This year has been a tough one for a lot of us. For those of us lucky enough to stay healthy, life has changed significantly. As a self-employed photographer whose business relies heavily on international clients, I felt the initial wave of COVID-19 travel cancellations very hard. In what are usually the busiest months of the year for my family photography and event business, my calendar was barren. I’d just returned from my annual Tattoos of Asia trip which usually depletes my savings for the year and couldn’t see any work ahead.
I sunk into what was a self-perpetuating spiral of depression for a while. This was the first time since I was 14 years old that I hadn’t had a stable income and I would need that to ensure my wife had a roof over her head and food on the table. There was a while where we were looking to pack up home and move out of the city to a more affordable part of the country because we wouldn’t be able to make the rent. This privileged-white-man-pity-party ended when I flipped those ideas around and decided that I could survive a little longer with what I had. I put a few unnecessary pieces of gear up for sale, paid the rent, bought a bicycle and started riding. Free travel and the chance to reconnect with the country I live in seemed like a positive use for my new-found time.
Little did I know, I’d begin spending hours at a time exploring the bike paths, visiting new areas of the city, and getting fit and healthy while I was at it. Packed lunches and a thermos of coffee quickly replaced the instant meals I had been eating and sunsets along the rivers and streams replaced sitting in front of a computer trying to figure out what to do. There was nothing I could do to change the world around me, but I could make use of my time.
As I began to cycle further and further, the idea entered my head that I could take on Korea’s cross-country cycling path. I let a few people know I was planning on it so I’d be accountable and started working hard on getting fitter. Just 6 months into my journey (prior to getting this bike, exercise for me involved lifting a pint glass!), I decided I was ready and packed my bags.
Being a photographer, I opted to leave the non-essentials at home so I could take camera gear. More lenses than underwear is my rule of thumb. My kit for the trip would be the simple but capable Fujifilm X100V with the conversion lenses and a Fujifilm X-T3 with the 50mm f/1.0. I chose the larger lens because I need the experience with it in order to offer my thoughts on Fstoppers and Fujilove. If I didn’t have this lens, I would surely have taken the much smaller and lighter XF 50mm f/2. Even with the larger lens, I still had plenty of room for other essentials in my tiny Tenba backpack.
For me, this journey was not about the speed I could achieve or the distances I could cover, it was about exploration, finding some peace of mind, reconnecting with nature, and hopefully not injuring myself half-way to Busan. What follows is my journey in my way and the photographs I made along the path. I hope it’s enjoyable for you!
Day 1: Seoul-Yeoju, 98km
For the first day of the trip, I’d be riding mostly paths I’d ridden before. My wife would be joining me, as well. So, this was to be a leisurely roll down the paths with some great food along the way. We left home at 9:30 AM and began the journey along the Han River. The fog made it difficult to even see the other side of the river but offered an eerie feeling to the ride that we don’t always get.
We made our way through the fog to Yangsu-ri for lunch. Yangsu can be a beautiful little town at any time of year, but we were only here for lunch on this particular day. We stopped in at a favourite spot, 두물머리밥상 (Doomoolmeoribabsang), that does 쌈밥 (ssambab) with all organic sides. Of course, the obligatory stop on the old railway bridge produced a couple of quick images as we crossed.
With full bellies, we took the opportunity to sit by the river for a few minutes and enjoy some coffee before doing the rest of the ride down to Yeoju. Honestly, this section was probably the most uninteresting of the entire trip. The path is not particularly well maintained and only partially follows the river. We stopped only to have a snack along this section and looking back over my images, I only made one between Yangsu-ri and Yeoju. Not to worry, though. We found a great restaurant in Yeoju and had a hearty bowl of 육개장 (Yukgaejang) and a good rest before the next day’s riding.
Day 2: Yeoju-Suanbo, 109km
I began the morning just before sunrise in the hope of some nice images over the river in Yeoju. Unfortunately, that pesky fog that blanketed Seoul the previous day was still around and there wasn’t much to see. A few fishermen were out pulling in their nets, however, so I spent a few minutes photographing them before heading back. It was refreshing to see some new scenery and be able to breathe without a mask on for a while.
After this, my wife and I would part ways at the entrance to the bike path. She would be heading back to Seoul and I would be making my way along the river towards Suanbo. This leg of the journey winds its way back and forth between the hills and the river towards Chungju. While the scenery was nice, the fog and the patchy autumn colours didn’t really lend themselves to much photography along the way. However, I did manage to find a beautiful little supermarket facade and an abandoned farmhouse along the way. Both of these are places I’d love to photograph again in different light, so maybe for my next journey!
Other than these two stops, I headed almost directly out to Chungju Dam and sat down for a late lunch from a convenience store. Chungju is an industrial city and the area along the river was under repairs for much of the way. Chungju definitely gets the award for worst maintained bike paths. With little desire to explore the city itself, I sped out along the river again towards Suanbo. Unfortunately, the afternoon light didn’t really make its way between the hills in this area and I ended up arriving much earlier than expected. I found a nice old-style motel (Suanbo Saipan) that looked like it had been there since the beginning of time and found some dinner before turning in early. I wanted to start the following day earlier than I had been as the weather forecast was predicting clear skies and the surrounding mountains had some nice autumnal colours beginning to show.
Day 3: Suanbo-Sangju, 96km
Today started much more interestingly in terms of photography. I have a fascination with the different places you’ll find the words 주차금지 (No Parking) in Korea. Literally, anything can become a no-parking sign and as I stepped out of my motel, I saw one of my favourites to date. This row of chairs that had seen better days was repurposed to ensure people didn’t block the back gate to this property.
Following this, I started my journey towards the famed Ihwaryeong Pass. It didn’t take me long, however, to come across some beautiful autumn scenes I wanted to photograph and I spent about 30 minutes exploring a couple of different scenes before making my way to the bottom of the pass. I’d heard that the climb to the Ihwayeong rest area was the test for cyclists on this journey. It is a set of steep switchbacks that continuously go uphill without a break for 5 kilometres. Maybe because I’d mentally prepared myself for the worst, I didn’t really find the climb that hard. It was long, but not anywhere near as tough as I’d heard it described. Thankful for that, I sat down at the top and poured myself a cup of coffee as I looked out over the valley below.
From there, it was down the other side of the mountain and into North Gyeongsang Province. The ride down was, without a doubt, much faster and much colder than the ride up. Topping out at just over 50km/h, I actually had to stop and rug up despite the warm sun. Getting to the bottom of the hill, I decided to skip Mungyeong Saejae as it was late morning and the sun was directly overhead. The autumn leaves were also not particularly vibrant in the valley. One day, I’ll get there.
As I headed out of Mungyeong, I finally found a little of what I was hoping the trip would hold. I had imagined that this path would take us close to towns and villages that we might not otherwise visit, but most of the time there’s some sort of barrier (a highway, a mountain, or reserved land) between riders and the outside world. This was quite disappointing as there would be plenty to see and plenty of people to meet along the way. Sitting in a small-town restaurant for lunch rather than one of the “cyclist specific” places that have popped up along the path would be so much nicer. So, back to Mungyeong. The path passed a couple of small older residential areas with small plots of farmland around them. I stopped in and took a quick walk around a couple of the villages, much to the amusement of the residents. One of my favourite finds was the autumn leaves on this beautiful abandoned home.
Following these towns, it was back to simple river riding as the path prepared to join the Nakdong River section of the journey. There was only one more difficult hill for this day and it was a 20%+ gradient up into Gyeongcheondae Park. Aside from that, it was all flat and easy riding. I’d decided I wanted to make it to Sangju today, so I called a popular cycling guesthouse (민박) that had posted signs and business cards all along the trail for about the last 100km. The owner was extremely friendly and I decided to book based on that. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made on this journey.
The last section of this day’s riding took me over a couple more small hills and through a couple more small villages. The Gyeongsang Province section of this trail was already feeling so much better than its northern counterpart. For the most part, there’s nature on both sides and the river remains visible. There was a nice sunset on show as I got just a couple of kilometres from my guesthouse, so I stopped to watch that over the river. As I finally arrived, I was treated to a home-cooked meal that came included in the price of the room. Nothing quite compares to a full Korean spread and I was happy not to be eating restaurant food.
Day 4: Sangju-Daegu, 90km
I woke up at around 4:30 AM on day 4 and took a quick walk to the end of the driveway. Even from there, I could see the tendrils of fog rising off the Nakdong River in the pre-dawn light. I grabbed my camera bag and jumped onto my dew-covered bicycle wearing only my t-shirt and shorts. Soon, I would come to regret this, but photographers will understand the urgency. I cycled the couple of hundred metres to the river and began searching for a composition that would work in this light. Since the longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, I was somewhat limited in what I could do, but I managed to find one composition I was happy with. Knowing I had 30-40 minutes until the sun came over the mountains, I quickly headed back and had another homecooked meal for breakfast before heading out.
I practically inhaled the delicious meal I was given, said my farewells, strapped my bags to my bike, and made it to the river just as the sun began to crest the mountains. That’s when the magic truly began. While there were no epic valleys or layers of mountains to use as a background, there was still plenty of texture to be had in the fog and the warmth of the light was just beautiful. I stayed the course of this 20-minute window of light and dancing fog and was glad I did. I got a couple of my favourite frames from the trip in this frantic wake-up call. All the while, I had the atmospheric Nordlige Runaskog by Osi and the Jupiter playing in the background, which certainly helped with the feel of this scene!
The next section of the ride was mostly well-maintained and flat paths that followed the Nakdong River through Gumi and down to Daegu. This was a great day to enjoy a slow roll along the riverside and make the most of the sun’s warmth after the frigid morning. Just as I gave Chungju the award for worst maintained paths, I’ll give Sangju, Gumi, Chilgok, and Daegu the award for best-maintained paths and prettiest scenery. This was a really nice section of the ride and one I’d like to do again.
In fact, this section of riding was so easy, I found myself in Daegu by 2:30 PM. Up until now, I’d been booking accommodation during my rides. This was not out of fear of not finding anything, but to push myself to reach my destinations. Since this was my first long cycling trip, I wasn’t sure how my body would take it. On this day, that plan failed. I could easily have done the next sections of the path. But, not to worry. I parked nearby the barrage and enjoyed people watching around The Ark for the remainder of the afternoon. There were some nice clouds in the sky, as well, so I broke out my Haida M7 kit again and did some long exposures of The Ark. While I wasn’t sure initially if I’d take my filters or tripod, I’m glad I did after this day of shooting.
Day 5: Daegu-Namji, 106km
Waking early again, I dropped by the local convenience store and stocked up on bread and energy bars for the ride ahead. I’d been warned by a couple of cyclists along the way that there were no eateries or even stores along the path from here on out. That turned out to be a bit of a myth as the longest stretch I found without some sort of store was about 20km. This is Korea, there’s always something. Sometimes you just need to turn off your path and ride 50 metres to find it. No matter, I was prepared for the end of the world, so I certainly wouldn’t be hungry.
Getting up early paid off again, though. I was hoping for a little fog and I was certainly rewarded. The riverside was completely engulfed with it and I eagerly spent the first hour of my day photographing the shapes and light again. Fog truly is a photographer’s playground. I’m so glad I chose to do the ride at this time of year.
As the light began to turn harsh and the fog fade away, I continued south into Changnyeong-gun. The path did a little crisscrossing to get back to the main river from here. However, once it rejoined, it was beautiful riverside riding again for a while. With reeds lining the river, a small boat tied to the banks, and even the UNESCO listed 도동서원 (Dodong Confucian Academy) to enjoy on the morning ride.
Following this was a little more countryside riding along the river and some blue skies. I stopped by a small village on the way and made a portrait of a farmer sitting in front of his home. So far, this day was a leisurely ride. But, true to myself, I hadn’t done any research whatsoever, so I had no idea what was coming next.
Between me and my evening destination of Namji were a couple of the most gruelling climbs of the trip. Everybody warns you about the Ihwaryeong Pass, but nobody talks about the paths over Jandeungsan and Dochosan. These are much steeper and the roads not as flat. They definitely get the burn happening and I was glad when they were over. Jandeungsan offers a beautiful view of the river below, however. That makes the climb worth it, for sure.
After these two, it was an easy roll down into Namji-eup for a Samgyeopsal dinner and a good sleep. However, I did stumble on an abandoned temple in a small village and stopped to make a few photographs before turning in for the night. While most temples tend to paint their doors with gorgeous patterns, the doors here had been carved before they were painted. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Day 6: Namji-Busan, 102km
Namji-eup and its surrounds made for a beautiful morning again and I enjoyed photographing the area around the river before I departed for the final leg to Busan. The day started with a short lived, but nice sunrise thanks to a typhoon down in The Philipines throwing some clouds our way. The warmer weather down here meant that there wasn’t any more fog, but I was treated to a different kind of beauty this morning.
Just on the other side of the river from here was a beautiful little temple on a cliff (능가사, Neunggasa). Unfortunately, the only angle I could find was from the bridge itself so the composition is what it is. This is definitely a spot I’d like to photograph in afternoon light with a wider lens next time. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful scene and a great start to the day.
From there, the path became a little less interesting again as it wound through Changwon, Miryang, Yangsan, and Gimhae. There are plenty of things that are a few kilometres away from the path here, but the actual ride itself is not so pretty at this time of year. The path is lined with plum and cherry trees, however, so it would surely be nice in the spring and summer months. I did find a lovely 횟집 (raw fish restaurant) just after the temple, however, and made what would end up being my last image of the trip.
This ride was, as they say, just what the doctor ordered. It was the exact refresh I have been needing for a while now. The chances to connect with nature again, be alone for a while, and make photographs without any consequence, were precisely what my soul needed. To top it all off, my good friend, Roy Cruz, came out to meet me at the finish line and we had a celebratory party to undo all the healthy things I’d done that week before making one final photograph at 해동용궁사 (Haedongyonggungsa) before I jumped on the bus home with a belly full of dumplings from the lovely lady below.