Friday, July 9, 2010

Another Biking Blog

I love my bike – just had to get that out of the way up front. And it’s been keeping me busy. These past few weeks, in an effort to see how much money I can realistically save on a pay-cheque (I’ve got a trip to Canada coming up next month, some debts to pay-off, and University among other things to save up for) I am scrounging and scrounging hard.

Let me give you an example: rather than continuing to buy 1 or 2 litre bottles of clear drinking water from downstairs, I’ve taken to bringing my empty bottles to school, filling them up at the filtered water dispensers, and taking them home in my bike bag. I had been buying an average of 4 bottles a week – that’s almost 25,000 won back in my pocket each month.

Also – snacks and coffee before Korean class twice a week, depending on where one buys coffee, can add-up, too. No more, I say! I’ve taken to bringing my thermos and filling it up at the learning centre with a snazzy Japanese coffee tea-bag thingy that I can’t really explain without showing you. Even it out and I’m saving another 40,000 won.
It’s a fun exercise – though I do miss my treats – and here’s where the bike comes in: I ride it everywhere – really. It’s about 2.25 hours to Hongdae where my lessons are twice a week, and the same going back. Each time I make the trek, I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m saving a collective 2,400 won each trip – more I suppose that I’m also riding to work each day. In a month, while taking the subway and buses only if I’m tight for time, it’s pissing rain, or I need to show-up somewhere not sweating like a pig, I’m saving nearly 50,000 won on transit costs.

Nice… of course, this is the trade-off. The bike did cost a pretty penny, and I’m going to make-up the cost over time somehow.

I would be lying by omission if I didn’t mention a certain source of inspiration on this won-hoarding adventure. That would be, of course, my former Kramer-neighbour, Douglas from the 13th floor, who was cheap and very proud of it. The best example of his frugality was exhibit at a friend’s birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. He had made the choice to either chip-in on a gift (which he did), or buy himself dinner (which he didn’t).

What he did do to not starve that night though was get creative at the dinner table. Free min-loaves of bread were re-ordered throughout the meal, he took care of friends’ uneaten entrees, and, in the most inspired bit from that evening, Douglas approached a table of complete strangers and inquired as to whether they were going to eat the lid from their bread bowls of clam chowder.

I’m not quite there yet, but I am looking to save some money. It’s really not a bad habit to get into.

And back to the bike. – I’m feeling muscles working in my legs that have been dormant since the days when I played soccer on a regular basis (aka: some time ago). It’s a good feeling, and even when my lessons end in Hongdae at 8:30 or 9:00 on a Thursday night during a long and humid week, I push myself home over a couple of hours and I have to say, it’s a good thing. The sun’s started going down, the humidity is beaten-back from the breeze of my movement down the streets, and I’m back in my little adventure – riding home through some truly zany side-streets and sidewalks, and it’s never a boring commute.

So let me tell you why.

Other than the paths along the cheon (stream) like the one near my apartment, and all along the Han River, there aren’t a lot of bike-specific paths in Seoul. I suppose that’s the same in any big city of over 10 million people, but like in any big city of over 10 million, it can make cross-city commutes really interesting if you need to venture away from the river pathways, which I need to do on most occasions – especially on my way to Hongdae.

This journey takes me from my school at Ssangmun Station in the far North, south to Hyehwa (about 45 min), then I cut across the south end of the two major palaces and down Gwanghwamun Plaza toward City Hall (another 30 minutes or so). After that, I head West and South past the statue of the hammering man and towards Sinchon Rotary before cutting south once more and into Hongdae.

I guess it sounds kinda boring when I look at it, but the trip is anything but. I’ll video it someday, but just trust that there is more colour and character in a 2 hour ride through Seoul than even anyone who’s lived here might think. I see a lot of the city in that time, and the range of real estate that I ride through would likely be akin to a ride through the heart of Manhattan and then back into some shabbier parts of Queens – but that’s a huge guess as I’ve never been to New York.

The best part about the shabbier parts of Seoul’s ”Queens” is that no matter what the time is, it’s always busy. People everywhere – and this can be a part of the problem. I didn’t stop at night to take photos of the crowds I was doing my best to weave through, but there are crowds.

On the way back from lessons on a Tuesday or Thursday night, probably somewhere around 20 or 30% of the paths are at least partly crowded with late-night shoppers and wanderers. I prefer “wanderers”, because despite the clear delineation between the pedestrian path and the bicycle path on a divided sidewalk which is, in some places, at least 15 feet across, its awfully hard for pedestrians to adhere to the suggested rule when they are walking 7 abreast and are likely playing Nintendo DS, texting on their cell-phones, and listening to an MP3 player. There is precious little attention left for actual walking and maneuvering through crowds in an affective way.

Let me say right off that I realize I’m making the choice to ride on a sidewalk, which is by definition pedestrian territory. However, the streets for the most part are not an option in certain places – especially for the majority of the Northward leg of my journey from Hyehwa to my apartment, where the steel fences and guard-rails that line the sidewalks to protect walkers, could easily be a cause of death and dismemberment for me should I ever decide to jump the fence and go play with the cars, driven by Seoul drivers. No, thanks.

So, on the one hand, I do appreciate municipal efforts to add and improve beautiful pathways such as the ones we see along the rivers, and I do applaud the thought that went into dividing the substantial sidewalks to encourage bike use (the model exists for a willing populace in Tokyo and Kyoto), I only wish that the non-bikers felt the same way.

So, as a former pedestrian, with the shoe now firmly on the other foot, I have to say that Seoul pedestrians drive me insane. Not only pedestrians mind you, but the motorized delivery scooters as well as cars – yes, CARS – that decide there’s room enough on the sidewalk for them as well. The following photos give you an idea of the layout of the sidewalks I take to work each morning.

This a comparatively narrow section actually, but as you can see, this area suggests that the red portion of the path is to be shared by both bikes, and adults accompanying tiny children to and from school. Not the safest suggestion, but a workable one.

Further on, as the sidewalk splits where the main road moves North and South, brickwork suggests again that the red section should be for bikes.
Sometimes, the brickwork is less successful…

Sometimes, drivers mistake the shoddy brickwork for signage suggesting that the sidewalk is the perfect place for them to park their cars.

Often, the bike section is blocked by the ass-end of a rusty truck, while the option of going around said truck is also obscured by this guy…

It’s a give and take thing, and I try not to be in a rush. There are empty sections where I can open it up, but my bike in its highest gear, and make-up time, but man – there I times where I just want to shake my head.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little “ding” from my bell to alert a savvy pedestrian to my presence. They hear the bell, and step to the right. Turns out this is a rare breed however. The vast majority of side-walkers, assuming their ears are free enough to hear my bell, respond to the noise as though I am moving fast enough to cause a cataclysmic sidewalk holocaust of flying bodies and bicycle parts – they jump INTO my path before looking behind to see where I’m coming from and usually warn everyone around them in a loud and panicked voice. It’s as though I’ve risen out of the Pacific as a result of nuclear testing, turned my back on Tokyo, and made my way toward the hermit kingdom just for shits and giggles. “Oma! Jajeonga!” (“Mother – BICYCLE!!!)Honestly, their fear is palpable.

In reality, I’m not moving that fast. It’s about on par with the security guard getting run-over by Austin Powers driving the steam-roller. Most people are walking faster than I'm riding in these sections. And no - getting off and pushing would only mean that I'd take up more space.

Anyway, minor trials and tribulations. Still, the ride seems like an adventure each time. And still, I love being able to just fold it up and head into wherever I need to be.

I have to say, I have become a complete Brompton convert. It’s probably the Mac of bikes and it’s as addictive and as pretty. No, it won’t take you up mountains, though the 6 gear option will take you anywhere you need to go quite comfortable in hilly Seoul. I also just received word that my telescopic seat has arrived and I’ll be picking it up next month. That’ll give me more pedal power as my legs will finally be able to extend the proper amount at the bottom of a pedal stroke. Nice.

Anyway, I promise that my next blog entry will not mention my bike. Until then… kick, push, and coast…

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