On October 15, 1983, four mental midgets decided to take what I think was the first bicycle tour across the country of Korea. I am Tom Roetting, and my partners were Romeo Aban, Skip Cannon, and Wally Diehl.
Romeo, Skip and I had been stationed in Korea off and on since the mid-70s. We had done quite a bit of riding on the weekends for a long time, with our groups ranging from just the 3 of us to larger groups of up to 11 people. These were mostly day trips up to 80 miles long around Osan or Kunsan and we always made sure to hit the little Korean beer joints along the way. These rides were such a blast that we finally started talking about a ride to the east coast, a ride of about 200 miles. Wally became a regular rider with us and also wanted in on the tour.
Planning was quite a chore for this type of trip. In 1983, we all had those old, cheap 10 speeds and we couldn’t get parts in Korea. Korea also had a problem with fresh drinking water. It just wasn’t available in much of the country. So we really had to pack heavy. Between the four of us, we split camping equipment, cooking stuff, fresh water, food, and numerous spare parts and tools for the long haul. This was before the days of water filters and freeze-dried foods, so it was quite a haul. My bike weighed in at 120 pounds fully loaded.
Wally almost didn’t make the trip. Two weeks before the ride, he had a accident on his bicycle when a motorcycle ran him down. He was very lucky and only sustained road-rash on his face. But we had our doubts about Wally for a while.
On October 15, 1983, we took off from Osan AB, Korea to ride to Kangneung, Korea on the east coast. The weather was great and we took lots of pictures. As we made our way across the countryside, the hills became higher and the climbs longer. We hit a 9% grade and all of us walked except for Romeo. Wise guy!! We saw numerous temples, including one temple that was 1500 years old from the Koryo dynasty.
At noon after 40 miles, we had a great lunch of ham sandwiches, raisins, and Tang. Mm, mm, good! The roads were great and there wasn’t that much traffic, so we were having a great time. We even joked that Skip, Wally and I were on a bike walk and Romeo was on a bike ride because all of us except Romeo were walking up the hills so much.
We found a pretty good spot in the woods about halfway up a mountain and set up camp around 5 p.m. It was ramen for dinner, then straight to the sack.
I had trouble sleeping with Romeo and Skip snoring so loud. But we all got some good rest and woke at 6:15. Spam was on the menu for breakfast, then back on the road.
It was very foggy that morning, but maybe that was good. We couldn’t tell how far away the top of the mountain was. The map said it was 2,266 feet high. I know it doesn’t seem very high. I live in Colorado now and have climbed numerous passes over 12,000 feet. But it sure seemed very high in 1983, especially with the lag of granny gears and the heavy load.
When we finally got there, we found a tap with some very fresh spring water. We filled up our water bottles and got a great ride down a 10% slope to the bottom. Then it was back up another mountain.
Wally had a major breakdown on this second climb. He busted his derailleur. Thank goodness we had such a great stash of parts and tools. Skip and Romeo took care of the repair in short order and we were back on our way.
The fog rolled back in and it was a little chilly. After six miles of steady climbing, we reached the top of another hill and encountered quite a large group of Koreans. I think they were tourists but I have no idea what attraction they were there to see.
Up to this point we hadn’t seen much in the way of towns. But we reached the first large town of Chechon around lunch time, so we decided to have a really good lunch. We found a great restaurant and had taegi baekban, which is noodles and pork, if I remember correctly. Then we stopped at a little market to stock up for dinner and met a mamasan that spoke better English than I did. We stocked up on a few things, including fresh eggs and went on our way. One of the greatest things about this bike ride is that every single person we saw on the trip waved at us and yelled hello and smiled so big. It was just great to be treated to that many friendly people.
The river running through Chechon was very black, unlike the other rivers we had seen. We figured we were getting into coal country and didn’t realize how this would affect us later in our trip. The hills were getting higher and the climbs longer, but we weren’t in any big hurry. We took our choco-pie breaks and posed for lots of pictures and waved to everyone we saw. Romeo finally walked that afternoon and I don’t know if he was getting tired or just wanted to socialize.
We passed through Yeong Weol late in the afternoon and started looking for a place for the night. We found a great place on a riverbed right around dusk and settled in. We only did 45 miles that day, but the hills were getting bigger. Also, there was finally enough water to wash up a little after two days. We had ramen again for dinner and I made sure I spread out a little so the snoring wouldn’t be so distracting and I slept very well. But the next morning, I found myself in a depression and just a little wet. So were the others but none of us cared. We were having such a great time.
The road followed a valley and the ride was very pleasant. Not far up the road that morning, we had to make a choice of which road to take, route 31 or route 38. Route 31 went a little further south than we wanted but it looked like a better road. So what did we choose? Of course, the shortest route. We learned eventually that the shortest route is not always the best.
Sure enough, about 11 miles down the road, just far enough that turning back was no longer a good option, the pavement turned to dirt. We passed a rock quarry that was setting off explosions and then hit another climb, this time one of those steep, long, dirt climbs where you can’t seem to get enough traction. Romeo appeared exhausted at the top. I don’t think he walked at all again, but this time it seemed to get to him.
After a good, long break, we started down the other side and found pavement again. This road was absolutely beautiful. The fall colors were breathtaking and the creek had the most interesting rock formations. Wally and Romeo flew down the mountainside, but Skip and I stopped every 100 yards or so to take pictures. I wish these pictures captured the colors better, but I will always have the memories.
At the bottom was another river and it was black. There was also a lot of evidence of coal mining. Wally had a flat tire here and we had a chance to really check out the very black nature of coal country. After passing though Sabuk, the road started climbing, then turned to dirt. Actually, it was not dirt, it was coal dust, solid black. Mines started appearing on the hillsides and we passed through a small village. The kids all came out to greet us and they were really, really dirty. They were solid black too. But they were all very friendly and we had a ball riding though.
It went a little downhill from there though (and I don’t mean down a hill, I mean crappy). The road got steeper and rougher and skinnier and the weather got wetter and chillier. We got to one spot where the road kind of died and we had to help each other push our bikes up a very small path. We found the road again and continued climbing. Civilization had ceased to exist and we were on our own.
Finally after a total of 35 miles for the day, we found a useable spot to camp at 5200 feet and this time we pitched the tents. After a great meal of chili, we tried to sleep. Our sleeping bags were still a little damp from the previous evening and I ended up in a depression again, so I was pretty wet. We were in the clouds and there was a lot of moisture in the air, although I don’t think you could call it rain. Also, the chili was working its magic on all of us and we had a very noisy, uncomfortable night. I guess our luck had run out on us.
The next day we continued on the dirt road and finally topped out. Just as we were getting to the bottom, we heard the air raid sirens. It was just a drill, but everyone has to get inside during these drills, so we found a very small store to spend some time in. We tried to chat with the store owner and bought a lot of munchies and it was very nice.
After the drill, it was back on the road and we finally hit pavement again. The descent was very long, very cold and very damp. My glasses fogged up and my hands just about froze. Romeo broke a spoke on this downhill so we took a break at the bottom to do repairs. We were in a canyon now and it was very beautiful, but really cold.
We reached Taebaek and took a wrong turn. We just couldn’t find road signs and the traffic was heavier. We ended up going 6 miles in the wrong direction and finally asked a cop which way to go. We got the information we needed but the people in general were not very friendly in this town. We ended up wasting about an hour and a half before we were back on track.
Not long after getting through Taebaek, we encountered another crossroads. This time we could match the roads on the map and knew where each road went, but we weren’t sure of the road conditions. After our fiasco in coal country, we were gun-shy. If I remember correctly, we were going to head northeast on route 38 to Dogye. But we found a Korean who stopped us and told us that road was not very good and full of more coal mines and it was better to head straight east to Hosan. We took his advice.
Well, we got over another small mountain and hit a dirt road which followed a river. This dirt road was not as smooth as the others had been and going was very slow. Also, we found why the road was so rough. It was a main route for big trucks. We were getting shaken to death from the rough road and the big trucks were causing a lot of stress because the road was not all that wide. Darkness fell and we figured we should continue on to get to the coast. We really wanted to stay in a hotel and we didn’t think we were that far from the coast.
We rode for 4 hours in the dark on a dirt road, dodging large trucks before we saw the Sea of Japan. Romeo broke 2 more spokes, Skip’s rack fell apart 4 times, and our lights burned out. But we reached Hosan at 9 o’clock at night. We had done 51 horrible miles in terrible conditions but we had reached the coast.
After searching for a while in the small town of Hosan, we found one very small hotel. We had to ask them to open up for us, but they were the very nicest people we could ever have wanted to meet. They spoke absolutely no English but we got by on our limited knowledge of Korean. The rooms were 6000 won, which back then was about $10-12. They opened their kitchen and made us a great feast at 10 p.m. which couldn’t be beat. We had bulgoki and probably 25 other items that were all delicious. We had OB beer with the meal, took cold showers, and slept on the floor very well.
After eating and showering, Skip and I thought we would go looking for a bar, so out we went. But we completely forgot that there was a midnight curfew and we got picked up by the police and taken to jail. They were pretty nice though, and after finding a policeman who spoke English, they let us go back to the hotel.
The next day, we didn’t get started too early. The futons felt so good. And we were tired. The proprietors let us use the outside laundry area to clean some of the coal dirt off of our bikes. We gave them some of our canned goods that frankly were getting very heavy and left about 10:15 a.m.
The coastline was extremely beautiful but also very hilly. We were just going up and down. At the low points, we saw some beautiful virgin beach that was fenced off with barbed wire and protected by gun emplacements. North Korea would often try to infiltrate on these beaches with suicide squads who would wreak havoc as long as they could.
We stopped for a break at a nice little shop and had some barley tea. Now remember, we were carrying our own water because the local water really couldn’t be trusted. Well, Wally got diarrhea from the tea. The rest of us didn’t feel any effects probably because we had been in Korea for at least 5 years. Good thing we brought toilet paper. And Kaopectate. And Tums. Wally had to head for the bushes every 15 minutes for a while, but he finally started belching and he kept cadence for the next 45 minutes.
We were really having trouble making any time. It was so pretty that we were stopping all the time for pictures. Wally was having stomach problems. I don’t know about Skip and the rest, but I had a pretty good hangover. Skip lost his chain at the beginning of one hill and took some time getting it working again. And it was just up and down hills the whole way. At the top of one of the hills, we met a Korean couple dressed in traditional Korean. They took some pictures with Skip, Romeo, and Wally. And Romeo was having a ball going downhill acting like superman or something.
We got to Donghae at 5 p.m. after 30 miles and were very disappointed. This was a very industrial town and not a place we really wanted to stay. We didn’t see any hotels and it was really an ugly city. Also the road was getting crowded. This was a more populated part of the country and there were more cars, buses, and the dreaded trucks. So we talked it over and decided to try a new tactic. Arming ourselves with our Korean-English dictionary, Wally and I went up to a business that we knew nothing about. We asked about renting a truck and a taxi to take us to Kangneung. It took us a while to get the idea across, but when they finally understood what we wanted, they said they could help. So for 20,000 won, we got a truck to take our bikes and a taxi to ride in and set off for Kangneung.
Kangneung is a real resort that is always crowded in the summer, but this was October, so we pretty much had our choice of rooms. The rooms ran us 27,000 per room for 2 rooms and the manager locked our bikes up in spare room so they wouldn’t be ripped off. A good hot shower, a good meal, and a regular American-style bed just killed me. I couldn’t stay awake. I was asleep by 9. Wally was asleep by 10. But Skip and Romeo decided to go out on the town. They dressed in 2 separate rooms and came out dressed exactly the same, down to the socks. They hit the bars and came back pretty drunk. I don’t know what they did, but they said a good time was had by all.
Wally and I woke early and checked out the beach. Once again, the beach was secure. It had 2 ridges of sand built up about 20 feet apart. These ridges had little stacks of rocks on top and the area between the ridges was swept smooth so you could see any footprints. How amazing!
All of us did our tourist shopping and picked up lots of little mementos to remember our ride. We found a shop selling fresh octopus, but had something more traditional to eat. We checked out a large plaque commemorating the Battle of Kangneung during the Korean War.
But we had worn ourselves out. We didn’t want to ride the bikes back to Osan. We did have another route that we had planned on taking, but it looked very busy. And we were just pooped. So we talked to the manager and he arranged for a truck and a taxi to take us back to Osan. The price was
$120. It was about all we had left, but not bad for over 200 miles.
So we left that afternoon in our luxurious transportation. There was room for 3 of us in the taxi and the other one kept the truck driver company. The truck driver spoke no English at all so it was a real challenge to hold a conversation. I don’t even remember who rode where but it was nice to be riding.
And I was so glad we were riding. Just a couple miles down the road, we hit one of those 10-15 mile killer climbs. It would have destroyed me. I guess we could have made it, but the combination of drinking and heavy loads had me beat. So we made our happy way back and got to Osan that evening.
I have since taken numerous bike tours. I have ridden all over Japan and ridden across the Colorado Rockies 3 times. But I have to admit that nothing has topped this ride and probably never will. It was our first tour, it was unsupported, we knew nothing about the roads to take, and it was long before bicycle tours were popular. But most important of all is that it was with three of the greatest guys I have ridden with. What an unforgettable adventure!!