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On the road . June 2008 . Japan and South Korea

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Blue Backpackers [website] Busan, Korea, 19-06-08
Another island, another Japan

Hashimoto to Motoyama (4 cycling days; 2.5 hour ferry trip; 228km; 2654m)

Hashimoto to near Sanagouchi (66 km; 192 m)
near Sanagouchi to near Koyadaira (38 m; 701 m)
near Koyadaira to Okuiya Kazurabashi (41 km; 1216 m)
Okuiya Kazurabashi to Motoyama (82 km; 545 m)

We rise to the sound of one particularly happy little bird, chirping its head off and darting radically around in the vicinity of our tent. Fly-fishermen are off in the distance. It’s Sunday and the sun is stinking hot, even at 7 in the morning. The 52 km cycle trip, basically sticking in and around the No 24 highway, is pretty straight forward and the ferry terminal, just outside Wakayama, is clearly signposted the moment we enter the city’s outskirts.

Being the last day of the weekend and quite often the only day off for the Japanese, everyone is out and about: busy absorbing themselves in their extra curricular activities. I have to say, the Japanese are pretty fanatical about anything and everything they choose to do: none more so than their sport and relaxation. Judging by the amount of shops we have passed since arriving here and the number of dedicated men, up to their thighs in chilly cold water while the skies are desperately trying to rise the river levels, fishing is a pretty popular past-time.

Likewise baseball, cycling, jogging, the golden world of golfing and the quite humorous military style march many embark on in the parks of a morning or evening, rank high among their leisure pursuits as well. They are all dressed accordingly. Even the motorcyclists: with catchprases like sledgehammer and motorhead embroidered on their leather jackets, I don’t have to explain to you the extent of their devotion to their pristine machines. This is the last image I had ever expected to see in Japan, but surprisingly enough, hundreds of Harley Davidsons and relatively fewer not so impressive other makes, take to the country roads every weekend. They are not of real concern to us: they generally make more noise pollution than anything else and take a wide birth as they overtake. Something about respect for another person on two wheels, I guess.

Perform it to a bicycle
While we wait to board the ferry and for the ticket office to open, the sun is shining fiercely. We find a little patch of shade to sit and eat lunch. Just a half hour before departure, Ali can pay the ¥5200 (¥2000 per person and ¥600 per bike) and receives an instruction paper that has us in absolute fits of laughter. It’s not that we want to make fun of the misconstrued use of English, though the bit about the bicycle bent me double. That happens everywhere in the world and boy we have seen some real beauties in our travels. I think, more to the point, it pretty well sums up our very special experience, not only with Nankai Ferry Co, but Japan in general.

* Explanation

If it is purchased a ticket, please perform straight a signal in front.
Because there is a person in charger, please hand a ticket.
If is gone on board by a ship; of stairs overcharge, and please be in the ship.
I sit in the favorite place if in the ship, and please make itself at home.
You cannot smoke in the inboard. When it is smoked, I ask on a deck.
Because music plays at about 15:50 to arrive at Tokushima,
I go down the stairs if I drift, and please perform it to a bicycle.
Please obey the instructions of the person in charge if I arrive at Tokushima.

Thank you for using Nankai ferry today.
Nankai Ferry Co., Ltd.

It takes just 2.5 hours to reach the delta of the Yoshino river and the prefecture capital: Tokushima. This city boasts that a total 138 rivers run through its region and as we cycle along, it is easy to see that this is most likely the case. The centre itself is very relaxed and spread not so much upwards as outwards. As we meander out of town along Highway No 438 the road becomes smaller and the scenery greener. We choose a spot under a bridge on a rocky river bank near Sanagouchi (66km; 192m). There’s a patch just big enough to pitch our tent and it’s not too inconveniently situated from the water’s edge.

Jingle bells...Jingle bells...
Japan has many sights of interest; just pick up any guide book and it will tell you so. However, what most of them fail to mention is the hotaru: the firefly. Japan has at least 50 of the worlds known 2000 species and they are commonly referenced in poetry, childrens’ ditties and Japanese proverbs. One more recent addition to the Japanese language is hotaru-zoku, which translates as firefly-tribe. It refers to those, mostly husbands, who have been forced to go outside to smoke. The cigarette glow in the dark from apartment balconies obviously resembles that of the glow of a firefly.

These attractive little creatures are alarmingly on the decrease in Japan, since they only live near clean streams. I therefore have to assume that the water running next to us tonight is pretty well close to pure because the “as far as we can see” fairy-light performance was bigger and better than any Christmas tree I have ever seen. It was so spellbinding in fact, that after we had finished with oohing and aahing, Ali began to sing Jingle Bells, which does show how silly he can be at times.

The next day we continue following route No 438. It’s hard to believe this is a major road, as at times there is only enough room for one vehicle to scrape through. Lucky, we encounter only a small amount of local traffic and just a couple of trucks, which, as far as I can see, double as roadside greenery trimmers. We wind our way up along a quaint country path, past a number of abandoned houses and small villages. This type of environment is a cyclist’s dream. Below us the gorge tunnels water at fervent speed in the opposite direction to our climb. Everywhere you look, there’s a new shade of green. My legs feel strong today and I’m ready for what’s in store.

Unfortunately, the weather has other plans: well before lunchtime we are waylaid in the tank-up spot of a local JA enterprise, while the clouds do some pretty amazing things above us. It doesn’t look good, but after two hours wait, the rain eases up enough to leave. Completely drenched, we are forced to stop a few kilometers further on. Unbeknown to us at the time, we are just 2.5 kilometres from the tunnel. Nonetheless, we discover a perfectly suitable spot, near Koyadaira (38km; 70m), in a pine forest to wait the rain out.

Cyclists in the mist
It continues raining solidly until 11.30am the next day, which definitely gives new meaning to the word rainfall. We surmise that the rainy season, which normally hits halfway through June, has started a tad too early this year. Still the current pattern seems to bring sunshine after a bout of this sort of weather and sure enough, although we leave in a bit of drizzle, by the time we are eating our lunch, the sun is blasting down upon us.

These conditions don’t last for long and approximately 5.5 hours after setting off, the second tunnel at the Minokoshi Pass (1406m) is in sight. We have dragged ourselves along 33 kilometres of mountain road and up 1216 altimetres at an average climb of 5% in the constant rain. Maybe the figures don’t mean much to you, but I can assure you it is some of the most grueling work I have ever done.

With every push, my mind is active, but I don’t always know what I’m thinking about. Just looking at the road; trying to keep upright. Now I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about and that’s incredibly irritating. A crow laughs “ha, ha, ha” and I think: shut-up you sod. A Japanese bush warbler starts up and I try to pedal to the beat of his song, but his tempo is too fast for me. I try it half time. That works for a bit and then I give that up too. I decide my next goal is the second bend I come to: I’ll stop for a bit to rest and have a drink. The second bend comes but I continue on just a little bit further. Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I don’t.

My raincoat drapes around me like a useless, soggy, canary-yellow kleenex; my vision is blurred from drizzle and sweat; and at the 2 kilometre point, before the top, I’m so cold and clammy and I just want to give up. According to Ali, I’m a wimp, but I can barely push the pedals round anymore. John Lennon exclaims on the Helter Skelter album that he’s got blisters on his fingers; well I have throbbing thighs, aching knees, burning calves and a severely dwindling enthusiasm for what I’m doing.

The mist blocks out all sign of Ali maybe a hundred metres in front of me and furthermore, the promised scenic view of Mt Tsurugisan in our road atlas is completely non-existent. It is pure white all around me and I feel like I’ve been swallowed up by something far greater than myself. To quote my beloved Beatle one more time: when you're drowning, you don't say “I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,” you just scream. And that’s what I did. Though, I really felt like crying.

Not really roped in
At the end of the day though, after the 8km downhill tumble on the No 439 to Okuiya Kazurabashi (41km; 1216m), a wash in icy cold Iyagawa river water and a hot meal, sanity has almost returned. Had it not been for the warning poster with bold red Japanese characters and several exclamation marks under a photograph of a brown bear, I would have also had a peaceful night’s sleep. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what the message was.

The famous double vine rope bridges, that in truth are steel cable bridges wrapped in vines for aesthetics, is a total rip-off at ¥500 a pop just to walk across it. The Japanese have this incessant desire to try and either reconstruct or tame nature and the whole place is more like a low-key theme park than anything else. Though I must confess, the poster of Mt Tsurugisan does do the mountain justice. Pity we never actually got to see it.

The campsite on the other side, which is mentioned as being free in the LP costs ¥350 per tent and ¥150 per person. Under normal circumstances this isn’t too much to pay for a well equipped camping area, but the lights are out, the toilets are cordoned off and don’t forget you need to fork out ¥500 to get to it. Basically there’s nothing on offer here but a cleared gravel patch.

Someone must be watching over us though, as not a soul is in sight when we arrive, I don’t fall through to gaps on the wobbly bridge and very luckily, no bears attack us during the night. Gosh, you get to learn about two of my phobias in one sentence! During our muscle enhancing, 30 minute workout, carrying our loaded bikes up the steep walkway, the cleaner comes into view. She is very curious as to where we have come from, but speaks no English. Our Japanese is just as inadequate and so we end up passing one another with pleasantry nods and an exchange of language that neither party understands. No-one present in the booth at the top this morning either, so we just cycle away with no obligations to pay.

No true discourse with nature
Sailing down the Iyagawa river towards Oboke, we pass monster dams, electrical works, pine forrestries: lopped and not lopped, and we get a clear insight into the Japanese way of preventing nature from doing its normal thing. Apart from the stickle brick-like cement blocks that they stack in and around the rivers, they have taken to spraying concrete on the sides of cliffs and then painting it a sort of sand brown colour. The problem is there is nothing natural about the way it looks at all and feels as if we are on some sort of Disney theme park bike ride. The life-sized rag dolls propped up in the fields and used to frighten away crows only heighten the funfair atmosphere. Admittedly, these animated scarecrows in everyday pose, do at least reveal a sense of humour.

If we thought Okuiya Kazurabashi was bad, then it was obvious that we hadn’t yet visited Nishi Iya with its own kazurabashi (vine bridge) and the biwa no taki (a 50m waterfall). Some concrete and steel girder freak has built a massively repulsive construction on the side of the cliff and in all their wisdom a fake waterfall on the other side. A highway has been built for the sole purpose of visiting the waterfall. Yet still, the Japanese are out in their troops visiting this place. I just don’t get it! The area has so many signs of promise but human intervention has ruined any chance for a true discourse with nature.

In search of the perfect camp-spot
We continue on as we have hopes of camping somewhere along the Ananai river tonight, but every spare patch of land is filled with rice paddies or vegetable crops. Any prospective camping pitch we see is either too close to the river for comfort or unreachable. The first decent place in kilometers turns out to be a helicopter pad. We decide that we would rather waiver the chance of sudden gale forced winds in the middle of the night and move on, though it’s becoming dangerously late.

It appears desperately futile at close to 6pm at night and with little daylight left, the abandoned construction site looks like our only option. But just as we are rounding the bend, and it is funny how this always happens, we simultaneously spot a perfect stretch of river bank. The excitement is dampened a little as it is on the other side but reignited when we spy a bridge a bit further on. Following the river and our noses, we easily land in Kizenzan Park, near Motoyama (82km; 545m), complete with a specially designated camping area.

This windfall even has toilets with toilet paper, hand soap, magazines and a little vase of flowers. Additionally, a modern washing-up hut perches on the side of the bank under the forest and one very dear person, obviously with experience in these matters, saw the need to connect a couple of shower rosettes to the back wall of the wash-up area. I am forever indebted to this person: bless their little cotton tabi-socks. It’s perfect and it costs nothing. The 12 hours of rain that follows and only stops at 1pm the next day diminishes the spirits somewhat, but by the late afternoon the wind is blowing our washing dry, hawks are circling their territory above and I am happy as Larry watching Ali skim stones across the river. He’s pretty good at it, by the way.

Eye for detail
Motoyama to Miyajima (3 cycling days; 66km ferry trip; 169km; 1776m)

Motoyama to Ikegawa (53 km; 576 m)
Ikegawa to Matsuyama (68 km; 997 m)
Matsuyama to Miyajima (48 km; 203 m)

Today’s temperature rises something like this: at 9am, 11am and 1pm, it is 20º, 23º and 25º celcius respectively. I can tell because the overhead electronic highway boards are detailing this for me. We are still on Route No 439 and it is a glorious day. The climbing starts almost as soon as we get out of Motoyama city, which turns out to be quite a decent sized place with ample shopping facilities. One that catches my eye, for its rather strange combination of merchandise, is the local “Sports and Liquor Store”.

Leaving the Yoshino River behind at the monster Sameurara Dam, I stop to take a photo of one of the manhole covers. They are just incredibly amazing in Japan and shows, as far as I’m concerned, a certain eye for detail. Every town, city, province and prefecture has their own design, often depicting a landmark, flora or fauna specific to the region. Many are the usual cast metal but some are so brightly adorned in colour that I just have to pause a while; to contemplate the intricacy of the patterns. They remind me of woodblocks used for printing. Needless to say, my fascination for these roadside features causes me to stop frequently and Ali to get pissed off regularly. This pool of manhole cover photos shows that others are as deeply captivated as I am.

Seeing the light at the end
From here on in, it’s just under 20 kilometres of relatively easy uphill push until the tunnel. This time, I could almost say I enjoy venturing inside, even though it is the longest we have experienced to date. There’s a wonderfully wide and raised cycle path on the side and it is so straight and flat for the entire length that you can actually see the light at the end of this, almost 3 kilometre, long construction.

After a tunnel, it normally means an effortless descent. And this time is no exception. No less than 18 kilometres of impeccable downhill highway all to ourselves: perfect opportunity for Ali to practice his ballerina biking stunts and me to laugh at him.

Highway No 439 is interrupted by No 194 for a short distance and we need to ascend once again. A beautiful winding country road bordered with expansive views of green paddies, bamboo and pine trees and blue flowering hydrangeas entertains us before we stumble upon another public campsite with toilet facilities just outside the village of Ikegawa (53km; 576m). It’s only 2pm, but we are not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Tobe or not Tobe
The next day smells of honeysuckle and pine wood. The riverways are untampered with and punctuated with small farmyards. We are on Highway No 494 now, but it resembles more of a mountain trail than a main throroughfare. The first hour is painless, but the second a bit more of a sweaty affair. We traverse 479 altimetres in just 17 kilometres, but are once again compensated with a tunnel at the top and a plummet down to the turnoff, just before Shinagawa, on to Route No 12. It’s another 12 kilometre (200m) uphill push that follows and then we go down again into Kuma. The rollercoaster ride continues with a further 8 kilometre (220m) climb before we reach the Misaka Pass (720m). The climax of our joyride is the 700m nose dive over 14 kilometres into the flat-land outskirts of Matsuyama (68km; 997m).

We choose a spot in a park close to Tobe, but not exactly in the centre. Unfortunately for us though, it is a well used area by locals and we feel well out on display. Not one of our better choices of campsites.

Oh deer, oh deer, oh deer...
Straight forward ride into and out of Matsuyama, though every bank we see is either not a branch we can use, out of order or closed. This is not unusual for a Sunday in Japan, but quite a strange phenomenon for the world’s leader in technology, I think. Some ATM’s operate within particular hours and will not allow you to withdraw cash before 9am and are similarly closed after 9pm.

Consequently, we arrive with no money and annoyingly so, cannot pay by credit card. All the cash machines in this area are closed as well except the ATM at the terminal which doesn’t accept our card. Therefore, Ali needs to ride off to the next town to source the ¥6560 (¥2900 each + ¥380 for a bike). We miss the 9.30am ferry, but are not perturbed about catching the next one at 10.55am. The trip to Hiroshima is 66 kilometres and takes just over 2.5 hours.

Back on the road again, Route No 2 this time, it is just like cycling into any one of Japan’s concrete jungles: not very pretty, insurmountable amount of infuriating stop lights, traffic and discarded rubbish all punctuated by pachinko slot parlours. We are headed for our second ferry trip of the day out to Miyajima Island. The port is only 23 kilometres further on and we break the journey by shopping at a supermarket on the highway. Ferries leave every 15 minutes, cost ¥270 with the bike and take only 10 minutes to get across to the other side.

The amply photographed Shinto Shrine Gate (torii) leading to the Itsukushima Shrine is only just visible through the haze on our right. There’s a short promotional film about the island playing on one of the two video screens on the boat, it is the first time that we have heard announcements in English since Tokyo and we wonder if coming here is such a good move.

As soon as we leave the boat, a friendly man also on a bike overhears us questioning one another about where we need to go, and points us in the direction of Tsutsumigaura Park. Supposedly a campground exists here. We round one corner and get all snap happy at the couple of unusually tame deer on the side of the road. We needn’t have bothered with photographs here though because it soon becomes apparent that the whole island is virtually overrun by bambi’s. And there were plenty of other opportunities to be had. They are all tame!

The campsite is 2.8 kilometres from the terminal and we are relieved to find a quiet area away from anything that remotely resembles tourism (Miyajima: 48km; 203m). After we have set up and are relaxing at the picnic table near our tent, a local man comes by in a white pick-up truck with the necessary paperwork. We pay him ¥600 each for a two night stay. This gets drawn out to three nights when we discover an electrical point at the back of the closed canteen after the first day. Yet another peculiar trait of Japanese campsites: apart from never offering electricity to their guests they quite often don’t have any showers available either. I don’t know how the hoards of students cope in the summer holidays when they flock in their thousands to this place for a few weeks. Either they hire in portable showers or everyone walks around smelling of sea salt or ponging to high heaven. Maybe it keeps the wild animals at bay.

And there are plenty of those in this campsite. A crow tries to take off with a packet of fried broad beans lying on the table when I have my back turned, a tanuki (racoon like dog) is caught frolicking around in our tent and the deer keep creeping, ever so slightly, closer and closer to the food source, while I’m preparing the dinner. Though, I have to say that there is something kind of special about having lots of long lashed, big eyed bambi’s curious about what you are doing.

Finally, a city with a heart
Hiroshima is the first big city we have seen in Japan that possesses a heart. You’ll find it at Peace Memorial Park. Also, well worth a visit, is the Museum of the same name. It goes into great detail, sometimes a little repetitive, about the infamous bombing on August 6, at 8.15am, in 1945. Except for the wax figurines depicting a scene of burnt children, which more aptly belong in a horror train set at Disneyland, it is all very well presented with informative displays: including interesting artifacts, models, photos, letters and video presentations. I, personally found the whole experience very moving, but you probably need to know that I still cry at the end of a Sunday matinee movie, even when I’ve seen it before.

Running out of sushi
Miyajima to Busan (4 cycling days; 10.5 hour ferry trip; 250km; 1999m)

Miyajima to near Sugano Dam (71 km; 353 m)
near Sugano Dam to near Ogori (74 km; 647 m)
near Ogori to near Kawatanaonsen (79 km; 894 m)
near Kawatanaonsen to Busan via Shimonoseki (32 km; 133 m)

After three days we say goodbye to all the bambi’s as the sun tries to break through the clouds and we push through the obstacle course known as Route No 2. Steer clear of this road, if at all possible. It is a proper nightmare. The crumpled bike frame and smashed glasses still under the car tyre that we see a few kilometers down the road are proof enough of a cyclist’s fate with these drivers. We are itching to get on the No 187 road and soon enough we are sitting admiring the Kintaikyo Bridge in Nishi Iwakuni. The dark clouds in the direction of where we need to go however, are not appreciated. It begins to rain and we shelter for an hour or so before braving the elements.

This is another one of those journeys that I would rather forget. Even singing Ella Fitzgerald and Rickie Lee Jones songs doesn’t take my mind off the fact that I am beginning to resemble a drowned rat. It’s such a shame, because this area is so beautiful, but there is no chance of taking in the scenery. At Sukane, we take Route 69 and go as far as we can before our waterlogged disposition gets the better of us both and we opt to set the tent up on a cement platform next to a dam wall, near Sugano Dam (71km; 353m). Tempers are frayed and we yell and scream at ourselves, one and other, the tent, the bikes and anything else that we come in contact with until we are in the tent, comfortable but above all dry. Everything looks so completely different from this perspective. Wet season has definitely started and so it is time to say goodbye to Japan and hello to Korea.

Next morning you wouldn’t believe it was the same country, same time of year, same river, same place. It had rained for 16 hours continually and now the sun is beating down like it has never shone before in its life, the surroundings are luscious green and it is tranquil. Butterflies rest on our gear as it lies in the sun to dry. Doesn’t take too long before our complete kit can be packed up and we can move on.

The plan is to cycle through to Yamaguchi and up to the Odao Pass and towards a campsite in green pastures, but somewhere along the line, we take the wrong turn and end up back at Route No 2, which is quite depressing as it is bigger and busier than before. We use the cycle paths as much as possible but they persistently swap sides which is extremely frustrating. We pull off the main path near Ogori (74km; 647m) and find a relatively quiet area under a bridge that carries the Shinkansen (bullet train).

We are just a day away from Shimonoseki if we use the main highway, but neither of us want to leave Japan with our last thoughts of somehow being tangled up in traffic; stressed out by arrogant truck drivers; having endless visions of rows of Pachinko Slot Parlours; and congested urban mazes. This is not the Japan that we have come to enjoy so much. The decision is unanimous: we take two days and a slightly roundabout route. Tomorrow we can arrive a little earlier, do all the washing resulting from the last few days of bad weather and pack the bags ready for the ferry trip before hitting Shimonoseki the next day.

The journey doesn't quite go to plan. It is a lot of hard work traversing the countryside, though very stunning to look at and the weather is just brilliant. At ten to six in the evening though we are just getting the tent set up at the beach front near Kawatanaonsen (79km; 894m). You probably have all sorts of wonderful images in mind. Well you shouldn't, because it is one of the less appealing places we have camped in Japan. The view across the bay is barricaded with those same cement stickle brick blocks that they try and tame the rivers with. The area around us quite derelict and unkempt. The public toilets aren't open, which is the first time we have encountered that in Japan. Ali has to walk quite a distance to find a tap with running water, which makes cleaning ourselves and doing the washing a little more difficult than usual. Nevertheless, our spirits are high as we have another destination in mind. Tomorrow we will arrive in Shimonoseki (26km; 105m) around lunchtime, pay for our tickets on Kampu Ferry Lines: ¥9000 second class ticket; ¥600 port departure tax; ¥500 fuel surcharge fee; and ¥1000 for each of the bikes and hang around in a grassy green park until 6pm, when we may board the boat for Korea.

Sitting there, we both reminisce about our time in Japan. Without a doubt, we would recommend it as one of the best cycle terrains we have encountered. In parts, it is incredibly challenging, pristinely stunning and encompassing a nature of such immense magnitude that you feel quite privileged to have witnessed it. Of course, not everywhere is as beautiful, but the best thing of all is, you really feel free in Japan to do it your way. You can camp virtually anywhere you choose. We prefer the more out of the way places, but if you have to rest for the night in the middle of the city then that option is also available. It doesn't have to be expensive either. Self catering is the same cost as in Europe. So all in all, a great country to load up the bike and get exploring.

Kim's Guesthouse [website] Seoul, Korea, 14-07-08
An animated welcome

Busan to Near Sinlim (6 cycle days; 3+2 rest days; 507km; 4836m)

Busan to Gyeongju (125 km; 818 m)
Gyeongju to near Gunwi (100 km; 838 m)
near Gunwi to near Hwabuk (109 km; 1117 m)
near Hwabuk to Hwayangdong (25 km; 258 m)
Hwayangdong to Doldonjae (59 km; 965 m)
Doldonjae to near Sinlim (90 km; 840 m)

We have no idea what to expect of Korea: can we camp wild; what are the roads like; the food; the people? It will also be the first country that we venture into without a guide book of some description. We soon find out that in some ways Korea is similar to Japan and in others it is so far removed that the first couple of hours on the ferry boat from Shimonoseki to Busan are almost a culture shock of the third degree. The animated and vibrant characters we chat with certainly authenticate one of the most obvious differences: the people of Korea are very spontaneous and they are just dying to talk to you. We did kind of miss this aspect in Japan and it doesn't take us long to adjust to the raucous downing of soju shots and cheering every time someone says something silly or profound. Before the boat has left the harbour, we are shouted our first Korean beer from Duk: Hite is the brand name and if you would add an "s" to the beginning of the word, you'll get an indication of how it actually tastes. Similarly the other beer on the market in Korea is Cass just needs an "r" in the second place and I'll say no more. Even though Korean beer is not that great, on a humid day, after a few steep gradients, a cold one relaxing by the tent really does hit the spot.

After circumnavigating the ferry and checking out all the services on board, we spend most of our time in the lounge area. Unlike any other ferry I've been on before, where you have to make a dash to the cash machine for more money when buying 2 cups of coffee, everything is surprisingly cheap on board: restaurant included. Our room is equipped with 12 sleeping areas on tatami mats and apart from two older Japanese ladies, who have settled themselves in one corner and are asleep almost before the ferry has departed, we have the room to ourselves. A pretty rough night at sea follows and I vaguely remember the ship docking in the wee hours of the morning. It must have been blown across the ocean at records speeds. Still, we are not allowed to disembark until 8.30am. At immigration, I'm given a thorough third degree and it starts instantaneously; no hello; no nothing...

Good Morning (as I hand over my passport)
When were you in Korea before?
This is my first visit.
How long will you be staying in Korea?
45 days.
Why do you need 45 days in Korea?
Because I'm cycling to Seoul from Busan and it will take about 45 days.
What will you do in Korea?
I'm cycling through Korea to Seoul
Where will you be leaving from?
Where will you be going next?
Can I see your air tickets?
No, I don't have them yet.
Why not?
Because I'm not exactly sure when I'll get to Seoul. I'm on a bicycle.
Do you have friends in Seoul?
No, no-one.
Do you know anyone in Korea?
No, no-one
Who will you be visiting in Korea?
Where will you be staying in Busan?
I don't know yet. I'll find the name of a hostel at the tourist information.

At this point he stamps the open page in front of him, scribbles in a date that I can't read and throws my passport at me without any further acknowledgement what so ever. Mmmm...welcome to Korea! Ali is let through interrogation-free. Our bikes are waiting for us in baggage collection area, but the bags need to go through the x-ray machine, so while we unpack, a very enthusiastic and apologetic airport worker runs them to the conveyor belt and then back to us as each one is cleared. Customs ask us the same type of questions I was cross-examined with, but not quite as many and without further ado we are in the Busan arrivals lounge.

Reaching Blue Backpackers is much easier than getting information out of the girl at the tourist information desk, but they only have dormitory beds available. This is not my favourite way of spending the night, but it'll have to do as we both can't be bothered searching any further. As it turns out, the guesthouse is quite an okay place. The genuinely helpful owner is a lovely, no frills, down to earth person and the place is full with lots of friendly and interesting travellers. Also to it's credit, it is almost immaculately clean and the kitchen spacious and well equipped. There's wifi which means we can do quite a bit of research on internet over the length of our stay and Ali maps out a rough route taking us through the National Parks in our newly purchased road atlas. Since it is entirely in Korean, he also embarks on learning the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). To his credit and our advantage, as we later find ourselves having to decipher roads signs in Korean, he has mastered it in just a couple of days.

Everything has a used-by-date
Big cities are good for a few days of wandering around and the chance to do the things that you can't do when out in the sticks. Busan is a bit of life saver in that respect. Besides enjoying the hustle, bustle of colourful street life, a lot of our gear, has come to the end of it's life after a two year long proud service and needs to be replaced. Both cameras have dust bunnies, the solar panel connection is no longer working, the computer keyboard has lost it's "n", the inner tent zippers are completely stuffed, as is the one on Ali's handlebar bag, my day pants have developed a large rip from the knee to the crutch and Ali's need major repair, both our shirts collections have holes, our bike shorts are not far from tatters, our shoes beyond repair, we both need new socks and the trusty campart aluminum cook set of twenty (!) years has definitely seen better days.

Just goes to show that everything really does have a use-by-date. Another one of those strange little phenomena that you really become aware of when on the road and on a fairly tight budget. Somehow, you learn to squeeze every bit of life out of all your equipment; whereas in the average consumers' world, we toss things well before that, sometimes, we even purchase items that never ever get used at all. Just think: how many times have you actually used a pen right to its last drop of ink before buying another? In two years, we have gone through 7 pens and 2 pencils. There's simply no room for clutter, on a bike or not on a bike. Everything needs to have at least one essential purpose. Multi-functional articles are a traveller's best friend and believe it or not, you actually develop a sort of relationship with the items you use on such a regular basis. It's sad to say goodbye to them and their substitute had better watch out because it will be under your watchful scrutiny for the first few weeks of use. At least our new set of pots and pans was. I actually carry the old set around for a few days, just incase the replacement isn't up to scratch.

Luckily for us, Korea is a camper's paradise with outdoor stores galore in Busan just near Nampo-Dong Station on Line 1 and there's a massive fabric and accessories market just down the road from the guesthouse. The latter causing major goosebumps of excitement in myself when I step foot inside the maze of colour, texture, frills, diamontes, buttons, buckles, attachments and embellishments in gold, silver, glass, metal plastic and in every colour under the sun. Ali finds it all pretty well boring and I guess only avid seamstresses, tailors and my sister P will know exactly what I'm talking about. Its just delightful to look at, but I'm only there for new mosquito netting and zips. At the end of our Korean trip I also learn that Seoul has an area that rivals Busan. It along with every other conceivable market and wholesale area can be found in the vicinity of Dongdaemun Station also on Line 1.

Odour de jour
Five nights in Busan is enough and though we leave town in rather dubious weather, by the time afternoon hits the skies have cleared and it's actually a pretty nice day. Well, it would have been perfect except for the heavy duty traffic and the petrochemical industry that spans nearly 30kms of coastline. And as if the exhaust and petroleum smells are not enough we are also assaulted with the damp pungent odour rising from seaweed drying along the roadside. The plan of pleasantly totting up the coast towards Gyeongju becomes a bit of a nightmare: we also miss a turn-off which increases our kilometres and adding to this frustration the trip proves much harder than we expected with undulating surfaces that give us just a small taste of things to come in Korea. About 40 kilometres before Gyeongju (125km; 818m) my back pannier snaps off the frame, but this time lady luck is on our side. Only ten metres from where this occurs Hoam Chul Lee and his welding apparatus are waiting. It's a five minute job and there's no charge either. He even throws in a bottle of aloe-mineral water for good measures.

Hanjin Guesthouse is not too difficult to find but very grotty and in hindsight it would have been much better value to stay at a motel. They are friendly enough though and as we rock up for the night, Ali gets interviewed for local television. I'm too knackered to even grunt, so stay well in the background. The heavens open up and stay that way for literally the whole of the next day, so a visit to the temples and tombs resembling oversized grass covered mole hills is out of the question. Ali uses the time to reassess the route. We have to find smaller roads if our sanity is to remain with us in Korea. While the following day doesn't start off brilliantly either, we decide it's now or never: neither of us have the inclination to stay any longer in our rather dingy and musty smelling environment.

Korea is much like Japan as far as it's rural element is concerned, though poorer and quite often shabbier. They grow just about every conceivable crop known to man: corn, potatoes of every variety, tomatoes, courgette, aubergines, garlic, onions of all shapes and sizes, cabbage, green leafy stuff, melons, pumpkins, soyabeans and so much rice that it makes you wonder exactly how the world can have a current shortage of this food item. And in the 3rd most densely populated country of the world (not including tiny sovereign states like Monaco or Singapore and self-governing dependent territories) that means every single inch of earth is farmed. In the cities, you'll see spring onions ready for harvest bending over the sidewalk, soyabean crops in the front garden of advertising companies and sadder still, green paddies butting onto chemical factories. Of course this has consequences for us too and finding a camp spot on our second day of cycling is nigh on impossible. The farmers fields either inundate the river beds or the terrain is too rocky to pitch a tent.

Near Gunwi (100km; 838m) and after an exhausting day of cycling, we end up settling for the tiniest piece of ground along a tractor track leading to the river. The grass is a little high for my liking, but we are sealed in our tent before it is pitch black and sleep undisturbed until Farmer Joe and his tractor are at the foot of our tent making an awful racket and wanting to pass at 6.15am. He diverts, as there is obviously enough grass to cut in other parts of this river and we wake with a start that immediately begins our 2 hour morning ritual of eating, packing and setting off.

During the next week we quickly learn that Korea is not for the unfit, nor the faint hearted: it is one mass of mountains. They might not be that high but boy, oh boy, they are steep. Everyday is a relentless series of sweaty grunts and groans up hill followed by silent but a well-earned relief, coasting down again. One day it's stinking hot with a sun fit for whipping up a stir-fry on pavement and the next it is hammering down with rain. Other times, it's overcast while still maintaining 31° Celsius. Pig odour wafts through the air on Monday; Tuesday, the freshly harvested cabbage fields remind me of a mix of simmering sauerkraut and sweaty socks. The following journey blows cow manure in our direction and by the time Sunday comes around we've had a full nostril assault. We have ventured in and out of so many towns and cities with names ending in yeong, yeouk, cheong and cheok that I have no bearing on where I really am anymore. Each pass seems to be too far away and the downhill runs all begin to look alike. We stick as much as possible to the three digit highways as more often than not, these are quieter, more rural. More often than not, it's a very challenging route.

We enter Hwabuk (109km; 1117m) and decide to ask the local police where the Songnisan National Park campsite is. Since most travellers have accounts of dealing with unhelpful and arrogant police with little or no understanding of the English language, we are a little hesitant at first. Now admittedly, these two constables did have very limited English, but contrary to the other stories, they are quite obviously excited that a couple of foreigners have paid them a visit. "Tea, tea" one guy shouts. We really have to decline, as it will be dark soon. and there's bad news too. There is no official campsite in the vicinity, but the good news is they have nicely pointed out a spot on the river a few kilometres down the road, where we can stop overnight. All sorts of hand and foot actions along with ummmms and aaaahs are used for giving us the directions. During these charades, I begin to think there is no way we'll find this spot, but it's easy enough. Although it doesn't register tonight, a few days down the track it becomes apparent that like Japan, wild camping is also tolerated in Korea. Only problem here is, there is not as much free space available. It also dawns on us that the police are our one resource we can count on when outside cities. They let us use their telephone, internet and only once did they disappoint us with no information on where we could camp in the area. On that occasion though it didn't matter because there was a perfect spot up the road anyway.

Spontaneous actions and mixed feelings
The next day, we find the campsite Hwayangdong (25km; 258m) just a few kilometres further on, but not before climbing a torture hill. We are stopped just after we reach the top by an enthusiastic couple who shove a can of beer in Ali's hand, pour us both a cup of ice cold water and donate two small melons from their coolbox supplies, while babbling away in Korean to us. It's one of those moments when you realise that the world is full of good natured, kind and thoughtful people. Pity a little more thought didn't go into the tending of the campsite and it's vicinity. Firstly, it's not a particularly well equipped place and the waft of well-seasoned rubbish filters through the warm air. In fact, this is not what I'd expect from a National Park anywhere in the world and it is quite disappointing. With facilities lacking, we decide to venture on the following day. Doldonjae (59km; 965m) in the Songgye Valley in Woraksan National Park is a much better example of camping environment, but the electricity is out in any of the amenity areas that we camp in. There are no rubbish bins except for a small container in the toilets, so it's not hard to imagine what happens with everyone's refuse. A pile of rubbish sits before the wash-up on the day we leave. We have no alternative, but to add to it. I feel kind of bad but at some time in the week, someone will come and collect what is standing here. It's as though the officials here can't be bothered or something because, similarly no-one comes around to ask for the campsite fees for our entire three night stay either.

Cycling out of the park, cuckoos calls are telling me that it's no particular time of day, beautifully ornate butterflies flutter around the side of the bike, but I still have mixed feelings about the place: there is some gorgeous nature to be appreciated here, but there is still too much of a "human presence" for me to believe that this is truly a National Park. The whole area is full of farms, the military still have their flight paths directly overhead, there are way too many karaoke places for partying and the rubbish disposal system is nonexistent, which means it is everywhere. Naturally, with all this intrusion, there is little wildlife to be seen; at least when I compare the same areas in Japan. Korea might have plenty of chipmunks but other than that, the only other fauna has been in farming pens.

Police to the rescue
While our next stop, near Sinlim (90km; 840m), is not an official Chiaksan National Park campground, it is used by all the locals and perfectly clarifies my earlier observations. The rubbish left behind by its visitors is simply sad and the porta-loo facilities so disgusting I refuse to step foot inside them. And yet the spot is totally beautiful with a fast moving stream before you on a stone river bed, a peaceful grassed area with trees, private podiums and benched areas and a badminton court. We pull a picnic table closer to our tent and we are set for two nights. Normally, we wouldn't stay an extra day, but we are having problems confirming our tickets to Canada. The booking company's system and the girl in the office, has kept Ali in search of telephones and internet cafes constantly since our departure from Busan. We'll be heading into quite rural areas over the next couple of days, so with a town so close at hand, it's better to sort it out now.

Well, he at least attempts to get things sorted, but what eventuates over the next few days becomes one of those ludicrous waiting games. Initially, Ali was booked and I was on a waiting list. My flight is finally confirmed, only to find out that we can't pay for both flights on Ali's credit card. I don't have a credit card with me so, after much debate, several telephone calls and emails we can eventually pay with one card. However, they process our two tickets separately and as you would expect, the credit card company blocks the second transaction. So now I'm flying to Canada on the 16th and Ali isn't. It's the weekend by this stage, we are in the middle of no-where, it's 8 days after getting the okay for my seat on the plane and if the ticket isn't paid by Tuesday we incur and extra US$45 in fuel surcharges. We can do little else, except wait until Monday for them to try the credit card again. I mean to say how hard can it be to pay a few hundred euros with credit card over the phone? It all works out in the long run: "long" being the operative word here.

A nice thought to end the month on though: the police come to our rescue in all the villages that we pass through. Not only pointing out places where we can camp on their local area maps but offering Ali full use of their internet and telephone services for absolutely nothing. Without their kindness, we really wouldn't have been able to book, confirm and pay for our flights. Sheds a totally different light on the Korean Police force compared with what you are lead to believe in guidebooks and other published matter.

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