Current Location: Seoul, South Korea (8th April, 2005)
Km Cycled: 9, 024
Km to Home: 30, 976 (approx)
“See China right in front of you” (Bono)
“You will be the same person in ten years as you are today, apart from the books you read and the people you meet” (anon.) [I don’t really agree with this one, but it is an interesting thought]
Riding through southern Japan in March, life began to feel easier again. No more lethal icy roads, no more persistent (but friendly) Russian drunkards, no more tight visa deadlines. In fact, it was rather pleasant cycling from one friendly host to the next. A stimulating evening spent with a hospitable academic, an enthusiastic student, or a budding entrepreneur… interspersed by equally pleasant “nights off” in my tent.
For my final week in Japan, I met Al again, and one night we rode out of the tunneled mountains, and down into the beautiful coastal city of Nagasaki. Standing on the edge of a hillside concrete memorial, I strained to imagine the day when the “noiseless flash” made Nagasaki infamous. The atom bomb (about a week after the Hiroshima bomb) flattened a large part of the city, instantly killing over 75,000 people, with as many again dying in the aftermath. And now, except for the memorials, you could not tell. Nagasaki is a lovely city. Did the bomb really need to be dropped to end the war swiftly… I don’t know?
I really enjoyed my time in Japan, but it was now time to leave. As Al set sail for China, I found myself on a boat bound for South Korea, a five hour voyage away. South Korea is one of those places dwarfed by its neighbors. There is a saying that “when whales fight, shrimp get broken”. China, Japan, Russia, and (across a big Ocean) America, have all fought over and inflicted harm on the peninsula – it is easy to forget Korea has an identity all of its own. The superficial resemblance to Japan however, is quickly undone. Even on the ferry I began to notice strange happenings… a husband slapping his wife’s bottom (very unJapanese thing to do in public!), men having a noisy conversation (again – in public, not drunk!), children running smack bang into me and not apologizing profusely (I was shocked!). The streets of Busan port bustle as Japan never bustled… noisy cars, tasty smells, vibrant crowds.
During pleasant stop offs with kind hosts in coastal towns, I was able to sample Korean food. The dish I most relished was dog stew. Now, whilst I do actually love dogs when I get to know them in their domestic capacity, I must also point out to non-cyclists – that cyclists and dogs have a long history of war and enmity. It is a rare and noble and strange beast which does not hurl itself into a frenzy of vicious barking and chasing when it smells/hears/sights me. After enjoying a meal of the tasty (if stringy) dog myself, I find I am now able to reply to snarling roadside dogs with the words: “yes, you look very tasty yourself actually!” That cheers me up enormously!
As I turned north, I was joined for a couple of days by another cyclist – Sebastian from Germany. I had heard of Seb before in e-cyclists folklore (he has the rather memorable email address of madseb77 or something like that). He began his wildman cyclist lifestyle by pullng off the impressive feat of cycling from Damascus to Cape Town on 15 dollar Chinese bike. Amongst other adventures, Seb has since cycled in Iraq, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Actually, besides the occasional rock throwing battle with thieves in Afghanistan, Seb was remarkably unscathed, cheerful and in fact – sane!
Having learnt more about back country riding from such an expert, I continued towards Seoul. It is enjoyably peaceful to have the time and leisure to stay away from main roads. Progress is slower – but how nice to ride along dusty farm tracks, through wooded valleys, and under clean blue skies … how peaceful and pleasant… ahhh…. that is until over a hundred tanks and lorries rumble their way past on their way to the annual wargames (hopefully not war preparations) in the hills.
The other reason for staying on the back roads is that it increases your life expectancy. In Japan, there is a wise and commendable law stating that should a bicyclist be hit by an automobile – the fault always will be laid on the driver. In Korea there is no such law. In fact, the most well accepted rule of the road seems to be “perform maneuver first… and then take a look and see what you managed to hit/strike down”. So Koreans are amusingly bad at driving… amusing that is until, as you cycle dreamily and merrily through a quiet village, a big truck reverses into you, knocking you off and coming frighteningly close to squashing both you and your bicycle. A close shave is sometimes not a bad thing to heighten awareness and remind us of mortality.
And now I am in Seoul. The adjective which continually springs to my mind when I think of Seoul, is “grey”. The buildings all seem to be grey, cars are black, white or silver (giving a kind of grey feeling), the clothes people wear are grey (or that’s what jumps into my mind now)… even the air is grey. There are lots of neon signs and exciting shopping streets (if you like shopping), but to me it feels just… grey!
I counted 13 lanes here in Seoul… and still not enough
The most out of the ordinary tourist attraction of South Korea is its border with North Korea. Since the full on war of the 1950s, the two halves have continued to point guns (a lot of) at each other – across a 4 km wide area of no-man’s land known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Specialist Pipkin (or something like that) from the US army was our tour guide. In our briefing he ordered us: do not to communicate with North Korean soldiers in any way, do not take photos unless told, and do not to go to the toilet unless it is a “must go” situation! We were marched into the truce village which lies exactly on the border – and into the hut where occasional negotiations between the two sides take place. Ever so briefly we were allowed to stand in North Korea. We also visited the infiltration tunnels built from the North, which were fortunately discovered before they were used to mount a surprise invasion. There are thought to be at least nine more undiscovered tunnels.
The propaganda battle raged around us all day. There is a flagpoles contest in progress with the North Korean flagpole, over 150 meters tall, said to be the winner. The more overt propaganda is being gradually turned down… until last year the North Koreans used speakers to blast out news of paradise in their Communist utopia… the South Koreans beamed messages written in light onto the night sky proclaiming “WE HAVE RICE”. Of course, everything I am writing is based on propaganda from the South. I do wonder what life is really like just 50 km north of here… but, quite strangely in this age of information, no one seems to really know. I found it all quite moving – how would I feel if my own country was split down the middle by the wars of giants – and northerners in England suddenly became my deadly enemies? On this journey I have now visited the Gulags of Siberia, an atomic target in Japan and the civil war focus of Korea. What is the next place of mourning…? Homo est lupi homini (man is a wolf to man, I think).
The world’s biggest flagpole (North Korea)
Whilst this soldier (he is real, not waxwork) stands astride the border, here I am in the North
On a more positive note, I was intrigued to experience the churches of Korea. In Japan it was not unusual for me to walk into a service attended by less than 10 (or even 5) people. The Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, meanwhile, holds seven services each Sunday, with each of these attended by 32,000 people (on the central campus alone). It is still growing at an extraordinary rate and amazingly well organized – the bread and wine was distributed in under 5 minutes. Whilst in England it is a miracle to find all church seats full, in Korea, it seems, it is a miracle to find a seat empty. Of course, such mega churches have their critics, and theories abound as to the reasons for their growth. Personally, I have found my time spent with Korean Christians richly heartening.
As I now brace myself for China, I have been trying to lighten the load I carry on the bike. After posting home my cold weather gear, my main extra burden seems to be books! At one point in Japan I was carrying nineteen books, and although at times I manage to read and pass them on, I just keep gathering more again… I have still not had the guts to start my one kilogram tome which is “war and peace” (carried from Siberia)… perhaps the life of a lonely cyclist is not quite such joyful simplicity as I had thought!
“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need: a homely home and simple pleasures; one or two friends (worth the name); someone to love and someone to love you; a cat, a dog and a pipe or two; enough to eat and enough to wear; and a little more than enough to drink… for thirst is a dangerous thing.”
(Jerome K Jerome, 3 men in a boat)