Meetup.com Weekend Biking Trip

April 22, 2009 at 3:16 pm (Uncategorized)

The doldrums of winter have finally passed, and with April comes warmer weather, beautiful sunny days, and lots of reasons to get out of Seoul!  In a matter of a week or so we moved from sweaters and winter jackets straight into shorts and t-shirts (well, at least for Dave).  Korea’s version of spring is similar to Canada – one day it’s cold, then the next day it’s hot.  One thing Korea is known for is the massive country-wide blooming of millions upon milions of cherry trees.  We had been told it was quite the sight to behold, and had been anxiously awaiting a trip that would allow us to enjoy the experience. 

The Travel and Culture Group we joined on Meetup.com planned a great trip during the weekend of April 4th and 5th, 2009 to head to the east coast for a two-day bike tour.  Dave and I jumped on board, joined by our friends Angela and Anthony.  Our intended destination was a small city on the southeast coast of Korea called Gyeongju (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeongju), a very popular tourist area known for its extensive cherry blossoms during springtime. 

Originally the trip organizer, William, planned on renting one bus for 40 people, but the response he received was so overwhelming that he ended up renting a second bus.  In total we had almost 80 people on board for the trip!  The organizers on Meetup.com provide their time without receiving any compensation, and have to deal with the aggravation and complaints that can arise when trip details fall apart – as an event coordinator in my Canadian life I have a lot of respect for what these people do.  Organizing and running a trip like this is not an easy feat to pull off in your free time!

The plan was to meet up at Seocho station in Seoul at 10:30pm on Friday night and to head out by 11pm.  Of course there were stragglers who didn’t arrive until after 11, so our departure was delayed…getting 80 people to do anything at the same time is almost impossible.  Before our arrival we were given the choice of which bus we wanted to take – the “party bus” or the “quiet bus” – ideally I wanted to go on the “not-a-raging-kegger-but-not-an-AARP-convention” bus, but that wasn’t an option.  Party bus, here we come!

The people on the party bus took the moniker to heart, and brought tons of booze for the three hour trip from Seoul to Daegu, where we would spend the night before continuing into Gyeongju.  Cheers went up all through the bus as we left Seoul, and the drinkers settled in quite quickly to their business.  I definitely don’t have a problem with drinking, but these people were just stupid.  They obviously had very little foresight, because they failed to take into consideration that drinking + riding on a bus with no bathroom + 3 hour non-stop trip = disaster.  Within an hour they were begging the poor bus driver to pull over so they could pee, and their complaints grew louder as the trip continued.  It was pitiful.  The bus driver finally got the hint and stopped at a rest station, and the drunken revelers made a mad dash for the bathrooms.  I think they learned their lesson because the drinking cooled down substantially after that 🙂

We arrived in Daegu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daegu) at about 3:30 in the morning, and we were all anxious for a good night’s sleep.  Our plan was to stay at a jjimjilbang in Daegu until morning, and then travel by bus for another half an hour or so to Gyeongju.  I wrote about the Korean jjimjilbang at length back in December after Jocelyne and I visited the superb Spa Plus in Icheon, but I had yet to sleep in one…Not only do jjimjilbangs give the public access to hot and cold water baths, steam rooms, saunas and relaxation areas, they also offer up separate and common areas for people to sleep.  It’s pretty ingenius, really – for around $7-10 you can relax at the spa, enjoy the facilities, then sleep for a few hours before heading out. 

The jjimjilbang we stayed at was called Goongjeong (http://www.goongjeon.com/index.html) – I’ve perused the pictures and the place looks pretty fantastic, but our only reason for being there was to sleep so we didn’t really get to enjoy the facilities.  We arrived and were given the customary cotton shorts and t-shirt to wear, and then were directed to the change rooms.  Dave had never been to a jjimjilbang, and he and Anthony were both a little tipsy, so Angela and I were understandably a little nervous that they wouldn’t find us again.  We agreed to meet in the hallway outside the men’s changing area, but when Angela and I returned a few minutes later only Dave was there.  Apparently Anthony had wandered off somewhere and Dave couldn’t find him.  Let the fun begin.

It was then that we found out just how big and labyrinthine this jjimjilbang really was – we wandered around in circles for about half an hour before deciding that Anthony was a lost cause – the place was just too big to find him.  There were massive common areas and smaller closed-off rooms full of sleeping people, plus there was the possibility that Anthony had gone into one of the many pools, saunas or other men-only areas, and we weren’t about to send Dave in on his own for fear we’d never see him again!

We decided to let Anthony fend for himself and found a smaller private room where we would camp out for the night.  At the jjimjilbang, as in most Korean homes, people do not sleep in beds, but rather lay out mats and comforters on the floor, and use a small plastic block for a pillow.  It’s not a bad way to sleep, but the Koreans also have an affection for ondol heating, which rises from the floor underneath and slowly broils you from the underside.  We finally settled down to sleep at about 4am, and by 4:30 we were all up again because we’d broken out in sweats – North Americans just aren’t used to sleeping in these kinds of conditions.  Added to this fact were the dozen or so other people in the room, many of whom began to snore unceasingly and mutter in their sleep.  After about an hour Dave gave up completely and left the room to sleep somewhere else.  I found out a few hours later that he ended up sleeping on the astroturf outside!  At least he was cool 🙂

We were up again just after 8am, having only had about an hour or so of semi-decent sleep, and then had the task of trying to find Anthony before the bus left at 9.  Again we wandered around the corridors and common rooms trying to find a needle in a haystack.  We finally found him huddled up in the fetal position against a wall, with no blankets at all and looking mighty uncomfortable.  What a night.  We gathered our things and groggily boarded the bus for the short trip to Gyeongju. 

We arrived in Gyeongju just before 10am, and William led the group down a gravel driveway to a large storage unit which housed dozens upon dozens of bikes.  I had expected to get a dinky, 20-year old rusted piece of metal with a big basket in the front and pedal brakes, but instead got a fairly new mountain bike with a working gear shift – what a surprise!  The group then rode together to the centre of the city where we took some photos before dispersing for the day.  William handed out city maps, which were completely Korean, and instructed us to meet him at the jjimjilbang at 6pm – beyond that we were completely on our own to navigate our surroundings.  It was a little scary to be turned loose in a foreign city, but also really nice not to be part of a rigidly structured trip where we are herded around like a flock of sheep. 

The road to Gyerim:

road-to-gyerim

Group photo just outside Gyerim forest – Anthony, Angela, Dave and I are crouching in the middle of the front row:

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Angela, Anthony, Dave and I decided to head into Gyerim (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyerim) first, where we saw the Cheomseongdae Observatory, which is the oldest astronomical observatory in eastern Asia and dates to the 7th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheomseongdae).  From our little pictoral map we had assumed the building was enormous, but it couldn’t have been more than 30 feet high.  The building is made of 362 stones which represent the number of days in the lunar year, and the base comprises 12 large granite blocks to symbolize the months of the year. 

Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory:

cheomseongdae-observatory

The Gyerim area was beautiful – the long stone walkway leading into the forest was flanked on both sides by huge fields of flowers and a hill to the north covered with cherry trees.  It made for quite the picturesque sight!  We biked through the forest, taking in the sight of dozens and dozens of flowering cherry trees – when the wind blew through them the air became filled with little white blossoms fluttering to the ground.

Gyerim forest:

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gyerim

After Gyerim Forest we decided to bike over to Bomun Lake, which looked to have a lot of sights to see.  We deciphered the map and headed along a major thoroughfare towards the east side of the city.  Dave and Anthony were pedalling quite a ways ahead of Angela and I when suddenly I saw Dave standing beside his bike with something in his hand.  As we got closer we realized that he was holding the pedal and arm from the left side of his bike!  The whole thing had just fallen off mid-stride – obviously a quality piece of craftsmanship. 

The guys managed to flag down a couple of Korean guys who were also biking towards the lake, and they tried to bash the pedal back into place with a rock, which had little to no effect.  They called the number posted on our bikes, and asked for a repair man to come give us a hand. 

The repair man was incredibly apologetic; he fixed the bike in about 30 seconds, and then we were off again.  It was a long haul to get to the lake area, but it was well-worth the effort.  We stopped quickly for a bite to eat, and then wound our way down a path that would allow us to bike right along the lake’s edge.  It was absolutely beautiful – water on one side, a lush green park on the other filled with cherry trees. 

Bomun Lake:

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We had just started on our trip around the lake when, once again, Dave’s pedal fell off his bike.  He was starting to get visibly frustrated (understandably) but we found another very nice Korean man who called the bike company again and asked for a repairman.  For some reason the company said they couldn’t send someone out to help, so the man led us back up the path towards the restaurant area where he found someone with a tool kit.  He fixed the bike himself, and after many thanks from us, we were on our way again. 

The pathway along the lake was full of people enjoying the lovely weather and the scenery.  It also made navigating through the crowds a little difficult, since Koreans take absolutely no notice of you when you ding the bell on your bike – a well-known signal that means “move out of the way!”  At one point Anthony was stuck behind two Korean women and he dinged his bell constantly for a good minute and a half, but they still didn’t even look behind them or attempt to move out of the way.  From then on the four of us worked in tandem – we would all ring our bells one after the other again and again whenever we got into a big crowd, and that seemed to get people’s attention 🙂

The busy paths around Bomun Lake:

bomun-lake-9

It was getting late in the afternoon by this point, so we decided to leave the lake area and head towards the group’s designated meeting spot.  Although most people were staying in another jjimjilbang that evening, the four of us had splurged for a private motel room so we could get a good night’s sleep.  We were to meet at the jjimjilbang at 6 and then we’d all head out for dinner together. 

The road leading up to the jjimjilbang was very steep and unrelenting; after biking for the previous six hours and having had little to no sleep the night before we were walking along side our bikes within a few minutes.  The road was absolutely packed with cars, and the entire hill was a complete parking lot.  It was then that we had one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had in Korea.  As we trudged up the hill people in their cars began waving at us.  At first it was one or two, and then it became constant – we felt like movie stars!  Little kids were clambering around in cars waving at us, people honked their horns as we walked by and someone in literally every car rolled down their windows and said “Hello!”  It was an incredible feeling.

We arrived at the jjimjilbang and meet up with William,  who told us there was a bit of a problem with our motel reservation.  Oh boy.  He had been trying to reach the motel manager for the last hour, but no one was answering the phone, and apparently there was someone already staying in our room.  He said we could still go down to the motel and try and sort things out ourselves, but since we don’t speak Korean it didn’t seem like a viable option.  Angela, a little delirious from lack of sleep and a lot of time out in the sun, just started laughing hysterically.  What else was there to do??

William said we could stay in the jjimjilbang (http://www.hanjeung.com/) with everyone else, and that he’d refund the extra money we’d paid for the motel the next morning.  What choice did we have?  We accepted the inevitability of spending yet another night trying to sleep in a jjimjilbang, and decided to try and make the best of it.  We headed back into the city for dinner, and then took a stroll through Gyerim Forest.  It was a cold but beautiful night, and the trees looked like they were covered in snow in the moonlight. 

Cherry trees at night:

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We got back to the jjimjilbang around 11, and we were all anxious to set up camp and relax before getting some much-needed sleep.  After changing into the jjimjilbang garb we headed up to a huge private room that William had rented for the group.  We picked a nice quiet corner of the room, turned on Anthony’s iPod, and just vegetated. 

This blissful feeling was short-lived, however, when William came in and informed us that the enormous room (which could have easily fit the entire group) had been reserved for women only, and that we’d have to find space elsewhere if we wanted to be with our partners.  Good God almighty, if this wasn’t the final straw for me.  I was royally p’d off, to say the least.  We packed up all of our stuff and headed back into the common areas of the jjimjilbang, which were all fully packed with sleeping Koreans.  We tried the same-sex rooms, but they were full, we tried the DVD room, which was hotter than a sauna and also full.  We were starting to think we’d have to sleep in a hallway somewhere, we were getting that desperate.

We decided to go outside and have a drink to relax and figure out our next move.  We were all angry, frustrated and tired.  We’d been promised a nice private motel room with beds, but instead were wandering aimlessly around a jjimjilbang trying to find some small piece of floor where the four of us could sleep. 

A little while later Angela and I sneaked into the men’s-only room so we could at least sleep in the same area as Anthony and Dave.  Angela and I headed up first and picked out a few empty floor mats, but within minutes we were back outside.  The room was at least 30 degrees, and it was full of men snoring louder than I’ve ever heard in my life.  We just wanted to sleep!

It was then that I made the executive decision that we were going to sleep in the private room William had rented – to hell with his rules.  The room was 2/3 empty, for crying out loud!  We picked a couple of mats near the wall, and laid out blankets for the guys.  Dave arrived a few minutes later, but said that Anthony was going to try and sleep in the men’s room.  Angela was not impressed, considering he went A.W.O.L. the evening before.  We covered Dave’s face with a blanket, just in case one of the other girls in the room woke up and saw a guy in the room, and fell fast asleep.   

Daylight came far too early the next morning, especially since many of the women in our room decided to get up at 6:00 to go with William on a quick trip to a nearby temple.  Dave woke up early and went up to the men’s room to sleep a while longer, and Angela and I managed to fall asleep again until about 8:00.  I think we could have slept for much longer than that, but the group was heading out for the day at 9:00 so we didn’t really have much choice. 

We relaxed on the deck and enjoyed the morning sunshine, and then we tossed our bags back on the buses and grabbed our bikes.  The bike rental company had come the night before and brought a replacement bike for Dave, so he was now the proud recipient of a bumblebee yellow mountain bike.  We hoped he’d have better luck with the pedals this time…

All 80 of us headed out in a long line down the main road towards one of the largest Buddhist temples in Korea, called Bulguksa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulguksa).  William had said to follow the road until it ended in a “t”, and then turn left, but shortly before we arrived at the “t” I noticed a large group of people had turned left onto a small side street and were heading into a residential area.  Dave was near the front of the pack, so I immediately started thinking that he was riding down this side street.  I stopped at the entrance to the street, and a woman rode up to me and said that a guy hadn’t turned around and was still riding the wrong way.  Dave.  Awwww, man….

As the rest of the group rode on without us, I rode down this side street to find Dave.  I kept riding and riding, but didn’t see him.  I decided to head back to the entrance off the main street and wait for him there.  So there I was, by myself in the middle of no where, with no cell phone and no Dave.  I had the maps, but had no idea what to do next.  After about 15 minutes of sitting around, Dave rode up from the main street.  He had been waiting for me at the “t” all along – he’d never even turned down the side street!  While I was riding around looking for him, he went all the way back to the jjimjilbang looking for me.  We missed each other by mere minutes.  Well, at least we’d found each other again.

We assumed the group was going to go up to the temple, and then head back down the same street to go back into the city.  We waited at the “t” for a good half an hour before accepting that they weren’t coming back that way.  I checked our map and saw that there was an alternate way out of the temple that would lead to the south end of the city, and we figured that was their likely path.  The road up to the temple was steep, so we walked our bikes up and met a few people from our group.  They had gone to the early morning temple trip and were going back to the jjimjilbang for their bikes, but said that the group was still at Bulguksa. 

The temple grounds were packed with cars and swarms of people – how were we going to find Anthony and Angela again?!  We wandered around a commercial area right outside the temple with restaurants and souvenir shops, and ran into a few more people from our group.  They said they hadn’t seen anyone else in quite a while, but that we should head up to the temple itself and look there.

 We rode up to the temple gates and did a quick scan of the area – not a foreigner in sight. Fantastic. We were about to head into the temple when one guy from our group named John appeared out of no where. He said he’d arrived with our group, but had become separated from them inside the temple grounds. All of a sudden he found himself completely alone, and he was just as happy to find us as we were to find him. He’d been looking for any sign of a foreigner for about 15 minutes, but had had no luck and assumed that the group had already left.  Foiled again!

We decided our best option was to make a hasty exit from the temple and try to catch up with the group, who could have been no more than 15-20 minutes ahead of us. If we biked as fast as we could we might catch up with them before too long. Even though we were literally at the gateway of one of the most beautiful temples in Korea we turned around and sped away in the hopes we’d find our friends again.

We made our way back towards the city centre and found the terrain quite enjoyable – it was either slightly down hill or relatively level for most of the ride. Our poor, aching bums and legs definitely appreciated the easy pace. We followed a major thoroughfare all the way from the far south end of the city directly into the centre; the views definitely weren’t spectacular, but we were really trying to catch up with the group more than take in the sights.

We completed the 20km bike back into the city in just over an hour and a half – we were booking it! The day was getting warm, and we hadn’t eaten since early in the morning. Back in Gyeongju proper we biked around looking for somewhere to grab a bite to eat. Dave was adamant about not eating Korean food, so our choices were limited. By chance we stumbled across a place called “Mom’s Choice” that advertised a menu full of fried chicken and hamburgers – heaven for Dave! He dug into some mozzarella sticks and a chicken burger, and directly after that meal he crossed the street and ordered a pizza. He was definitely craving some Western food 🙂

At this point it was almost 3:00, and our plan was to meet our buses at 3:30, so we made our way back to the rendez-vous location and waited for everyone else to show up.  In the end, it turned out that the entire group was still at Bulguksa when we arrived earlier in the day, and by rushing off to catch up with them we actually ended up being ahead of the group.  It just seems to be the way things work sometimes…

On the whole it was a great weekend – the scenery was beautiful and it was fantastic to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying the sights.  These trips never fail to deliver a hefty dose of obstacles and setbacks, but it definitely forces us to be extremely patient and to roll with the punches!  This crazy, confusing, and often beautiful country never ceases to amaze me.

More cherry tree shots!

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Clements said,

    That was an amazing story! I really like the pictures though I wish WordPress allowed you to host larger sizes.

  2. Matt Clements said,

    That was an amazing story! I really like the pictures though I wish WordPress allowed you to host larger sizes.
    Ooops, should have added great post! Waiting on the next post!

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