Travel Through South Korea on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter and Kay Forwood

South Korea on a Harley (19/4/08 - 5/5/08)
Distance 806 km (503921 km to 504727 km)

This is part of the fourteenth section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from Taiwan

19/4/08 Due to our late anticipated arrival, 9.30pm and the distance Incheon Airport is from the city, well over an hour, we had booked accommodation over the internet. The delayed departure from Taiwan meant the airport bus, nearest to our accommodation had finished running for the day. Taking an alternative bus, and with our accommodation closing at 1.00am we were racing against sleeping our first night on the streets of Seoul. By 12.20am we were lost, two taxi drivers simply waved us away, not bothering to attempt to understand us, there were many fares about in the bustling Saturday night city however approaching a couple of students, just getting into their car, they offered to take us to the backpackers. Seoul has a difficult system of addresses. Based on regions, districts and sub regions, the house last built getting the highest number, but the onboard navigation system, essential for finding any address, had us at theGyeongbokgung Royal Palace Seoul hotel before closing. Already we had been through the efficiency, abruptness, generosity and high tech, this region is famous, or infamous for.

20/4/08 It was a late start for us, not that it mattered, the backpacker breakfast room doesn't start till 9.00 am and the streets were bare on this Sunday morning till much later, a late night, late morning city, shops don't open till 10.00 am. With the motorcycle not arriving for a week we plan to take the opportunity to research options, or possibilities of getting it into North Korea. Hopefully all possibilities will be exhausted in the next few days so we don't let a possible visit to North Korea overshadow our trip to the South. The chances though look extremely unlikely. We have been in contact with a few people in South Korea for help, but tensions between the two countries, following recent elections in South Korea, is not helping. People can cross the borders between the two countries at two places, either to visit Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountain) or Kaesong Industrial Park. Kumgangsan is a place of pilgrimage and since it was opened up for visits a few years ago a couple of million South Koreans haveThe Palace's quiet gardens toured this region. Tour buses cross the border, cars and motorcycles are not permitted, and a special request by Harley-Davidson Korea to do a ride there this spring was rejected. Kaesong Industrial Park is a joint venture between the two countries for better economic ties. Using southern technology and cheap northern labour about seventy companies, all South Korean at this stage, have businesses operating across the border. Vehicles and people regularly cross, with special permission, carrying supplies and manufactured goods. We thought this would be our best chance of gaining access for the motorcycle. Not permitted to ride across the border, if we could truck it, use it as a promotional tool for one of the companies in a photo publicity exercise, ride it a few hundred metres, or more, then truck it back to the south. With this in mind we were at the Harley-Davidson dealer to make an appointment to see the owner with the hope he would know someone, or the HOG club would have connections with a company operating in the Kaesong Industrial Park, who would be willing to assist our venture. North Korea has become critical in our attempt to have the first motorcycle visit all the countries of the world. The other remaining countries,A welcome by the HOG Chapter in Seoul just six, would seem to have little difficulty with a visit, and the record could likely be completed by the end of this year.

21/4/08 With a free day we started sightseeing. The first place was Gyeongbokgung, the country's royal palace until it was destroyed by fire in the 16th century. Restored some three hundred years later and under reconstruction once again it's an enormous site of a vast number of buildings, a couple of small lakes and gardens. The place started to busy up as young school groups descended but there was sufficient room to relax and take in the enormity of the structures and picture its past glory. We attacked a Korean restaurant for lunch, not knowing what was written on the menu, selected two items by price only, Kay getting whole smoked fish, and me raw fish covered with caviar in a salad. Better almost than the main meals was the assortment of side dishes accompanying them. Salads, kimchi, seaweed, sprouts, sausage, soup, rice etc. Eaten in a small side street restaurant each meal was a great deal at $US 5.00. The rest of the day just taking in the culture. Much of this city is underground, either a design in case of military attack, as a means of staying out ofSitting on the floor eating bulgogi with Yun-Soo and James the harsh winters, or now to get away from the air pollutants that blow in from China at this time of the year, sometimes almost obliterating the skyline. The subway, its connecting passages, under road passes all make up the labyrinth. 

22/4/08 The image of getting away from things used to be throwing away your watch, time meant nothing, no commitments, no appointments, no schedules. Whilst it is a bit impractical to dispose of a timepiece in a faster moving world we have managed to travel, at least till now, without the use of the modern equivalent, a mobile phone. More and more we are constricted towards finding out information from web pages or by telephone as face to face contact in business is disappearing from the western world. Pablo, the owner of Harley-Davidson Korea, welcomed us to South Korea, was not optimistic with getting the motorcycle into North Korea, but would help with his staff to look at possibilities. Six years ago he and a small group of Harley riders managed special permission to ferry their motorcycles to the Kumgang area, but since then, this has not been possible. We were invited as guests to attend the 10th South Korean Harley Owners Group Rally, in ten days time, and the club's directorSecret Garden, part of the 40 hectare Changdeokgung Palace Mr Won-Ki Chang, welcomed us as honorary South Korean Chapter members, along with contact details of other HOG chapter directors throughout South Korea in case we had any difficulties whilst travelling here. Harley-Davidson has officially been in this country for about ten years but before that motorcycles were "illegally" imported, so called "grey" bikes. Many biker clubs started around these imports and more have started since. Although motorcycles are still not allowed on freeways the big bike popularity has grown. In a country where image is incredibly important, where dark windscreened black cars frequent the roads, and people are judged by their wealth and position, Harleys have become part of that position. Yun-Soo, from the Hells 501 club, has been in email contact with us for the last year, and waiting for our arrival in South Korea, and along with James Bond (many locals take on western names, nicknames), from Route 777 club, invited us to a traditional Korean lunch. Sitting crossed legged on the floor we enjoyed beer laced with soju (vodka like), bulgogi (beef) cooked on a gas fire at the table, accompanied by an assortment of side dishes including kimchi (spiced pickled cabbage). Yun-Soo led usOrdinary houses within the palace for the King to be one of the people delicately through the requirements of polite Korean dining, etiquette of age (extremely important), and the importance of one's position in this society.

23/4/08 One palace was not sufficient for a king in Korea and so a spare was built, to be used during renovations, rebuilding or in times of war. Over 40 hectares the grounds of Changdeokgung, or secret garden as some call the old palace, is now restored. On a return to winter's day we joined a guided tour of the vast complex. Yun-Soo had arranged an interview with a motorcycle newspaper, and in a relaxed tea shop we were interviewed and photographed regarding our trip. We had started to rest into the evening when a phone call from Mr Terry, at Korean Harley-Davidson, advised us they had managed to convince Hyundai-Asan, (the tourist arm of the company), to assist us get our motorcycle into North Korea. Hyundai-Asan runs the Kumgang Tourist Complex in North Korea. A meeting has been arranged with the company for tomorrow. Elated we await tomorrow's meeting.

24/4/08 Shamanism has been in Korea for a long time and still forms part of peopleShamanist at his spiritual shrine spirituality. Small tent like booths dot some busy streets where cards are read and fortunes told. We visited Inwangsan, Korea's most famous shamanist shrine, small, but with many offerings of food and drink, chanting and drum beating. Five whole pigs, prepared and ready for cooking, lay waiting outside and vast quantities of quality food surrounded the small altar. Believers dotted the granite hillside, their own shrines in crevices and small rocky overhangs. Our afternoon meeting with Hyundai-Asan went well. Assisted by Mr Terry from H-D, we discussed logistics and timing with two of Hyundai's marketing people. Tentative arrangements are, the motorcycle will be trucked across the border, we will join the normal tourist bus, staying one night in the Kumgang Complex. We get to ride a short distance, perhaps further if higher approval is received, get to join in the normal tourist events, if we wish, and a media representative will be present to record the event. It is all planned to happen at the end of the 10 Annual HOG rally to help with logistics, the 5th and 6th of May.   

25/4/08 Granite is a commodity that is plentifully used here. Cut rough for subway steps, smooth for lining the outside of buildings or polished for inside floors.Dinner with members of the Hells 501 club It has been used for centuries as foundations for the ruler's palaces. This evening we enjoyed a great dinner, sitting on the floor, as guests of the Hells 501 motorcycle club. We were accepted as honorary members, receiving their flag and stickers for our motorcycle from their president and were invited to ride with them during our visit to South Korea. More local food, an enormous variety of dishes and tremendous company.

26/4/08 The space for each of us is getting smaller. In South Korea each person has an area of 40 metres by 50 metres, not much more than an olympic swimming pool with a surrounding walkway. That's to live, drive or ride, grow food, for recreation etc. Bangladesh, has two people for the same area. As we travelled by the slow train towards Busan, in the south, five and a half hours away, we passed golf driving ranges, not golf courses, we passed man made fishing ponds, not open flowing rivers to fish, and in Seoul cars are stacked on ferris wheel contraptions to minimise ground space. To keep all of our population in a shrinking environment we are rapidly moving towards becoming contained, as animals in a zoo, our cage getting smaller for every new person born. Freedom to roam,Ferris wheel car stacker in a space restricted city has been replaced by community rules, with ready food and safety. Zoo animals live longer, eat better than their wild relatives, but pace their cages, neurological disorders, is this the future for people? Busan is South Korea's second largest city and one of the world's largest ports, 3.5 million people live here. Our hotel overlooks the enormous infrastructure of rail, shipping and container facilities, a port that never stops, loading and unloading ships around the clock. Our motorcycle is somewhere here, arriving today. 

27/4/08 Sunday, the small back streets are quiet, frequented by mostly Russian sailors, a few of their Russian "girlfriends" are companions. Shop signs are in Russian, eateries and chemists. We did little but wait for the motorcycle, watch the enormous number of ships arriving and departing, and be horrified at the visible air pollution cutting visibility to a couple of kilometres.

28/4/08 We were at KMTC Air-Sea Service's office this morning. Quickly they agreed to store our crate for the month we will be touring Korea, and will arrange for onward shipping to Papua New Guinea on Kyowa Line, whichSeoul skyline, pollution blows in from China at this time of year will take break bulk cargo. The stumbling block came with customs. With the high cost of land in the Busan region, warehouses are an hour or more by road from the city. As our motorcycle arrived as personal effects, and in a shared container, it was necessary to first take the container to the company warehouse, unstuff it, then take it to the customs warehouse, to clear customs, also an hour from the city, but in a different direction. Personal effects must be cleared personally and from this customs warehouse, taking a few days. Again KMTC assisted, and by late morning, it was thought they would bring the motorcycle in its crate to the port, where other vehicles arrive by ferry from Japan, where we can get approval to ride in the country and buy insurance. It all sounded great till we discovered they don't recognise an AIT/FIA carnet, only an ATA carnet issued by chambers of commerce, not the automobile association carnets. We had also been informed by a rider that carburetted vehicles are not permitted to be imported, hopefully that will be overlooked with a temporary import.

29/4/08 Mr Seo, from KMTC, had our motorcycle at the vehicle ferry customs office in Busan by 11am and assisted with paperwork and acted as interpreter. MoreBuddhist birthday celebrations in Busan discussion on whether our carnet could be recognised, but still a no. We busied ourselves uncrating and reassembling the motorcycle over lunch time. The final result was we had to pay a warranty insurance, a customs charge, seems a bit like a bond insurance like we paid to obtain the carnet, $US 240.00 for motorcycles over 1100cc's and $US 160.00 for smaller motorcycles. It doesn't matter for how long the import or the value of the import, the fees are the same. This is apparently a new system for vehicles arriving without an ATA carnet. Insurance was also required, based on the length of stay, $US 140.00, one month for us. It is also necessary to have an international drivers licence. Customs was incredibly helpful, even agreeing to store our crate for a month, so it would not need to be trucked back to the warehouse, out of town. With the correct carnet or paying the insurance bond it would normally only take less than an hour to clear a vehicle. We rode into the 186th country, and back to our hotel. In the evening the Buddhist birthday celebrations started in the square outside the train station. Elaborately dressed women, dignitaries and monks attended.

30/4/08 South Korea is the most wired society we have visited, I mean internet notDiscreet parking at a discreet motel stressed people, although there is plenty of education and work pressure about. Our hotel, $US 40.00 a night, comes with a full computer, as well as wi/fi internet, plus many other interesting features, like spa bath, and spa shower with jets blasting from the wall. The TV has the compulsory one or two semi risqué channels, sex channels, plenty of heavy breathing but no sighting of the business. Most of the hotels in our bracket are discreet, although most of the clients we have seen are looking for a night's sleep, perhaps the others are discreet. They are entered via a drive-through privacy curtain, the rooms are spacious and comfortable. We said goodbye to Busan for a month, heading out early morning, getting lost almost instantly. Road signs are quite good, some English, but as motorcycles are not allowed on freeways, and most signs on minor roads are only local, it was difficult to get a start on our direction. Using the morning sun, the coast, a couple of rivers, and we were onto the 2 heading west, the 5 heading north, the 25 towards Seoul, before stopping at a roadside eatery for lunch, where we gave the motorcycle a wash and change of engine oil, both of which were a bit overdue. The 3 had us heading closer to Seoul but not wanting toStone statues, and garden outside the H-D dealer in Seoul arrive tired and late we took a small hotel mid afternoon, being asked, till tomorrow? and the TV played people undressing. 

1/5/08 Another early morning, quite cold, start, easily entering Seoul on this Mayday holiday. Again the ride enjoyable, past many government planted gardens flowering in early spring. Public gardens are a big part of the culture, often composed of elaborate stone carvings, tortured pines and now flowering azaleas. A short visit to the H-D shop. Plans for the North Korean visit are moving smoothly. The truck carrying our motorcycle across the border will collect it at the HOG rally, a ramp and ropes organised, and Hyundai Asan has a pretty full program for our two day visit. Back at the same hotel for clothes washing, always on the schedule, and getting ready for the rally.

2/5/08 Local motorcycle politics is difficult to avoid. Sometimes power plays between different factions of motorcycle clubs, or between clubs, or between a company and individuals gets between us and enjoyment. Unknowingly we sometimes get caught up in old grievances or current disputes. We decidedBob cooking a Korean style barbecue at the rally to leave for the HOG rally from the H-D shop, an early ride, joining the Harley company representatives and about 20 other riders, mostly ex-pat Americans. It was a slow start out of town, heavy traffic, riding as one group, moving between the dozens of traffic lights together, and took an hour to clear city congestion, but then the road opened up, speeds increased and motorcycles cooled. Other groups from all over the city, different clubs, break aways, theme clubs, all moved down the roads towards the rally. A stop, where H-D sets up a free labour repair shop each Sunday, roadside, another stop for lunch, a lovely twisty ride over a mountain and we were at the rally site. A disciplined formation ride without incident. Registering the 700 rally participants was, Korean style, efficient, and by early evening we were sitting around groups of outdoor barbecues listening to music, cooking sliced meats, wrapped in lettuce and sesame seed leaves with spices, and over soju and beer, relaxed with a mix of riders from many countries.

3/5/08 Harley-Davidson sells variety. Hardly two motorcycles in the parking lot look the same, each changed, painted, chromed, added to, to reflect the owner's personality, and in Korea there are many extreme alternative Road Captain, psuedo policeman, directs motorcycles at the DMZ personalities, alter ego's, like Mr Swat. Drives a big yellow Hummer, dresses to match a heavily armoured Swat member, along with the machine gun, not real, hand grenades etc. There were a couple of pseudo Elvis's, who occupied last night's stage along with anyone else who wanted to sing a few numbers, even much of the audience massed the stage joining in and dancing, a great relaxed bunch. The most popular theme motorcycle is Police. In many countries it would be illegal, the motorcycle, sirens, red and blue lights, right down to the helmet and look alike badge design. Like often in Asia, they have taken a Western idea and adapted, and improved on it. We had a relaxed morning, choosing to take photos and watch rather than join in the mountain ride. Afternoon was bike games, slalom of witches hats the most popular, dozens of prizes, lucky balloon draw. The riders here are good, concentrate and aim for perfection in their appearance and skills. We have been hanging around with the group of westerners, mostly military or military contractors, about a dozen guys of varying ages, they have welcomed us into their midst. We have also been incredibly welcomed by the Koreans, invited to visit and stay with people after thePassing drop down concrete blocks, to close the road during an attack from the North rally on our tour south. The evening entertainment, outdoor dance show, band, very elaborate, ending with massive fireworks, directly overhead. The Koreans certainly know how to have a good time. 

4/5/08 About 400 Harleys left the resort, with fake (Harley riding road shepherds) and real police stopping traffic and guiding us through red lights for the the 50km ride to the demilitarised zones (DMZ) observation area. Here the motorcycles were ushered into their own parking lot, with precision organisation we have now become accustomed to in South Korea. We had increasingly passed heavily defended areas, all the beaches are barb wired, and roadside concrete blocks designed to be dynamited onto the road and block access in the event of an invasion. We had zoomed through the last military barrier and from the observation platform could look across the DMZ, a 2km strip on either side of the actual border and onto North Korea. On this holiday long weekend thousands of South Korean travellers were also here to look across this unusual border. By mid afternoon we had packed, and the truck to take the motorcycleMr Pablo Lee, Owner of H-D Korea, MC of ceremonies into North Korea had arrived at the rally site. All of the Harley-Davidson staff turned up, a placard wishing us good luck was produced, photos were taken, media interviews, and the motorcycle was loaded and driven away. Hopefully we see it again in North Korea. The final day of the rally, a special dinner and show had been organised. The food had already been excellent, but tonight it excelled, sushi, prawns, mussels, squid, and a dozen other dishes laid out. We were invited to sit with distinguished guests, a general, the mayor, Harley-Davidson representatives etc., and asked to give a short speech, something we are usually not comfortable with, having spent most of the rally with new friends, ex-pats. For us the evening ended early, a 4.30 am rise the reason.  

5/5/08 A Harley-Davidson van was waiting to drive us the 50 km's to the Hwajinpo-Asan Resting Place, the Mt. Kumgang registration centre.            

Being farewelled before loading the motorcycle for North Korea

Move with us to North Korea or go to
our next visit to South Korea