Have you heard of the of Gangwon? It's Korean. No, no; not Gangnam, that's just the most famous song on the Internet. Gangwon is a phenomena though; an untouched riding haven.
Gangwon-do is a province of South Korea located in the north-east. We didn't know what to think when our guide Max was euphorically enthusing about this small section of land we hadn't noticed (and certainly hadn't heard any songs about on YouTube), but we were ready to find out.
We were lucky enough to be going on a three day tour of Gangwon-do thanks to the Korean Tourism Organisation (the KTO) and maybe, just maybe, we'd end up singing about it.
We started our first day bright and sing-song early: at eight o'clock Alleykat and TanNayNay were picked up by Max of Team MaxAdventure (who's Korean name is Minook) and driven from our comfy hub in Ulsan to the almost famous Gangwon-do Provence. After a scenic road trip we turned right one last time into a little town named Yemi, where we changed into our cycling clothes and hopped on the bikes.
Our guide Max (appointed by the KTO) was an adventure tour guide and outdoor education teacher, he was bubbling, brimming, bursting with energy. After five seconds of meeting, Max had revealed himself as easy-going, engaging, and well experienced at leading tours. And, after the five hours together in the car, we were friends. We knew that he loves everything 'Korea', is passionate about sharing his country with the world, he can't get enough of 'The Great Outdoors' and by day and by night he works with anyone and everyone. We're sure even the most indoorsy type person couldn't help but be infected with his positive attitude. He was excited to be sharing his country with us, especially with the aid of a bike.
Our journey began out of Yemi – with a ride up over a nice little (big) hill after which we popped out onto a road that skirted the Dong River. Max was breath-taken. Alex was breath-taken. Kat was breath-taken. We paused and caught our collective breath then spun along the udon noodle wiggles of the river's littoral.
The roads beneath our tyres were smooth and narrow, with hardly another vehicle on them; we felt like they'd been paved just for us. The hills surrounding us were robed in leafy greenness, on the verge of fashionably changing colours with the season. We rode next to sheer cliffs, through little towns with ornate boat-like roofs carving waves in the minimalistically-farmed countryside; we journeyed most of the day over the neatly undulating river drive and were well respected on the one main road over another hill into Jeongseon. We crossed the Dong River and were greeted with a small business-lined main road, a century-old food market and a good few stares.
Dinner was a low-key affair, but the food was unbelievably good. We drank nettle-flavoured makgeolli (Korean rice wine) from small metal flasks and once our palates were suitable cleansed, we were served the region's specialities along with some Jeongseon unique fare – buckwheat 'pat' (red bean) filled dumplings, beansprout vegetable pancakes, buckwheat cabbage pancakes and buckwheat noodle soup. After we were full with kimchi and satisfaction, we sauntered off to be with the sound of the morrow, sung by a mournful family in the market, already gently chiming in our ears.
Breakfast was a kind of bibimbap (rice and vegetables) cooked in a clay pot with secret herbs and spices: we loved the ceremony with which Koreans eat their meals – kimchi and a collection of condiments compliment every meal perfectly, adding flavours, heat, spices and cleansing the mouth. We were never disappointed at meal times!
We set off at a only-less-than-cracking pace, noting snakes dead and spiders alive on the side of the rolling river road. Before long, as Max had noted, the road changed its tone; no longer smoothly salubrious but instead rocky river crossings and roads entirely swept away by the rhythmic wearing of water. The water was pleasantly tempered, shockingly see-through and high thanks to the recent typhoon. There was more carrying and pushing than riding for a good five kilometres!
We knew we were in for plenty of beautiful scenery, good and less-travelled cycling routes and possibly a friend or two; but we certainly weren't excepting to bump into a piece of Melbourne art hanging from a tiny veranda, nor the cosy home-cum-hostel that the international art and veranda was attached to.
Kilometres away from anywhere, along un-drivable roads, exists this little home of nirvana: a cafe run by Jungsun and Seonhwa, two alpinists in love with the peace they found in the Doksanki Valley. Perfect timing for a tea break, a chat and some future riding recommendations for Jeju riding and then we were off again. The road rejoined us and threw us a curved ball: a snake-like switchback to climb the mountain ahead of us. The decent was worth the strained back!
Korea isn't just a place for cycling, her natural beauty is more than skin-deep: it extends into the ground as we found when we travelled hundreds of metres into the rock in a abandoned-mine-turned-cave-experience complete with monorail.
A gentle dusting of russet red seemed to have alighted on the trees, autumnal colours lead us around our route and up to some healing and healthy mineral springs. We three supped on nature's health-giving gifts, the water was thick with medicinal minerals, metallic in flavour – we could feel it doing us good. More riding up and down gentle and not-so-gentle mountains lead us into Gohan. Dinner was cabbage-leaf dumplings stuffed with an array of vegetables, rice and of course slow-roasted black pork (for the meat eaters).
On the third and final day of the trip, as we ascended our trip's longest climb, a conversation with Max about the future of this region made one thing clear: it is perfect for cycle tourism. Since mining ceased decades ago, the towns have found it really hard to survive and we can't help but feel that adventure tourism could pave the (mountainous) road to survival. All over Korea this season it is hard not to notice the bright yellow, red, orange… purple and pink of the hi-tech hiking equipment on every Korean from two to 102 years olds. This culture is willing and ready to invest their time and spend big on adventure tourism.
Our conversation stopped for two reasons as we hit the highest point of one of the highest roads in Korea; the view was spectacular and the wind was bending trees like bananas. Moving on quickly, the road turned to dirt and we descended like madmen. It was fun watching our bikes bounce underneath us at high speeds – how great it is to be alive! Buzzing past the trees, it's hard to believe Gangwon-do is almost untouched when you consider the sheer number of Koreans spread over such a small country.
Looking down beside us, as we paused to have a snack, was a valley deeper than our eyes could see. A quiet moment of reticence was shared with Max where we both appreciated how insignificant we were in this part of the world, before bombing down the next section of trail. Max was squeaking with excitement as he kept close check on his speed, making sure to ride within his ability.
A road closure stopped us in our tracks a little further through the forest. We were forced to take a larger paved road, but the Gangwon-do had a surprise for us at the bottom. We had found the autumn tree alight with fiery red which set the benchmark for all trees in the region!
Oppan Gangwon Style!
On our way home we ate one last bibimbap and regretted leaving the Gangwon-do province behind us so soon. We sang along to some K-Pop and indeed, joyfully serenaded Gangwon-do as musically as Max.