and can eat pretty much anything, except this," says Richard, one of my cycling companions from Seoul.

By the morning the bike paths are empty as the working week descends on South Korea. This day we'll continue along the river, winding through tiny rural villages you'd see in no other way of travel here.

In the villages, old women sit on the roads, beating beans from the harvested bushes. Mechanical harvesters roll through the fields, cutting both the rice and the Asian romance from the scene. The banks of the river are so covered in the fluffy white flowers of the flame grass they look snow-covered.

After lunch beside Asia's largest lotus pond, the path continues its flat journey towards Mokpo – around 80 per cent of South Korea is covered in mountains, but for cyclists the Four Rivers Project has all but flattened the country.

Mokpo arrives suddenly. One moment we're cycling through rice fields, and the next we're among a human field of apartment blocks. Fishermen unknot their nets on the docks, and the Yeongsan bike path ends at a weir across the estuary. Beyond here there's only ocean, but our journey has really just begun.

Early the next morning we board a ferry and head out across the Yellow Sea. We're heading for Jeju, a wild island off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula that is South Korea's most popular domestic holiday destination. It is effectively a volcano in the sea, with its fertile coastal plains and black shores ringed around the rocky summit of volcanic Hallasan, South Korea's highest mountain.

There's a brutal beauty to Jeju. Lighthouses seemingly materialise around every bend, testifying to the cruelty of its coast. Fishing fleets huddle behind breakwaters, and dry-stone basalt walls shelter the fields from the winds that relentlessly scour the island. Its most famous inhabitants are its haenyo, the little old women of fierce strength who free-dive up to 30 metres below the ocean to catch the likes of octopus and shellfish.

In 2015 a 200-kilometre bike route around Jeju was completed, combining dedicated bike paths, quiet coastal roads and bike lanes on the main circuit road to circumnavigate the island.

This day, as we cycle around Jeju's western tip, the wind is behind us, propelling us towards the coastal town of Sangye-ri. The riding is effortless and the path is so smooth the only bumps are the gusts of wind.

It will take us three days of riding to circuit Jeju and each time we touch the coast it seems more rugged. The black rocky shores occasionally burst into brilliant white beaches, and craggy minor peaks – lumps and bumps of lava – rise from the coastal plains. For the first time there are climbs, though none of them are significant.

We pause for a day at Seongsan at Jeju's eastern tip. The previous day we'd cycled almost halfway around the island, and on our day off we will pedal around another island in its entirety.

Sitting just a couple of kilometres offshore from Seongsan, Udo is the largest of Jeju's satellite islands. A volcanic tuff cone named for a fanciful likeness to a cow lying down, Udo is Jeju in microcosm. Quirky cafes line the coast, seafood comes fresh from the boats, and massive stone walls enclose its fields. A couple of blazingly white beaches are covered in coral rubble the size and colour of popcorn.

Udo's single narrow road runs hard against the island's edge, so there's an endless ocean view as we pedal. The popularity of this holiday island off a holiday island means that we're far from alone on the roads, with rental quad bikes and three-wheeled scooters zipping around us.

It's an easy, restorative day, pedalling just 17 kilometres to circuit the island. Along the coast there are stone statues of haenyo seemingly emerging from the sea, and real-life haenyo selling their catches by the roadside. At one point we turn down a tiny lane, emerging at a bay empty of anything but a few tables and chairs and a man shucking shellfish below the cliffs and the island lighthouse. It's the ultimate outdoor seafood restaurant.

Back on Jeju, our final day of cycling will take us along the north coast into Jeju City. Wind has buffeted our hotel all night, and today it's clear that we'll be cycling head-on into it.

Regardless of the wind, these final 60 kilometres could be the finest of all. The path and roads are pressed hard against the coast, which is lined with weather-worn seaside cafes. The landscape softens so that there are now as many white beaches as black sections of rock, and the clear waters of the sandy-floored bays seem to radiate in the sun.

Past Woljeong, where a line of wind turbines gives the beach a sci-fi atmosphere, we turn briefly inland, rising up gentle slopes to Manjanggul, the world's largest system of lava tubes - 7.4 kilometres of perfectly arched caves of cooled lava. We park our bikes and wander underground.

Back atop the ground, we return to the coast and ride on towards Jeju City. Everything about the island now speaks of wind: the massive wind turbines that chop at the sky, the kite surfers skimming across the bays, the waves and sand that now blow over the path.

But there are no hills and the bike path leads blessedly on. A Jeju headwind seems a small price to pay.

FIVE OTHER KOREAN ADVENTURES

CLIMB HALLASAN

A web of trails climbs the slopes of South Korea's highest mountain (1950 metres) on Jeju.

HIKE IN JIRISAN NATIONAL PARK

South Korea's first and arguably most spectacular national park, with a long and jagged ridge that makes for a great three-day traverse.

CYCLE THE EAST COAST

Due for completion in 2016, the East Coast Trail will be a 700-kilometre cycle route from the Goseong Unification Observatory in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) to the southern city of Busan.

CAMP BONIFAS GOLF

Dubbed the world's most dangerous golf course, this single par three-hole in the DMZ can have explosive results for wayward shots – the green is surrounded by land mines.

DIVE FROM SEOGWIPO

Take to the waters off Jeju's south coast, where warm currents have created a colourful coral reef clinging to drop-offs of black rock.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitkorea.org.au

GETTING THERE

Korean Air flies daily direct to Seoul Incheon from Sydney, with four flights a week also from Brisbane. The cycling trip described here commences in Seoul, with a bus ride to Damyang. See koreanair.com.

CYCLING THERE

bikeOasis Korea runs a nine-day Cycle across Korea trip, riding from Damyang to Mokpo and around Jeju Island, costing $3952 (with no single supplement). Departures in 2016 are in April, September and October. High-quality hybrid bikes are supplied. See bikeoasis.kr.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organization and Korean Air.

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