Best cycling in Seoul
September 22, 2008 was a ground-shaking date for Korea: that day, Lee Myung-bak, the be-suited -- and rather nervous-looking -- president of the republic wobbled to work on a bicycle. Ground shaking?
In a metropolis in which the big, black, chauffeur-driven gas-guzzler is de rigeur for the rich, the powerful and all aspirants to riches and power, bicycles have never quite cut it. For decades, Seoul’s cycles were mostly clunky machines used as delivery vehicles by market traders unable to afford motorcycles.
Lee is no funkster, but he is a trendsetter: his flagship achievement as Seoul mayor was tearing down an express overpass and replacing it with a pedestrian-friendly stream in the city’s heart; his favored presidential buzzwords are “green growth.”
Such things put quality-of-life -- previously a non-issue in a country that prioritized economic growth above all else and where the “palli-palli” (“faster, faster”) syndrome sent the national blood pressure soaring -- on Korea’s agenda.
Bicycle shops are sprouting city-wide; City Hall has committed to pave 760 kilometers of bike paths, and nearly 10 million people in Korea now own at least one bicycle. And once the government follows through with its plans to connect bicycle paths along the four major rivers, cyclists will be able to travel to almost anywhere in the country.
So what is the best bike-scape in Seoul?
For Tour de France wannabes, Seoul’s mountain highways are appropriate challenges. For less masochistic souls, the 41.4-kilometer track running along the south bank of the Han River is recommended. Arguably the finest section is the six-kilometer stretch between Yeouido –- the island which is Seoul’s financial center -- and Banpo Bridge: it is set well back from the highway roar, boasts well-paved surfaces and offers views of some iconic modern architecture.
Don’t let non-ownership of a bicycle dissuade you: adults’ and children's bikes are available to rent for ₩3,000 per hour; tandems for ₩15,000 per hour. From Yeoinaru Subway Station, rental stands are outside the riverside entrance to the pedestrian tunnel that links Yeouido Park to the waterfront, or in the park itself, near its vast concrete plaza. (The plaza, incidentally, is all that remains of Seoul’s first airfield; it is allegedly maintained as a helicopter evacuation zone for the nearby National Assembly in the event of a North Korea-related emergency).
And off you go
Start in front of the Yeouido Park tunnel and drink in the crisp breeze. The riverbank here is a broad complex of paths, reflective pools and lawns, dotted with public art, convenience stores and loos. Kite flyers fly kites, strollers stroll, joggers jog, picnickers picnic, and of course, cyclists cycle.
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There is one sight worth seeing two kilometers west: Seoul’s spanking-new marina. This slick, steel-and-glass construction sits in an enclosed pool and offers a waterfront restaurant and yacht hire; inland looms the green dome of the National Assembly. A narrow river-side path is popular with fishermen.
Then head back east. The 63 Building (for decades, Seoul’s tallest at 249 meters tall) is worth catching at sunset, when its bronze frontage mirrors the fiery orange dazzle -- hence some compare it to a giant cigarette lighter. Just past the 63 Building is a small, beach-like inlet.
On the right, under a road bridge, is a side-path along a stream that winds around the back of Yeouido. Originally wasteland, this has been bio-modeled into grassland, with walking tracks and hi-tech pedestrian bridges.
But continue east on the main track. Crowds thin, and the track runs right alongside the Han; lookout points and pavilions offer views over jet-skis, yachts and the endless apartment clusters, back-dropped by mountains, of the north bank.
Six kilometers along brings you to a leisure area -– a park, children’s playgrounds, sports pitches -- fronting Seoul’s floating islands, barges that resemble tethered UFOs. Weekend performances of traditional and modern music are common at the plaza here. The track continues east, but the ride here and back to Yeouido, is enough for most.
And guess what? Even sedate cyclists will probably be moving faster than the drivers stuck in the endless jam crawling along the adjacent Olympic Expressway.
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