Cycling Dutchman Calls Korea Home
By Bridget O'Brien
Korean history likes Dutchmen but what about cyclists? The Dutchman, Hamel, in the 17th century was one of the first Dutchman to gain fame in Korea, largely due to his being denied permission to leave after being shipwrecked here. But Dutch national, Jan Boonstra, 55, may arguably be just as formidable an adventurer, although he is here of his own free will. After cycling 98,000 kilometers through 93 countries around the world, including almost every country in Asia, Boonstra calls Korea home.
Boonstra came to Korea in 1994 for two weeks while he was working in Hong Kong and has cycled almost 35,000 kilometers all over the peninsula. The port city he calls home is quite different from his low-lying homeland, Holland. "Pusan is a wonderful city; no matter where you stand you can always see the mountains surrounding it, just one kilometer from my home I always go walking in the mountains," said Boonstra in an interview with The Korea Times. His regular weekend cycling stretch is from Pusan to Jinha near Ulsan and back, around 100 kilometers for the day. 4-5 hours, non-stop. Boonstra almost always travels alone, and never usually stays anywhere for long. When he's on leave from his work as an engineer he makes overnight stays in a yogwan (hostel), and then he's back on the road again for another 150kms (his daily average).
The Dutchman hasn't amassed a following of adventurous Korean cyclists and can see how he is a rarity here. "Korea is so mountainous, so the car is more convenient and the car industry developed so quickly in Korea. It was a matter of prestige to own a car, so the car is the holy cow in Korea," he explains, adding "but the bicycle is really the fastest way to get through the city." For any person curious why Boonstra has been accident-free, a set of safety precautions for those wanting to cycle in Korea has been made available on his Web site. One thing he emphasizes especially is the predictable unpredictability of buses and taxis. "These vehicles must quickly veer to the right to pick up passengers so you should keep ahead of them and wave to be noticed so you are not squeezed to the sidewalk." Eight years ago, the Korea government announced it would spend 31 million on bicycle promotion, but Boonstra is not exceedingly thrilled with how the money was spent. "They spent it the wrong way completely. All the money went on bicycle tracks, which are very dangerous because of all the pedestrians. No one expects cyclists to use the paths, so they are used for rubbish and parking and storage."
For anyone interested in adventure cycling in Korea, an upcoming tour, the first semi-commercialized tour of Korea is being run by the International Bicycle Fund (iBike). The tour routes were checked and advised by Boonstra and are specially designed for the small group of a maximum ten people. The tour itinerary includes visiting temples, agricultural communities and fishing villages. The first two week trip (14 days from Sept. 19 - 2nd Oct.), called "T'amhomhada Tongjjokui (Explore Eastern Korea)" begins in Seoul and heads across the east coast down to Kyongju, aiming for 35-90 kilometers per day with a total of 800km. The second tour, beginning in Miryang (near Pusan), is the "Naduri Namhae (Sojourn to the South Sea)". Traveling from Oct. 3 - 16, the tour finishes with a circuit of Cheju Island. At 30-100km per day 640km, the tour is aimed at the intermediate cyclist. As David Mozer of iBike explains, "Bicycle touring is natural for getting into the community and supporting local businesses and argues for eliminating the barriers of glass, steel and speed that go with motor vehicles."
Boonstra agrees, "I cannot understand why there are so few cyclists here. Korea is a beautiful country for cycling."
For more information on cycle touring in Korea you can visit www.janboonstra.com. For information on the international Bicycle Fund's Korean tours, you can visit www.ibike.org/ibike/korea/index.htm