Gangchon is probably my favorite town in all of Korea. Since 2010, I’ve been coming here to get out of the busy Seoul metropolitan area to hang out in this college getaway town complete with ATV’s, scooters, an amusement park, and all the Dalk Galbi restaurants you could ask for. For Suzie and my last weekend in Korea before beginning the long trip back home and then to Turkey, we decided to spend our time with a few good friends in Gangchon. Of course though, since our big cycling tour was only a month or so away, we couldn’t spend all our time eating, drinking, and going crazy. For us… the real training had begun!
I planned a route through the mountains of Gangchon last year when Suzie and I still had our biking legs and old man Winter still hadn’t torn away all the muscle and endurance we worked so hard to build throughout the summer of 2011. The route had two impressive climbs at 910m and 690m over about 120km, but we were unable to finish it the first time we tried due to a torrential downpour and freezing temperatures that left me building a shelter out of my rain jacket while I waited at the top of climb number one. This time, we were determined to conquer it.
Since it was our last weekend, we dragged a group of ten other friends with us to Ganchon so that we could celebrate after completing our course. The trip out only took an hour from our apartment, mainly due to a soju-infused, rage infested bus driver who took hairpin turns at 60mph through the windy mountain road towards Chuncheon. Luckily, we survived the roller coaster and found the way to our impressive (and cheap) pension in Gangchon.
Early Saturday morning, we were off to see if our legs could cash in the checks our mouths had been cashing over the past few weeks: that we could indeed cycle for 5,000kms through Balkan territory. Despite almost loosing our fingers to the frigid morning wind that pummeled us from the start, and having to fix a brake problem on Suzie’s bike, we hit the ground running and peddled strongly through the morning hours. Then… we hit Hwaak Mountain.
Hwaak Mountain is an unrelenting demon that shoots up out of the Korean countryside and casts its shadow over the world below. I knew what I was in for since i had conquered Hwaasang once before, but I was in much better shape last time. Together though, Suzie and I climbed with the sun on our backs up the 13% gradients and switchbacks that took us to the tunnel waiting for us at the top. I’ve got to admit, it was a struggle that had me questioning my cycling abilities a few times as we peddled on; yet, I knew just like Sheryl Crowe has told me… the first hill is the steepest (wow… that pun was horrific!).
At the top of Hwaak, we were greeted by a group of Korean men who had been hiking in the area. They warmly invited us to join in their meal of Sam Gyupsol (barbecued pork), which we were all too eager to accept after the long climb up. Sitting down with them, I realized this is what cycling is all about: not rushing through to finish the route at all costs, but to take the time to enjoy the randomness that so often presents itself while riding along in unknown lands. Using the best Korean we could, we ate, drank, and talked with the group for about an hour before setting off. Not only did they provide us with incredible HOT food (we never expected to eat anything warm all day) and good company, but they also gave us each a pair of gloves and a bottle of natural spring water to help us finish off our route (which they said we were crazy for trying to finish off).
No more than an hour passed us by and then we were peddling back uphill again. This time, things were much worse as Suzie and I were all but spent from Hwaak. Shoveling cheese pretzels and brownies into my rumbling stomach, I found the mental and physical strength needed to power up the 690m climb that seemed to go on forever. There was only a slight casualty the whole way up when Suzie fell over on a patch of road that had washed away. Watching her fall, I was convinced she had just said… “F-it… I’m keeling over and punching out” from her fatigue, yet I quickly discovered her back tire slipped on the muddy ground causing her bike to topple. Nothing a brief bought of laughter couldn’t fix for us though.
Finishing our route, we descended for a solid hour before reaching the city of Gapyeong. It was a beautiful downhill ride through a picturesque (though I took none) valley next to a slow moving river. Tired and craving food, Suzie and I couldn’t help talk about how incredibly hard it would be to do the hill in reverse… thank God we didn’t need to!
Once safely back in our pension, our friends laughed at how shattered we looked as I crumbled to the floor under my legs of jelly. Recovering was made easy by a tasty Dalk Galbi feast, some drinking games at the pension, and a night hanging out at the small carnival in town.
Despite the difficulty of our training ride, I must say that travelling to Gangchon was the best decision Suzie and I could of made. We figured out that we do need to build ourselves up a bit more before setting off from Istanbul… yet not too much more as I think we are mentally set to take on anything (this being said after having a shower and a comfortable bed to sleep in… miles away from our “wet-nap clean ups” and nothing but a thin layer between us and the hard Earth). Further, it was a great way to say goodbye to Korea and our friends in a neat little town that felt much further away from the metropolitan jungle of Seoul than only 1 hour.