Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ganghwa Island (Organized by Seoul Hiking Group)

By: Asif Quadri

Date: May, 2012

Terrain: Varies in different parts, can be hilly in the interior, flat along the coast and through the rice fields.

Difficulty: 2

Trail/Path Conditions: bike trails are not in all parts, passing traffic can be aggressive despite the islands tranquil nature

Things to see: mud flats, DMZ along the north side, rice fields, coastline, quirky guesthouses

Places to eat: Convenience stores and restaurants in main settlements and beaches

Organized by: Seoul Hiking Group 

My Story:
Originally posted and adapted from :

Ganghwa island is one of the five largest islands in Korea after Jeju which is the largest. Seoul Hiking Group had arranged a bike tour of the island so I signed up to finally be able to see. The itinerary sounded quite exciting ranging from mud flats, fortresses, ancient stone dolmen, to the DMZ and North Korean border. They claimed it was a 60km bike ride but it turned out they had underestimated the actual distance.

I'd wanted to go to Ganghwa for a long time and even tried last July but had to abandon it due to bad weather. With the cost of traveling and staying in Seoul along with rain every time I came it looked like this would keep being pushed back. Even after signing up for this trip the forecast kept changing to rain for some or all of the weekend and I've had a run of bad luck with rain every time I came to Seoul. Fortunately the weather held and I was finally going to be able to visit.

I had to take a train to Seoul from Daegu first and stay overnight in a sauna. I managed to do both for approx $30 even though it could have cost more than double if I took the high speed train and stayed in a motel. The trip as well cost about $40 which included bus transportation, rental of bikes, and lunch.

There were several meet up choices for the morning and I had chosen Yongsan as it was two stops from Seoul Station and there was an overnight sauna they had recommended where I was able to stay for 12,000w ($10). They provided us with a map of where the bus would pickup.

We were told the pickup time was 7.45am but to be there 20 minutes early. We got there about quarter past seven and didn't see anyone there. Then four other westerners came by, two of whom with Canadian flags. They went into the Paris Baguette bakery and as we still had time so we went in, too. We got chatting and they said they had done other events with this group from this pickup point.  When we came out the two Americans that were there before were gone. We found this a bit odd but continued to wait with the other group of four. It was now past 8am so we thought maybe we should call the organizer.

 Morning breakfast at Paris Baguette

I called and said there were six of us waiting by Dunkin Donuts at Yongsan Station. He said the bus had already picked up and left from Yongan Station. We never saw any bus when we went into Paris Baguette. The organizer told us to take a cab to a subway station near Gimpo Airport. As we don't live in Seoul the other group of four said it would cost about 15,000w ($13.50). So the six of us went in two cabs and paid 15,000w for each cab. Fortunately, they refunded us for the price of the cab!

It took about a 90 min bus ride to get out to Ganghwa island.  When we arrived we picked out our bikes which were quite new and began cycling.

Choosing our Bikes
 Choosing Bikes

Our route would start from the southwestern side, cycle down along the south coast, and all along the eastern coast to the northern tip, DMZ, and North Korean border.

These were scenic single lane road going thru rolling hills. At one point a small dog decided to run along with the pack. He was consistent and kept going for a few kms. Hopefully he was able to make it back home. 

We went through some more hills before the land opened into more farmland as we came along the ocean. There were many rice fields being work on, as well as pension guesthouses facing the ocean. It was very tranquil and in some ways reminiscent of jeju island. Despite being just over an hour from Seoul this island was very traditional and rural with the land being worked on

Somewhat annoying were some drivers. Some would toss garbage out the window which would blow back onto us. Others would come hurtling through as though we had no right to be there. While others would creep behind us then sound their horn as loud as they could to scare us off our bikes.

When we got to the southern tip of the island it was a beach with the tide out. Some groups of kindergarten children seemed to be having a sports day in the mud playing different types of games. I thought we were breaking for lunch now but we still had about another hour to go we were told.

So we continued along the ocean trail and finally a bike path opened to separate us from the cars. There were also many motorcycle riders enjoying the country roads, dressed in their biker gear and foreign bikes. I've never seen this kind of biker culture in Korea and didn't now it existed. I wonder if they get the same treatment from the motorists on these island roads.

Many of the pensions were quite interesting and all came in their own unique styles.  We then began passing through mud flats. They were quite interesting and resembled another planet. There were several boats stranded in the mud and not sure how long they had been there and whether the tide comes this far in or not.

Finally we passed by the bridge and fortress where we had first entered the island this morning. After biking a few more kms we made it to the restaurant which was our resting point.

After our brief rest and energizing through lunch we returned back to the Ganghwa Island bike trail. This was the only chance for those that wanted to quit to switch to the bus option. We were told the total bike ride for the day was 60km and we had probably done about 25-30km in this morning's half.

Back home in Toronto I had annually done a charity 50km bike ride along the Gardner and DVP highways so didn't think 60km would be a problem. I had done that charity 50km bike ride for 5 years and could do it in just over 3 hours. I thought I should be able to handle the afternoon's portion so continued on biking instead of taking the bus.

When we left the restaurant we went along dirt tracks along the river. This was much calmer being away from traffic but didn't last for two long. The tracks ended and we had to carry our bikes past some barbed wire to go back to the road bike path.

My friend had volunteered to lead the group from the rear and keep stragglers up. Somebody had a flat and had to go back to the restaurant to change his bike. We waited about ten minutes but never saw him return. By this time the lead group was nowhere to be seen and we had no idea where to go after we came to the first intersection.

We had to call the leader to get directions as there was nobody in visible sight. This kept happening to me in the morning. Since we were not riding as a group and everyone was doing freestyle we were spread over several kms. I kept ending up having nobody in visible sight ahead and behind so kept pulling over to wait for somebody to catch up.

In fairness they would occasionally leave somebody behind as a marker but there should have been better co-ordination and biking together as a group rather stretching randomly over several kms. Later in the afternoon a group of six people took a wrong turn, were separated from the group, and had to navigate by phone with the leader and after many kms of extra biking to rejoin the group.

Start of DMZ
Start of the DMZ

Now we were at the start of the DMZ and no longer leading the rear so were able to ride with the group. We were going along the coast and began seeing barbed wire closing off the coastline. As we continued it became more of an iron wall with regular sentry booths though not manned.

It was strange that we were actually looking at North Korea, for a lot longer, and a lot more intimate than you get on the traditional DMZ tours. There Didnt seem to be any lookouts or sentries on the other side, though maybe not visible, so it would be easy to use zoom photography which is not allowed on official DMZ tours.

DMZ Barbed Wire

Barbed wire at the DMZ

The path then led us to what looked like a border crossing with sentry posts. I guess the northern most tip of the island is off limits except to local residents. The sentries would salute cars coming in and out although they did not seem official looking. Also they did not object to us taking photos, though from quite a distance to be safe.

Next to the sentry post was a fortress type observation lookout. Again this was completely unmanned unlike normal DMZ tours. You can use whatever photography and lenses you want. We could see the water separating North Korea and the barbed wire continuing in the distance.

We then headed away from the DMZ fence and along a bike path that zig zagged thru many rice fields. We almost seemed to be going in circles as there is no straight path thru the rice fields. Perhaps this part seemed a bit redundant after a while as it was lots of endless cycling.

Many of us had wanted to see the ancient Stonehenge type dolmen which the island was famous for. It was almost 6pm and I don't know if those places would still be open. After some more biking through  fields and local villages we eventually made it to the history museum.

Unfortunately we had no time to go inside. It was quite a large facility at four stories and we wouldn't have had the strength to climb the stairs and walk around. However we were able to see the stone dolmen in the museum grounds.

I was quite exhausted and found this trip to be quite strenuous. As I mentioned earlier, I have annually done a 50km bike ride back home and this was supposed to be 60km. However, I would approximate that to be more near 60-80km. I had an odometer on my bike back home and would frequently do about 30km in around two hours. We had been biking from 10am to now 6pm with a break for lunch.

I dont think any GPS mapping system to approximate the distance factored in all the winding paths through the rice fields, unnecessary detours, wrong turns, and can only calculate straight line distances. Fortunately the bus was waiting along with a truck to pick up the bikes so there was no more cycling.

Here is a list of recommendations to make the trip better next time:

There could have been a bit more better co-ordination with:
- pickup from Yongsan Station and taking a headcount
- keeping the group together instead of spread out over many kms
- providing instructions on paths to take and meeting points
- having experienced people lead the rear

Maybe they could have:
- divided us into teams and made us ride with our group instead of all being totally random.
- organize a smaller trip instead of 43 people
- have two organizers manning the trip that are familiar with the island

However, I did enjoy the cycling tour, saw more things than had I taken a local bus by myself, particularly the DMZ, and met lots of new people. They were mostly from Seoul and we were the only two that had really traveled to come here.

The Seoul Hiking Group also does a bike trip to Gyeongju twice a year to see the spring cherry blossom and fall colours, as well as overnight bike trips to Jeju. Its a good idea to join their Facebook page to be kept informed of events, which are mostly hiking, but include some other outdoor activities like paintball and rafting sometimes.

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