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Bikepacking in Jeju Island: How my four-day cycling trip helped me with the loss of my mother

In the months before my mother passed away from terminal illness in 2021, my bicycle became an unlikely companion. Plugged into a playlist of thumping tunes, I would lose myself in the rhythm of the ride, each pedal stroke taking me further away from the overwhelming demands of caregiving and the palpable sense of impending loss.

At her funeral, my uncle revealed that my mum had confessed to feeling guilty about being a constant burden to my father and me, and that she found solace in knowing that my new cycling hobby gave me a breath of freedom.

This knowledge left me torn. I stopped cycling for a while, weighed down by my guilt at realising that she had always sensed my need for a respite from my responsibilities – and, indirectly, from her – yet never held it against me.

When I later resumed riding occasionally, I never again experienced that feeling of liberation I used to have – until I went on an impromptu bikepacking trip around Jeju Island, South Korea, in September this year.

THE ROAD TO (SELF) FORGIVENESS

With mostly flat terrain, gentle slopes and a manageable distance, Jeju Island is the perfect launchpad for bikepacking newbies who may not be accustomed to long rides and challenging climbs, said my more experienced travel buddy, who once did a solo bikepacking trip in Taiwan.

Embarking on Day 1 of our ride, we made for Darak Shelter (21km from Mir), travelling in an anti-clockwise direction.

Our journey took an engaging turn when we met Alain, a seasoned cyclist from Quebec, Canada, during a pit stop for breakfast. His tales of bikepacking across Asia – from Seoul to Busan, with plans to conquer Taiwan and Japan next – ignited our spirits.

His advice to embrace slow travel on two wheels and to savour every moment resonated deeply as we ventured through Jeju’s unique landscape.

The quiet bustle of towns blended seamlessly into a serene landscape of black basalt rock formations – a result of volcanic activity on the island millennia ago – against a deep blue sea.

Taking Alain’s words to heart, we paused to appreciate iconic photo ops, such as the Dodu-dong Rainbow Coastal Road, with its vibrant bollards, and the whimsical Iho Tewoo Horse Lighthouses, which looked to me like Trojan horses.

Our journey continued past the pristine white sands and emerald waters of Hyeopjae Beach to Haegeoreum Village Park (a 21km ride), where we collected our second stamp before moving on to our last stop of the day at Songaksan (another 35km) in the city of Seogwipo.  

PACK LIKE A BUDGET-CONSCIOUS PRO

Want to bring your Brompton, but don’t have travel luggage? Here’s a tip: Buy its original carton from Carousell. Trim 7-8cm off the top so that it fits the luggage requirements of Scoot, which flies direct to Jeju. Use bubble wrap around the bike’s corners and delicate parts. Pack your clothes in ziplock bags and slot them around the bike as extra padding. Inform your guesthouse beforehand about storing your luggage/boxes for the duration of your ride. If that’s too much of a hassle, you can rent bikes from Biketrip, a 5-min walk from the airport. Collapse Expand

Pedalling along the western coast, we were greeted by stunning views of towering wind turbines along the Sinchang Windmill Coastal Road.

Nearing the end of Day 1, we faced our first challenge in the form of formidable headwinds after nearly 10 hours of cycling. Drained, yet determined, we pushed our bikes for the next 45 minutes and finally arrived at our hostel, ttottot Jeju Backpackers.

Riding on, we passed Beophwan Village, where we spotted several black-clad haenyeo (Jeju’s legendary female divers), and stopped for a moment to admire their incredible strength and resilience.

Related:

What’s it like to go diving with the haenyeo in Jeju Island, South Korea

Our relatively short day ended at Gudeok Guesthouse. After checking in, we explored the buzzing Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market, a blend of traditional and modern, offering everything from local delicacies and produce to Jeju souvenirs and street food.

Day 3’s journey along the southern coast was a testament to Jeju’s unpredictable weather, with sudden thunderstorms forcing us to seek shelter multiple times.

Midway through a severely disrupted ride to Pyoseon Beach (28km), we decided to stop for lunch at Mr Crab. There, we tucked into a hearty Cajun-style seafood boil served with uniquely Korean elements such as seaweed rice and abalone.

This lifted my spirits, and I silently thanked her as I rode on, re-invigorated, to our final destination for Day 3 at CO-OP City Hotel Seongsan.

COMING FULL CIRCLE

As we were on a tight schedule, we didn’t make it to catch the sunrise on Seongsan Ilchulbong – a bucket-list item for many travellers – on Day 4. Winding along the eastern coast, we discovered the sparkling Gimnyeong Beach (29km) with its cobalt-blue waters and the lively Hamdeok Beach (9km) further along, packed with groups of holiday makers.

Navigating our way back to the city took us to the peak of Sarabong Park (more ascents and descents, welp) and down to the port of Jeju. As I looked up at the sign that informed me I was less than 10km away from our final checkpoint, I felt overcome with a surge of emotions and… cried.

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