When it comes to mountain biking, South Korea has plenty of the main thing required for the sport: mountains.
And how! Seventy percent of the land in South Korea is mountainous, as if you couldn’t tell just by looking around at the jutting peaks surrounding whatever base you find yourself assigned to.
The high country is the most beautiful part of South Korea, and a mountain bike is one of the best ways to experience it. In the hills, you will find clear spring-fed streams, Buddhist shrines and the peace and quiet that is lacking in the valleys.
You would think South Koreans would take advantage of the excellent terrain and build mountain bike trails all over it. But the sport appears to have developed slowly, at least in Area I, which has few dedicated mountain bike trails.
However, plenty of hiking tracks are almost as good, and are open to bicyclists. Unlike many hikers in the States, South Korean hikers do not appear to mind sharing their trails with cyclists.
They might even offer you alcohol, food or encouragement, shouting the South Korean cheer — “Fighting!” — as you pass.
There is a burgeoning mountain biking fraternity among South Koreans, whom you occasionally see decked out in the latest designer cycling gear and pedaling around in the backcountry. What you seldom see, despite the rows of mountain bikes around barracks on U.S. bases, is an American soldier riding off post.
“It is getting to the trails that is the problem,” said one soldier cyclist. “The traffic in South Korea is so dangerous I don’t like to ride on the road.”
The good news: South Korea has so many hills and mountains that a mountain bike trail could be right outside the gate.
My own South Korean mountain bike odyssey started last Christmas when I bought a fully shocked mountain bike from the Camp Casey exchange for $50.
It was only after the snow melted and I started putting it together when I realized that, contrary to the assurances of the South Korean staff member, who sold it to me, the bike was way too small. Even the helmet that came with it was child-sized.
Undeterred, I assembled the machine and made my first excursion — out the back gate of Camp Red Cloud and up Radar Hill, which occasionally serves as a gut-busting run during physical training sessions.
If you have ever tried to pedal a bike that is too small for you in 90-degree heat up a hill with about the same gradient as Mt. Fuji, you know how I felt.
By the time I was halfway up, I was sweating so much I could barely see the road. When I passed a soldier lugging a pack up the hill in training for the Bataan Death March race, he gave me a look of sympathy.
Imagine my relief when I reached the top of the road and rested on a cushion that some kind South Korean had left there for weary travelers.
Once the difficult hill climb is out of the way, the fun starts. Bikers can choose from among several four- wheel-drive trails and tracks to exit the top of Radar Hill. The right fork in the road takes you up a semi-steep, four-wheel-drive track that ends with a sign warning you to stop because there is a minefield at the top of the hill.
The left fork is a slightly steeper four-wheel- drive track that takes you to an abandoned bunker complex on another peak, which is a good place to stop for a drink and a picnic.
On the far side of Radar Hill, you can drop off to the left of the road and ride for several hundred yards on a muddy logging track to a small stream.
However, this track dead ends and you will have to push your bike back out unless you are exceptionally fit and skilled.
The sealed road on the far side of Radar Hill takes you to a large reservoir. If you keep riding around the reservoir, you come to a small village.
From there, the road becomes very steep and takes you to a town about four miles from Uijongbu. Just follow the main road to your right from there, and it will take you back to Red Cloud.
The best trail on Radar Hill involves heading back down the road you took to reach the hilltop. From the crossroads, there is an extremely steep drop-off through solid-looking trees. Only expert mountain bikers should attempt it.
But a few hundred yards down the road is a trail on your left that winds through the forest, linking South Korean Happy (burial) Mounds. The trail is only of intermediate difficulty and the ground is soft. But watch out for fallen branches.
My first attempt at this trail sent me to the medics with a badly cut hand after I “endoed” (flipped over the handlebars) on a branch hidden in the pine needles.
If you want to find trails in your area, the best way is to explore. However, the Internet also has a lot of information about mountain biking in South Korea.
For example, www.angelfire.com/ga/achamtb has some useful information on trails, especially those in Seoul.