Gyeongju is really a great place for cycling. The countryside around Gyeongju is fairly flat and dozens of cement farm roads weave their way through scenic rice paddies and rustic villages. Cycling’s also the fastest way to visit the dozens of ancient Silla tombs, temples, relics and ruins scattered outside of the city. Not to mention, you can rent bikes for the day at both the train and bus stations and the bikes are usually in fairly decent shape too. When I first started this blog I’d planned on posting a lot more on different cycling routes in the area. Unfortunately, aside from one or two early posts, that never really happened. To be honest, I’ve probably been on a bike once since my son was born two years ago (a sad fact I hope to soon change).
However, in the mean time it seems cycling has really blown up in Korea. It’s not unusual these days to see Korean cyclists tearing through town on high budget bikes decked out in the latest aerodynamic helmets and spandex gear. The Gyeongju City Government has gotten hip to this trend and has published both a cycling map and guide book detailing 6 different biking courses in and around the city. Unfortunately, the guide book is only available in Korean, but the cycling map is bilingual and is available for free at the Tourist Info kiosks by the train and bus stations. As a public service for local and visiting expat cyclists, I’ve scanned the maps of the various routes which I’m posting below (click on each map to enlarge it). I’m also including a few tips and comments of my own for each route.
Being a (former) serious cyclist, I think it’s awesome that the city’s decided to plug cycle tours in and around Gyeongju. However, I do have a few minor gripes. The cycling map isn’t a detailed street map; nor is it necessarily to scale and sometimes the locations of the stops are flat out wrong (such as Queen Seondeok’s Tomb, #10 on Course 2) or don’t match the locations on course itinerary (like Beaknyulsa Temple, # 8 on Course 3). Unfortunately, this means you’re likely to get lost following a few of these maps, especially if you can’t read or speak Korean. The city has done a good job of posting road signs around town directing visitors to various historical sites, which helps. But if you get turned around easily or are planning on doing long distance cycling, I’d suggest stopping by the Gyeongju Cultural Center, down the block from the Bus Terminal as you start your ride. Here you can pick up a copy of their highly detailed topographic map of the Gyeongju area on your way out of town. Or you can just use Google Maps or Naver Navi on your smart phone, though Naver maps beats Google hands down in terms of resolution.
Course 1 covers most of the important historical sites in town, like Cheomseongdae Observatory and Anapji Pond, so it’s a great route for first time visitors to Gyeongju. It’s also an easy ride, so it’s great for folks who haven’t been on a bike in a while. Usually I find cycling in town to be a bit hair-raising, but most of the roads on this route are in historical areas or parks and should be alright. Just be careful of cycling on the main road back to the bus terminal from Bunhwangsa Temple (#9) as it’s pretty busy, especially on the weekends.
Course 2 winds through the farm villages and rice paddies around Mt. Nangsan (actually a hill), which is a great area for cycling. I definitely recommend this route for those who want to get out and see a bit of the countryside around Gyeongju. If you have more time and are feeling adventurous, you can combine it with Course 6 along the east side of Mt. Namsan. My only complaint is that you both leave and return along NR 7. Honestly, I really hate cycling along 7 as it’s the main highway to Ulsan and has heavy traffic, making it unsafe to ride on the actual road, not to mention you wind up sucking truck exhaust the whole time. Instead of returning along NR 7, I’d suggest heading back to town via Bunhwangsa Temple and the ruins of Hwangnyeongsa Temple (# 9 and # 8 on Course 1). From Queen Seondeok’s Tomb (# 10), turn right at the next light and head north under the train tracks. Then, hook a left at the river and Bunhwangsa Temple will be on the left at the next light.
Course 3 visits the various historical sites in the newer Gyeongju neighborhoods of Hwangseong-Dong and Dongcheon-dong. King Heondok’s Tomb (# 10/11) and Pyo-am Shrine (# 8/9) are both pretty cool, but my favorite destinations in this part of town are Baeknyulsa Temple and the ancient four-sided Buddha of Gulbulsa. Baeknyulsa Temple is listed as #8 on the itinerary, but somehow got left off of the map, which lists #8 as Pyo-am. Baeknyulsa is just 500 meters north on the main road from Pyo-am and definitely worth the visit. That said, there’s not much else on this course I’d recommend and, unless you enjoy cycling through heavy traffic and boring residential neighborhoods, I’d give the rest of this course a miss.
Course 4 is another route I’d recommend to first time visitors to Gyeongju. However, give yourself a little extra time to exploring the village of Seoak-dong (#3 through #7) at the foot of Mt. Seondosan, which is also a great place to stop for lunch. Really, the only thing that really makes this course at all difficult is the return loop south to the IC and back along the main roads on the east side of the river. But, unless you plan on visiting some sites included on the other courses on your way back to the Bus Terminal, you might as well head back after the tombs (#7) and save yourself some time.
Course 5 covers the scenic farm villages on the north-west side of Mt. Namsan and includes stops at historical sites like Poseokjeong Pleasure Palace and the ancient Buddha triad of Sambulsa Temple. Again, I’d suggest giving yourself an extra hour or two for this course as you can easily stop at a few places marked on Course 1 or 6 on your way out of town. Not to mention, the hour’s hike up Samnueng Valley (#10) is one of the most rewarding hikes on Mt. Namsan. Also, I wouldn’t bother returning to town on the new NR 35 as it’s usually busy and not very pretty. Instead, try following the old NR 35 back into town along the east side of O-reung Tombs Park, which is especially beautiful if the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
The last course is the longest on the map and covers the farm villages, historical sites and ancient ruins along the east side of Mt. Namsan. However, the route doesn’t include any serious hills or inclines, so don’t let the “most demanding” ranking scare you off. Like I said before, you can combine this course with Course 2 around Mt. Nangsan for a day’s ride if you want. But, unless you enjoy bland nationalist architecture from the late 70’s, Tongiljeon Shrine (#4) is a waste of time in my opinion. Your time would be better spent continuing on the road south from Seochulji Pond for a kilometer or two to explore the farm village of Namsan-dong, which is home to a lot of photogenic farm houses, temples, and ancient Silla ruins.
Again, kudos to the Gyeongju tourist board for getting this map out there and providing a few good cycling routes for visitors. Let’s hope that they also soon put some effort also translating the actual cycling guide book and the Gyeongju cycling website into languages other than Korean as this would go a long way towards promoting Gyeongju as the international cycling destination that it deserves to be. And if I actually get back to biking soon, I hope to post a few more cycling routes of my own up here on the blog. Until then, happy cycling.