Motorcycling in Jeollanamdo: An introduction

So a couple of months ago, I (Mike) bought a motorcycle. I know, I said I probably wouldn’t. When we first moved here, the first thing we noticed was how horrible the traffic was. Nobody was a very polite driver. Cabs and scooters habitually ran red lights, and no driver had the slightest concept of personal space. I didn’t know what the roads were like outside the city, and the hazards of owning a motorbike seemed too great.

Well, things change pretty quick in Korea. We got to know quite a few foreigners with scooters and motorbikes. None of them have been hurt or knows anyone who’s been in an accident on two wheels. This may mean that traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, though it also mean that like spicy food, bad traffic is an acquired taste. Bikes are relatively cheap, and off-street parking is abundant. On-street parking is abundant too, for that matter, and neither Akasha or I have seen a single parking meter in the whole country.

So I took the plunge a few weeks ago. A fellow ex-pat, a guy named Tim, from England, was selling off his ‘classic’ Hyosung Mirage. The Mirage is a cruiser style bike, with a low seat and wide handlbars. Sort of like a Harley, if you squint really hard and have no idea what a Harley looks like.

Motor-heads, you can read on: the rest of you may want to skip a paragraph. Okay. Much like in Minnesota, there’s a limit to the engine size for un-endorsed motorcyclists. In Minnesota, the limit is 50cc, which basically limits the bike to around 40 mph. In Korea, that size is a relatively whopping 125cc. That’s not huge, but let’s remember South Korea, like Japan, is heaven for small motor companies. Like Honda, which puts motors into everything from chainsaws to diesel trains, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Hyosung in Korea keep engineers up all hours working on ways to wring a few more micro-horsepower from these little 125 cc engine. Thus, my bike, with a limited power supply, can comfortably cruise at around 90 Kilometers per hour (a Carter-era approved 55 MPH).

Me on my new ride

My bike is also a charming old gentleman. We aren’t sure how old it is – at least 10, maybe 15 years old – but the local mechanic can name the last five Waygookin (foreigners) who have had it in their possession. It’s got a maroon colored tank weathered to a dull patina which matches the rust coating the rearview mirror stalks and the gear-shift rods under the brakes. I’ve taken to calling him Rusty.

A week ago, we took Rusty out to Haenam so Akasha could hang out with some girlfriends and watch Glee. (That’s a post for her to write). Rusty started right up, and we started into traffic, which true to form hasn’t been as bad as we feared. We have had a few close-calls, though it was more a matter of Asian perspectives on personal space than it was outright rudeness or poor driving. The first part of getting to Haename is getting through Mokpo. After that, there’s a nice bridge that leads across the bay, and the mountains in the distance start coming closer.

The roads were beautiful, and the sun was shining. We drove out in a convoy, led by a small gold car, a Daewoo Matiz. I followed with Akasha on the back, and behind us another friend rode her sportbike. Once past the industrial zone on the other side of the bridge, traffic thinned out, and we were able to enjoy the road. They are all well maintained, and despite the mountains in the region there isn’t a lot of heavy climbing that my bike can’t handle.

And it is quite beautiful. The mountains in the distant are green and rugged, and they recede in layers of deepening green until the furthest mountains, also the tallest, are deepened to almost black. Below us, the valley has been flatted by years of cultivation, and rice paddies stretch out to the base of the foothills miles away. This was one of the last warm weekends, and I’m afraid that it’s going to get too cold pretty fast, too cold to enjoy long trips soon. But there are dozens of small islands off our coast that we want to explore as well.

The ride to Haenam takes a little over an hour, and

In my action gear.

we were there just as the bike’s poor padding was taking its toll on my butt. (My fault for getting old, and also for not riding enough to get calluses.) So we got out at our friends apartment complex and stretched in the sun. Out there, there aren’t as many foreigners, so kids stood around to gawk at the westerners, and point fingers, and we good-naturedly asked every kid how they were, which for elementary school kids, is about all the conversation they can handle.

Then it was time for me to head back. I headed west, to the coast, to check on a festival that was taking place out there. Immediately, I regretted it. This was route 18, a much higher road, that was more exposed to the heavy winds coming in from the sea. And I hadn’t dressed for the weather, so I spent half an hour shivering in the wind, and when I arrived in Jindo, my hands were numb and I was in no mood for exploration. And the festival proved to be more popular than I’d expected, so traffic was backed up across the bridge leading to the island. I turned north to Mokpo. This road was also cold, and though it was coastal, it was very industrial, and under a lot of construction, so it was more work than it was worth and I won’t bore you with the details.

To wrap it up, I got home cold but safe. It wasn’t the best ride, but I can say that overall the good rides have outnumbered the bad, and I hope the trend continues. I’ll keep you updated as events warrant.

The Haenam Circle Route on Google Maps: