In search of Dak Galbi
Korea is a nation filled with avid cyclists. Take a walk down to the Han River on any given weekend and you’ll find bikers in fancy gear hunched forward on their souped-up bikes enthusiastically racing up and down the trails lining the river. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the best ways to explore this country is to hop on a bike armed with a map and a sense of adventure. You’ll be rewarded with views of the clear rivers, still lakes and rugged mountains that grace Korea’s landscape. Oh, and a giant plate of Korean food. But before you get too excited, point yourself in the right direction by picking up a cycling “passport,” the definitive key to river cycling in Korea. Designed to resemble a Korean passport, this book illustrates courses along four huge rivers — the Hangang, Geumgang, Yeongsangang and Nakdonggang — as well as a Jeju Island coastline course. Along each route are checkpoints where you can stamp your papers, and at the end you’re entitled to a completion certificate and a medal. Finish all the courses and you’ll get yourself a grand slam certificate (and bragging rights). All the trails have lovely features, but if you have a craving for dak galbi, take the Bukhangang course out of Seoul to the capital of Gangwon Province, Chuncheon.
This town literally wrote the book on the dish. Starting at Ungilsan Station in the northeast of Seoul, the course is 70 kilometers in length and takes about four hours and 40 minutes to complete (cycling at a leisurely pace and allowing for several gimbap stops). It remains flat most of the way, and the few undulations are gradual. Your agenda for the afternoon now involves taking in the river lazily flowing alongside the path, admiring those almost symmetrical triangular mountains in the background and gazing at the fishermen as they stand, wait and contemplate the quiet. Get a good look; after the third checkpoint at Gyeonggang Bridge, tourists on ATVs will soon replace the fishermen. Part of the course is built on a disused railway line and will take you through several old tunnels — you can indulge in the entertaining sounds of your own loud yodeling and the accompanying echo — and past a few of those quirky pensions Korea seems to have a penchant for. About 32 kilometers in, there’s a particularly odd one with a large replica of the Eiffel Tower on its roof, injecting a little bit of Parisian flair into an otherwise very typical Korean countryside. At the end of the course lies the true joy of the journey: dak galbi. Head to one of Chuncheon’s many restaurants to enjoy a scintillating stir-fry of chicken, sliced cabbage, sweet potatoes, scallions, onions and rice cakes in a spicy, chili-based sauce, all prepared in a deep pan at the table. It’s amazingly tasty here because Chuncheon boasts a thriving chicken farming industry, and their dak galbi is made with fresh, locally produced ingredients. (If you go to a restaurant a little outside the city, you may even see chickens roaming around near the table.) The meat is boneless and tender, perfectly complemented with the slight sweetness of the potato and the spicy sauce. It’s simple fare, true, but at the end of a long day’s ride, it’s just perfect. When your belly is full, jump back on your bike and return to civilization. And start planning next week’s trip.
Take the subway to Ungilsan Station on the Jungang Line and walk down to the river trail. Bicycles are allowed on most of the subway lines on weekends and public holidays (use the first and last cars).
More information on cross-country cycling (including information on the checkpoints where a “passport” can be bought) can be found at www.riverguide.go.kr/eng/index.do (link is external).