Bike riding in the coastal city of Wonsan and some notes on North Korean bike types
It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. –Ernest Hemingway
We here at Koryo tours have always been keen to explore new possibilities and routes all across the country, having pioneered the concept of cycling tours in the DPRK, including mountain biking (as far up north as Mt. Paekdu) as well as city cycling in Pyongyang. In this series we will introduce the different routes we have cycled all across the DPRK – some include steep mountains and more pushing than riding, others might be a straight and flat 5k through a local town – stick around to find out more!
In summer 2017, we organized a casual city cycle in the port city of Wonsan, located on the east coast of Korea on the East Korean Bay (one known to us English as ‘Broughton Bay’ – like the one in Wales). Wonsan, once known as Port Lazareff to the Russians, was formerly a major industrial hub for imports until destroyed by heavy bombardment and a long siege during the Korean War. Along with Pyongyang, Wonsan is one of two ‘hero cities’ in the DPRK. These days the city aims at exploiting its other valuable natural talents – providing beach holidays for both Koreans and international visitors, as well as schoolchildren’s camps, and is infamous for its aquatic products, specifically excellent seafood.
While Wonsan has several hotels on offer, our tours typically stay at the Dongmyong Hotel (follow our #hotelsofthedprk blog series for more), directly connected to a pier, providing for excellent evening walks and clam barbecues. It was right in front of our hotel where we first met our local DPRK bicycles on a rainy Sunday morning…
If you have been to the DPRK in the past few years, you will have noticed that cycling is nothing unusual, neither in the cities nor across the countryside. However – you might have also noticed that 99% of the bicycles used have step-through frames rather than cross-bars. In fact, it is very likely that you didn’t see a single bicycle with any similarity to your road bikes, fixies or mountain bikes at home. The reasons for this are simple. While cycling as a sport does exist in the DPRK, it’s not as big as football, volleyball, or tennis. Many families share one or two bicycles, with a step-through frame of course being a lot handier for everyone to use. It was hence to the author’s big surprise to see that one of the three local bicycles provided to us as our rides that day, could maybe qualify as quite the hip road bike (pictured below).
We set off – first cycling south down the streets of Wonsan, passing the city square and going as far as the very close Haean Fun Fair, which might or might not be ‘closed for renovation’ these days. We turned around, cycling back to the hotel along the port, passing fishermen eager to get their Sunday catch and then headed north along the beach into the beautiful pinetree-lined alleys towards Songdowon Schoolchildren’s Camp. Cycling through these alleys, the botanical gardens, with glimpses of the seaside, catching smiles of friendly locals going for morning strolls or boating on the lakes – the whole cycle ride just took one hour (and we sure cycled very, very casually), was certainly not very sportive or strenuous but absolute bliss for a refreshing summer morning.