Photos and videos by Stephen Wilcox, 2013. Words by Flying Fish.
We began at the Yellow Sea on a bridge tour on the west coast towards Boryeong, home of the internationally-renowned Mudfest, a summer festival that GPWT covered this year. To get to our first flag, a rural town called Seocheon, we rode through a coastal military museum park littered with dozens of machines ranging from tanks to helicopters and fighter jets.
It wasn’t until about 4:30 AM that this cakewalk was feeling more like a walk on the green mile. We were cold, tired, sore and ready to hit the hay. We crossed another coastal bridge, and still had two hours of road ahead of us. So we did what any sane cyclist would WARN YOU TO NEVER, EVER DO. We figured we’d shave an hour off our route by taking the highway for a few kilometers.
With our bellies full, we recited some mantras of “Wow, I can’t believe how far we’ve gotten,” and so on. Power of positive thinking, right? Self-deception can only do so much. We had been in Seocheon for hours. The town may be small, but its extensive farmlands stretch out across the province, beyond a horizon too dark to see. The town of Seocheon was hours behind us and Boryeong was a desert oasis, not fully real in our minds, just a symbol on a green sign reading “Boryeong 35 km”
We passed a toll booth and rode up onto the highway, cycling against traffic. We weren’t on it for thirty minutes before flashing lights and ear-shattering sirens descended upon us.
I met the police, who spoke no English. I explained that we were going to Boryeong and the officer simply repeated in simple Korean that we had to turn around. I told him that my friends an dI were very tired, and we just needed to get to the next exit. He informed me that the concrete barrier could not be traversed, and that my only option was to backtrack.
Steve arrived and I asked him to unearth his GPS system to show the officer that we only had a few kilometers before the highway turnoff. The man was unyielding. There was nothing left to do but return to the tollbooth.
Finally we reached the toll booth. Steve spent some time quizzing the officers about how to find a motel. Alex turned to us and mentioned, “Man, I’m glad we ate at that mart. I get angry when I’m hungry. I don’t know how I’d react to that if we hadn’t eaten.”
Already on the trip Alex had warned us that he hadn’t trained on a bike all that much, so we were prepared to pace ourselves. But I really wasn’t prepared for this: Alex’s stories. For instance, he told us about a guy who would spend a lot of time in the gym, teaching classes and working out. One day the guy had a terrible accident and sustained serious injuries. Alex told us all about this guy’s family responsibilities and all the people whose lives he’d helped. It occurred to me that Alex thinks deeply about other people and the good things they do.
The motel sat beside various lots of ornately carved stones and derelict buildings. We parked our bikes and walked into the motel. The motel’s door was wedged open, but it was dark inside and there was no clerk at the counter.
I opened a few doors. The rooms were all vacant. I called to Alex and Steve. “It’s possible this place is deserted. Happens all the time. Why don’t we pull our bikes in and squat for the night?” They had reservations, but the sleep god was beckoning. Just as we started out to get our bikes, an older woman crept out of the darkness and just started wailing, “ani ani ani ani!”
She told us to get out, and I explained as best as I could that we were tired and needed a place to stay. She directed us to the next building over. I suspected two things: 1) this woman was squatting just as we intended to, and 2) this town doesn’t get a lot of visitors. The next building over may not have actually been a motel. I think the woman just wanted to get rid of us. It was guarded by unfriendly dogs and an older man who told us there was a sauna down the road.
The sauna was no better. It had showers, but after paying the fee we learned there was no sleeping space. The sauna owner was convinced that we had stolen five thousand won after the refund. It looked like we were going to meet the police for the second time that night.
Then our guardian angel flew in to rescue us. He came in the form of an ajashi (a middle-aged Korean man) who knew of a motel in town. He told the sauna owner that he saw the transaction and we didn’t steal any money. He walked briskly away and Steve and I struggled to keep up.
We followed our guardian angel down a dark alleyway to a poorly-lit, decrepit motel. The ajashi left and we were on our own to figure out what to do. The owners were asleep behind the window, so I rapped on the glass and awoke the woman who at first claimed to have no vacancy.
In the scramble to follow the ajashi we had abandoned Alex at the sauna. His phone battery was dead. I had no idea where he was. Considering the terrible experience he had just endured, he was the last person we should have left behind.
I wandered around the sauna, calling for Alex in a hoarse, sleepy voice. After a few minutes of this, he stepped out of the shadows. “You should have brought me with you.”
“I know. I’m sorry man, we’re all tired. We found a place.”
We approached the motel with the bicycles just as a woman wearing high boots, a short skirt and a short jacket sluggishly sauntered out of the motel. She let out a sailor’s cough and Alex raised an eyebrow. “Did you check us into a hooker motel?”
“Whatever, I just want to sleep.”
I didn’t even pause to think that we might end up on the wrong side of the law, again. The only thing running through my mind was, “I hope we don’t have to pay by the hour.”
From tough decisions at the dogmeat stew restaurant to nearly losing the flying fish en route to Hong seong, “Battling the Stormgods” is one heck of a ride.
1 Honam Archaeological Society – Hoseo Archaeological Society (eds.) 2006. Geum-gang: Songguk-ri-hyeong Munhwa-ui Hyeongseong-gwa Baljeon (The Formation and Spread of Songguk-ri Culture in the Geum-gang River Area). Papers of the Joint Conference of the Honam and Hoseo Archaeological Societies, Gunsan.