The 4 rivers cycle route in Korea (we only saw 2…)

As with Japan, we never planned to go to Korea. Until we read that there is an amazing network of mostly off-road, paved cycle routes that cross costs and one of these runs almost the length of the country from Busan in the south, where the ferry from Japan arrives, and Seoul in the north, from where we could fly to New Zealand. Sold. We were going to Korea. The morning we left Japan our AirBnB host had some words of advice. As with most conversations we had in Japan, he talked into his phone in Japanese and showed us the English translation. “Don’t cross the border by mistake”. We laughed. He laughed too. Then he repeated it. Even without his advice, we were pretty sure we’d be staying firmly in South Korea. As soon as we got on the ferry we realised how quiet Japan had been. The ferry, full of Koreans, was loud, and people were shouting and bustling about in a way that was not very Japanese. We found our cabin, which contained 12 cubby holes with futons and a blanket. Half of our roomies were asleep already. We realised Koreans were using plug adaptors for their phones. Hmm so we would have to buy adaptors before we could charge anything in Korea. We realised we didn’t really know much about the country we were about to arrive in. A quick google had search told us that Koreans drive on the right (Japan is left). Good to know.


It was dark when we arrived in Busan. The port area was impressive, and the ferry terminal itself very like Japan, right down to the fancy toilets and the 7/11. As we were foot passengers we had to walk the loaded bikes a long way, and for the first and maybe last time, took them on a moving sidewalk. Stepping outside however was quite the culture shock. We had a 15km ride to our warm showers host, and this was not fun. No bike lanes but only big, fast roads. We stuck to the pavement but it was slow going around all the pedestrians and people selling fruit off the floor. There was a lot of litter and a grubby feel to the city. Korea was different. Our route took us alongside a beach – one thing Busan is famous for is nice beaches – and the waterfront area was full of people having a Saturday evening stroll. It was the 5th November and there were fireworks. We never worked out if this was in honour of Mr Fawkes or just another Saturday night in Busan.


The next nine days were spent cycling the 650 kilometres between Busan and Seoul on the 4 rivers cycle route. It is quite an amazing piece of cycling infrastructure – paved, mostly off-road, mostly well-maintained, loads of facilities on the route (toilets, tool stations, shelters etc). And, as you would imagine when following rivers, mostly flat. Until it isn’t, and then it’s crazy steep. Every now and then the flat path moves away from the river, takes you up a short steep hill (usually 12-20% grade), and then you plummet back down the other side back to the river. There’s a 100km stretch in the middle when you leave one river and climb over a pass to get to the next river but that was nowhere near as strenuous as the short sharp bits.

Mostly great cycling infrastructure….

There are bike bridges, bike tunnels, and even on the road, separate bike lanes. And there are regular ‘certification stations’ in old phone boxes where you can stamp each location on your cycling passport (or if like me you didn’t get a cycling passport, a piece of paper). So all you need to do to get from one end of the country to the other by bike is follow the arrows.

….but not always.

We did wonder if this would get a bit boring, and to be honest the first couple of days were a bit drab – Busan was ugly and went on for ages, and even beyond the city, it was all quite built up. As with Japan, Korea doesn’t seem to do visually appealing cities. So the view was often ugly grey high rise towers and industrial buildings. But this petered out eventually and after those first couple of days the scenery picked up, the sun came out, and life was all good. Riding on a bike route for all that time didn’t lose its novelty at all. Being away from the traffic was great. And autumn was in full swing, so the colours were spectacular.


Autumn also brought us a return to cold camping, last year at this time we were having some chilly nights in the tent in Europe, and Korea beat that. Our third night was the coldest, as we woke up to find everything covered with a thick layer of frost, including the bike computers. After de-icing it we could read that it said -6 (Celsius). Brrr. A great excuse to eat chocolate in your sleeping bag though.



The next couple of nights we escaped into motels. This included a motel with bike lockers on the ground floor, and our first love motel experience. After hearing about these ‘by the hour’ motels in Japan we were expecting seedy and run down, but this was modern, clean and excellent for the cyclist. Loads of space, a big bed, nicely decorated, a desktop computer, a huge bath, free toiletries, a personal garage to store the bikes…. (which was also useful for cooking dinner on the trangia). Everything is a bit secretive in that it is designed for you to drive in, park in a garage, take a private entrance to a room, check in automatically and pay by credit card without being seen by another human being. For us it was a perfect and fairly cheap way to get a good warm sleep.


Camping was easy as there are lots of parks and shelters just off the bike path and nobody seems to care about foreigners just pitching up anywhere. So after two nights of motel luxury we returned to the tent, and a couple of nights later realised that we were not that crazy camping in the cold after all. It was a Saturday night and we came across a camping area on an island in the middle of the river. It was packed. There must have been at least 80 other tents – families, young couples, groups – in November. In Europe you would struggle to find an open campsite, never mind anyone brave enough to camp. There were a few gas heaters visible, but as it was a walk-in campground, not many luxuries. Other than an ability to camp in all weathers, the other thing we learnt about Korean campers was their ability to maximise a weekend away camping. On our first night we pitched our tent at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon at a fairly full campground just outside Busan. An hour later we were cooking dinner and realised a few people were packing up, including our neighbours who were in the middle of a full on BBQ when we arrived. By 6pm it was dark, and more people were packing up. We woke up the next morning to two other tents left. If you go camping for the weekend with some Koreans, don’t expect to be home until late on Sunday night. And take an extra jumper.


We only really left the bike route to find food. This in itself was quite an experience. Somehow we only managed to end up in places where there were no pictures on the menu, just Korean. The first time we managed to order the only thing we knew how to say, bibimbap (fried rice and veg), with success. At the next place, when we were asked what we wanted to order we just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. This didn’t result in an order being taken, so I mimed that I’d like to look in the kitchen, after being shown a couple of huge pots of broth and meat I picked one and pointed at some rice too. We were a bit concerned when the first thing that arrived was a plate with tongs and a pair of scissors on it but luckily this was shortly followed by a bowl of seolleongtang (oxbone soup) and a demonstration of cutting the meat off the bone with the scissors provided. And many other small bowls of food including the tiniest fish I have ever seen and the usual kimchi (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). As we were finishing off the soup we were brought a tray of spicy meat. It seemed that the only foreigners in town should also try bulgogi (grilled marinated meat), with more demonstrations of how to eat it (take a lettuce leaf, put in a bit of meat, some sauce and a bit of rice, in the middle, wrap it up and shove it in your mouth). It was a bit spicy for me so I put a bit of extra rice in and was promptly told off with a good strong strike to the arm. It was lots of fun.


Continuing some themes from Japan, we saw more model people and bad English translations. In contrast to Japan, the vast majority of other cyclists we saw were recreational, usually on flashy road or mountain bikes. People didn’t seem to ride functionally (at least not in November, maybe they are all busy camping). We enjoyed that the bike path cycling outfit consists of covering as much skin as possible. As it got colder we realised the sense in this, and adjusted our clothing accordingly.

Cycle trail buddies. The tall guy in the middle is a famous Korean actor. He has 1.8 million instagram followers, so he must be famous.


The bike path was fairly well used, particularly considering the temperatures, and as we approached Seoul on a Sunday afternoon we were weaving in and out of families, racers, and tourists taking selfies or falling off. Before we knew it we were in Seoul. It looked to be a cool city to explore but as we spent our whole day there hunting for bike boxes ready to pack the bikes for the flight, we only explored the bike shop scene. And became well versed in the subway system. This usually simple task was actually very difficult in Seoul as shops have limited space so don’t keep empty boxes longer than a few minutes. We must have visited 20 bike shops, split up at one point to cover different parts of the city, and ended up with 5 boxes, only one of which was full size. Our last night in Korea was spent eating a huge meal at the market for the equivalent of £2.50 and then dismantling our bikes in the narrow hostel corridor. Cycle touring isn’t all glamour.

Korea was fun. Being off the road was great, and the scenery on the whole was pretty nice (if not wow). Ten days was maybe long enough for us on the bike route, but there are attractions you could divert to if you wanted to spend longer in the country. Sticking to a cycle path gave us a certain perspective of Korea – spend more time in towns and cities and I’m sure it would be different. We highly recommend the 4 rivers cycle route, certainly if done in conjunction with a trip to Japan. Though we are not sure where the other two rivers went as we definitely only cycled along two.


Next stop New Zealand!

Thanks to Chris in Busan; and Jess and Tim for the (fake) chocolate digestives.

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We caught the Katy

Along the route of an old train line, the Katy Trail is the longest rails-to-trails bike route in the USA. It was a big change from riding Route 66. Less cars, burgers and neon, more trees and wildlife. I had an important internal radio change, Chuck Berry to the Blues Brothers. Both great songs that became a little annoying after a couple of days. 

Having visited the Lewis and Clark Centre on the banks of the Mississippi we would now be following the intrepid duo as their Corps of Discovery journeyed up the Missouri River. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, Lewis was selected to lead the expedition to find navigable trade routes through the West. He in turn recruited William Clark and the two led a band of merry men on a testing two year trip to the Pacific and back. 

Old railway bridgeon the Katy Trail

Similarly intrepid, on the first afternoon on our well-surfaced and fit-for-purpose bike path, I scared myself by riding over a snake assuming it to be a stick. It was black and over a metre long. We would meet a lot of wildlife on the trail, especially where it was sandwiched between bluffs and the huge Missouri River. It was mostly scenic, mostly flat and has plenty of accommodation options so makes a great trip should you be in the area with a bike. We camped at a ball park and watched some intensely supported softball, and loved the Turner Shelter in Tebbetts. The snake incident inspired the invention of a new on-the-road game and there were information boards every 10-15 miles, so the Katy Trail kept our interest for it’s 240 mile length. 

Wildlife on the trail. Yes I know there are rabbits everywhere but everything else moved too quick for a photo!
Cycling alongside the Missouri river – bit easier than Lewis and Clarke found it

A fun day off in Columbia meant that one of our days in Missouri coincided with the eclectic Pedaller’s Jamboree, a cycling and music festival that moves along a thirty mile stretch of the trail. Invited to join some locals for the day, we shared the path with 3000 cyclists, including any number of tandems, papier maîche animal-ed bikes and inventive ways to carry beer. 

Margheritas, bikes, music and good company at pedjam

As the cycling got more wayward and the falls more frequent we left the revellers and continued west, arriving to camp in a small and seemingly deserted town. At the park we met English cyclist Nigel, and found out why the town was empty. Everyone was at either a 60th wedding anniversary or a birthday party, or it might have been a 60th birthday and a wedding party, both of which were in earshot of the park. The birthday wrapped up early, but the wedding celebrations carried on into the car park courtesy of car radios, and eventually (worryingly) drove away. So Jo and Nigel told me. I was asleep.

Sunday was the least scenic and most hilly trail day, but the turtles, frogs and snakes still kept us on our toes. They were also some great stories on the info boards, including some underhand tactics by the the Katy builders to win the race to Indian territory against a rival railroad. They employed spies and disrupted the others progress by a number of methods. The best of these was sending an ‘official’ stocked with drink supplies to tell the rivals crews their construction was complete and it was time to party. The aftermath of the celebrations cost several days work time and the Katy company took the lead and the right to build the railroad through the territory.


We didn’t have a party, but we did eat a lot of pasta at the end of the trail in Clinton. Our final day in Missouri was the seemingly mythical Memorial Day. Since we have been in the USA people have kept telling us that things (attractions/campsites/shops/roads) will be open after Memorial Day. It was finally here and everything was closed for it. Alanis would see the irony I’m sure. It was a beautiful day of rolling hills, swamps, rivers and only two scary storms to hide from. We enjoyed some great company and pork chops in the evening. From the Museum that wasn’t to a bike party day via a wildlife-d trail Missouri was a lot of fun. A sign told us that we had entered Tornado Alley and we hoped to avoid a trip to Oz as we continued West and into Kansas.

Trying to out-ride the storms

Thanks to: The Turner Shelter, Adrienne, Adam, Loki & everyone, Ian, Ellen and the Jamboree crew, Kelly and Delora.

Motoring across Michigan

Before entering Michigan we weren’t quite sure what to expect from the state. Other than Detroit and Flint, where we were not planning to go, and miles of shoreline, which we were keen to sample at least some of, we had no idea what to expect as we crossed West. What we got were super friendly people (continuation of a theme) and miles of quality off-road bike trails that were converted rail lines. Well done Michigan. Oh and the lake shore is nice too.

Just us popping over to the USA then

It was a short ferry ride from Canada to the USA and we were the only people on the boat. This hindered us a little at US customs as it gave them the time to double and triple check everything in our passports and ask us as many questions as they wanted. Eventually we were let out of the door into the pouring rain and made the short ride to our warm showers host who happened to own and live above a great little restaurant. Time to cash in my birthday treat – beer and burgers – safe in the knowledge that we only had to walk upstairs afterwards. 

Birthday burger treat

The next morning, after hearing that we were once given lucky rocks that we then felt obliged to carry on our bikes, Cheryl gave us lucky bananas instead as a more useful gift of luck. Much appreciated. We set off, took a wrong turn, turned back to find the road we should have been on, found it was gravel, so turned back to where we were before we turned back. At this point we stood and ate our lucky bananas a little disappointed in their power so far. 

Lucky bananas? Give us time….

But the day picked up, we had the wind at our backs and joined together bike routes that took us West. With no plans of where to stay that evening, after starting bike trail number 3 of the day we noticed some activity under a marquee, a baseball game and a BBQ. Following our noses we ended up at a private boys school freshman event, there was loads of food left so we were told by the school nurse to sit and watch the game and have a hot dog. The assistant principal had cycled across the country 20 years ago so we got chatting to him and he invited us to camp on the school grounds. Not any old school grounds of course, they had their own lake, grotto, and perfectly mown grass. Yes we would like that a lot. Ten minutes later the school nurse returned with an improved offer – would we like a dorm room instead? Yes, we would like that even more. After being shown to our room we went for a walk around the school grounds and returned ready to cook some pasta on the stove only to find two meals boxed up for us waiting outside our door. Sitting watching the sun set over the lake and eating chicken and pork with our dorm room waiting we thanked our lucky bananas at how the evening had turned out.

Thank you lucky bananas!

The next couple of days continued in much the same fashion – good bike routes, not so good roads (including my least favourite, the horizontal-crack-every-ten-metres which involves the whole weight of the bike jarring first through the upper body as the front wheel runs over it followed a split second later by the same jolt through the backside). The friendliness continued. Sheltering from a thunderstorm under a gas station forecourt we were offered three lifts and a place to stay during 30 minutes and got chatting to a guy who was about to visit Europe for the first time and had concerns about whether he could use the term fanny pack. We said probably not. Debs had to explain why, good job we had a teacher on hand to clear that up.

The calm after the storm

Three days riding got us to Portage, home of Debs’ old friend Tracy and her two boys. We had a great weekend off the bikes playing capture the flag, soccer, battleships, and old arcade games at an actual arcade. We cooked hot dogs and s’mores over a fire and were sad to leave. 

Thanks for the relaxing weekend 🙂

Kal Haven trail

Our route 40 miles all the way to Lake Michigan took us on probably the best bike trail of the lot, the Kal Haven route, nice packed gravel, cheery people and loads of wildlife (though we had to be careful to avoid the suicidal chipmunks that run across in front of the wheels). Before we knew it we were on the shores of one of the Great Lakes watching the waves wondering how this is not the sea. That night we camped at a state park by the shore. The lack of bears so far on the trip meant we were a little casual over food and we woke to find a whole pack of tortillas had been half eaten. Half of every tortilla that is, I don’t know why the (assumed) squirrel couldn’t have carefully pulled the top few out of the pack to eat whole rather than digging into every single one. There were also a surprising number of torn mint tea bags amongst the scene of destruction, I can only imagine it’s disappointment scratching around in the pannier for food only to keep pulling out tea bags. As we packed up that morning we were on the lookout for a fat squirrel with minty fresh breath.

One big bit or many small ones?

The fifth day of riding took us into Indiana (state number 6) for a night camping on the National Lakeshore. We cooked up our typical exciting pasta dinner on the camp stove by the lake and watched the sun set over Chicago – the closest we would get to the city. Not a bad way to end the day, We have cranked up our daily average to around 75 miles given what lies ahead in the mid west – very little if we believe what we are told. Next up for us is a few days riding south west on old Route 66. 50s kitsch, old school diners and Cars (Disney Pixar) memorabilia awaits!

Sunset over the Chicago skyline

Thanks to Cheryl; Orcard Lake St Mary’s High School; Scott, Karen and family; and Tracy, Ben and Levi.

Just because Google says it’s a road, doesn’t mean it’s a road. (Or, why it took us so long to get to Granada)

Turns out Spain is a pretty big country. On leaving Barcelona, our next must-visit destination was Granada, with some 900 or so kms to ride in between and no obvious route to follow to get there. After sticking to the coast for the first week, we decided to leave the Brits and the other Northern Europeans driving their motorhomes around the Spanish Costas and ride inland to Granada across El Altiplano, a huge and desolate inland plateau mostly over 1000m (England’s highest peak Scafell Pike is 978m to give some context).

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Climbing up to the Altiplano. A mild winter meant that the almond trees were in blossom in January

For a couple of days we rode on fairly big but quiet roads with a good shoulder, before reaching a point where the main road turned into an autopista (not a motorway but near enough to rarely allow bikes). I’d seen this on the map, but read online that if bikes are not allowed on a particular autopista “a viable alternative must be provided”. Google seemed to think we could ride either on or close to the road. So we assumed that either we could ride it or there would be a service road alongside that we could use. And there was. But the Spanish really need to think about the word “viable” (maybe it was lost in translation). First we were on a small road that served farms just off the A92. It was paved but patched badly, but the worst thing was that it went like this /\/\/\/\ while the A92 went like this ———. Knackering. Sitting having lunch on a kerb at a petrol station we cursed the road and hoped it would improve in the afternoon. Instead it turned to gravel….

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Ah, gravel… not a touring cyclists best friend (not ours anyway)

It’s difficult to describe the pain inside of riding on a road that goes up and down sharply, made of small stones at best, large stones at worse, and occasionally just a muddy track, when just your shoulder, the other side of a fence, is a flat, smooth road with a huge shoulder and hardly any traffic. Moral of the story…. Don’t trust Google to map you a bike route.

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Ah, smooth and empty tarmac… shame we were confined to the gravel strip to the left

Despite the brain shaking and the snail paced progress, there were some good points. The scenery was immense. Deserts, mountains, emptiness as far as you could see, this could not have been more different from the built up coastal riding. At the end of the first day of gravel, we were trying to find a the seven bedroom house we had booked for the night (sometimes we need our own space) which was in the middle of nowhere and Google cranked our off-road adventure up a notch by sending us on what can only be described as a sheep track through a canyon. Several hours later than planned we found ourselves out of sight of the A92 riding through scenery that could have been the moon trying to find the damn house but it was an incredible place to be – proper desert, no cars (unsurprisingly), no sounds, the type of adventure that gravel roads should bring.

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Definitely not a road… finding our way through the Baza desert

On arrival we were shown around each of the seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and three living rooms in our house for the night, the fire was lit, and as we cooked a slap up dinner of pasta and something I couldn’t quite rest as the feeling of being bounced around had set into my bones in the same way your body feels like it is swaying when you get off a long boat trip.

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Seven bedrooms was slightly overkill when all we wanted to do was sit as close to the fire as possible

After a second day of bone shaking, which didn’t seem quite so bad as we were at least prepared for it, we suddenly dropped down into another canyon. This time the track was sand but orange rock surrounded us and we twisted around rock formations, past cave houses and through gorges for the last hour of the day as the sun set. Damn you Google for even suggesting this might be a road but the backdrop was incredible.

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Finally we returned to the smooth, heavenly tarmac for the last day into Granada, excited at being able to ride over 10km/hr and not having to stop every five minutes for an ass break. Although the days were warm on the high ground, the temperature dropped with the sun and was below freezing overnight; my bike computer read 0 degrees at 8am that morning. But the stunning scenery again made up for any complaints as we skirted the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountain range, and the winding nature of the road meant that traffic remained light until we got close to the city.

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Approaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range
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That small blob is Debs… small people, big scenery

With smooth tarmac under our wheels, jam sandwiches for fuel, snowy mountains over one shoulder and Granada, one of the few places on our European must-see list finally within our reach, the gravel tracks faded into an adventurous memory and Google was almost forgiven. Almost.

Thanks to Pascual in Albatera; Nacho and family in Velez-Rubio; Rudi in Benalua de Guadix; and the Sierra de Baza ranger who drew us a highly detailed map and spoke in very slow Spanish to try and help us stay on the best of the gravel tracks….