Travel can be one of the most exciting experiences in anyone’s life, but have you ever considered exploring a new, foreign culture from the seat of your bike? For many travellers, cycling is a leisure activity that barely lingers on the margins of a travel agenda. However, to 34-year-old architect, cyclist, and environmentalist Shaimaa al-Zayat, cycling has become integral to her trips.
On September 24 2016, Zayat became the first Egyptian woman to finish the longest route on the South Korean Four Rivers cycling trail, a 633 km trail connecting Seoul and Busan. “The idea of crossing an entire country [on a bicycle] is a thrill,” says Zayat. “But thankfully, South Korea is a rather small country.”
Zayat’s trip, which lasted 14 days in total, including six days on her bicycle, not only took her through South Korea’s breath-taking and ever-changing nature, but also introduced her to an enigmatic culture – a human encounter that transcended language barriers to say the least.
Morphing Into a Travel Cyclist
In 2011, Zayat moved to the Netherlands for
her post-graduate studies. Psyched to be studying in a country that is
considered as one of the world’s cycling hubs, the first thing she did before
checking into her hostel was stop by the flea market to buy herself a bicycle.
“Every time I cycled, I discovered something new. And when I say cycling, I don’t mean just running errands on the bike or going to university, but rather cycling to different cities, and going on cycling trips.”
Her newfound love for long-distance cycling was further emblazoned with more meaning and value as she fervently grew interest in environmentalism. “When people ask me why I ride the bike in Egypt, I always reply that I really want to preserve the environment,” she says. “It’s always a chance to bring people’s attention to many of Egypt’s environmental issues, and also cycling as a clean alternative to other means of transportation.”
Keen to commit to cycling as a sport, Zayat instantly joined GBI (Global Biking Initiative) upon her return to Egypt. Through this community of seasoned cyclists, she started pushing her cycling boundaries, until the regular cycling workout routine started including many open highway roads such as the Cairo-Alexandria and Cairo-Ain al-Sokhna roads.
For three years, Zayat remained sincere to cycling until she got her first chance to travel on her bike outside Egypt. In 2015, she crossed the Alps from Italy to Germany, cycling an average of 745 km through the Stelvio Pass.
“After that trip, cycling was no longer a fun activity that I did while I was on holiday. I no longer wanted to rent a bike while I was away. I wanted my own bike with me, and I wanted to see more countries by bike.”
And it was only a matter of time before she embarked on her next cycling trip.
A Unique South Korean Experience
Fuelled with excitement to get back on the road, Zayat spent months excavating the online cycling communities in search for a cycling trail that would make her heart pound with excitement; and she did.
“Basically, it’s an urban upgrading project, similar to the stuff that I studied back in the Netherlands, which I found very inspiring,” says Zayat. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, South Korea introduced a network of bullet-trains that replaced the regular railway. This project left the country with a network of unused railway tracks spanning an average of 1700 km – all of which were turned into cycling trails as part of the 2011 four major rivers restoration project.
“As I looked further into the project, I found that they provide very detailed online maps for the cycling trails as well as all sorts of needed information,” says Zayat. “All that was left for me was to book my flight, ship my bike, and go.”
Fortunately for Zayat, she needn’t issue a visa for South Korea, which made the travel preparations all the more smoother to navigate.
Upon first contact with Seoul, Zayat was mesmerized by the beauty of the city and its cycling trails. “Anyone who doesn’t cycle there is doing a big, big mistake.”
During the first couple of days in Seoul, the Egyptian cyclist took some time to meet many Korean cyclists she was introduced to online. “They gave me a huge push, encouraging me for me being the first Egyptian and Arab woman to take on this trail, let alone solo,” says Zayat with renewed excitement. “Even for some Koreans, this was an amazing adventure. What most of them do is cycle for 100 km outside the city, and return. They do it for fun rather than with the intention of finishing the entire cross-country trail.”
Besides the local hospitality and cheering, more fun awaited Zayat on the start line. “At the starting point, they give you a cycling passport which you stamp every time you pass one of the main checkpoints on the trail. At the end, whether you finish the trail in six days, or 20 days, you submit the passport, and the government awards you a medal and a certificate for your achievement.”
With gears in check and spirits high, Zayat took a deep breath, and set out on an adventure of a lifetime.
South Korea from the Saddle
“It’s an impressive experience to be introduced to an entirely different culture from a bike,” says Zayat. “The human interaction is totally different, unlike when you’re a regular tourist; maybe people won’t even notice you, or show you any sentiment. But as a cyclist, I really felt plenty of warmth from the people.”
Despite the interest many locals expressed in Zayat’s trip, it was often quite a challenge to maintain a lengthy and deep conversation due to the language barrier. Besides the difficulty this posed for socializing, it was also problematic for everyday encounters.
“I noticed that the farther away from the capital I was, the less people knew any English. I tried learning Korean, and to my surprise I found out that the Korean alphabets are very easy to decipher because they’re translated from English,” says Zayat. “To every letter in English, there’s an equivalent in Korean. So it was very easy to put together letters that make up basic words. Other than that, I mostly got by on sign language.”
Oftentimes though, the most heart-warming human exchange happened beyond the mandates of verbal interaction. On the road, Zayat saw human warmth in the form of water bottles that Buddhist monks filled up every day after their morning prayers just for the cyclists. Other times, it would manifest in a Korean cyclist who had planned a cycling trip to celebrate his 75th birthday. “Although he couldn’t speak a lot of English, he kept saying ‘Go forward. Finish the trail. Enjoy every minute because every minute counts in your life.’”
As exciting as her social interactions were on the road, Zayat spent most of her time on the trail alone.
One thing that left the Egyptian cyclist in awe was the amount of effort exerted to make this new network of cycling trails appealing to the local and international cycling communities. On the Seoul-Busan trail, everything from lampposts to toilets, cafes, motels, and even museums were cycling themed – a matter which, at the very least, made Zayat feel welcomed on the road, made it feel like a temporary home.
Such welcoming spirit did not part Zayat until she reached the finish line in Busan. “As I walked into the ministry building where I was to receive my medal, I was welcomed as though I had completed my PhD,” says Zayat, commenting on how much the government was keen on celebrating those who completed the trail.
“As much as this trip was such a challenge… I never question why I put myself through all of this effort and exhaustion,” says Zayat. “I never regret that I had to reach my destination every day before sundown, or that I had to cycle for more than 100 km on some days.”
Looking back on her trip, Zayat wishes it’ll be an inspiration for everyone, especially women, to take their chances on solo adventure travel without panic or fear.
“Some women are even hesitant about traveling alone domestically,” says Zayat. “Don’t wait until you’re married, or until your friends have the time. Just be prepared and go with the flow, but most go ahead and explore. Don’t let yourself or anyone hold you back.”
*All photographs are courtesy of Shaimaa al-Zayat