By Hannah Garrard
“Don’t leave me,” she said, as I turned my back on her for the last time.
“I can’t take you with me,” I told her, with my hand already on the door. The garage door shut and she was plunged into a dusty gloom.
…………………………………………………………………………………I remember long, evening bike rides along the fast, flat Norfolk plains, through sloping valleys and upward gradients which barely registered. My bicycle and I both loved the unbroken skylines and wide angled vistas which displayed a full, flexing setting sun. I stayed in fourth gear for most of my life.
Now I live in Incheon, South Korea, 70% of which is mountain and sheer rock face. Everybody is wedged in, shoulder to shoulder, spilling out of the city like schools of fish on public holidays. Not much room for bicycles. The cities are a medley of meandering alleys, lanes, steps and ingenious housing solutions. Cycle paths are an indulgent luxury in a country so wanting of open space.
Those who value their limbs rarely venture into the cities on a bicycle, but, it is possible to hire bikes and cycle along the Han River in Seoul, which has been paved with wheeled vehicles in mind and boasts a rare stretch of straight road. However, you’ll be joined by Segways, roller bladers, skateboarders, by lovers on ‘couple bikes’, and children making their first wobbly revolutions, anxious parents not far behind. Not to mention the tangle of kite strings belonging to the many kite flyers lining the banks. Not long ago, on a day when the summer had finally broken, I hired a Dutch bicycle and took to the Han River. Within a few minutes I suffered a very near miss when a rogue snakeboard, whose novice owner was nowhere to be seen, snaked its way between my wheels, locking them dead. I skidded to a stop at the riverbank, and felt my rear wheel rise in protest and the shock of adrenaline pinch in my feet. The snakeboard was then meekly disentangled by a nine-year-old with scuffed knees. I returned my bicycle before my hour was up.
Occasionally, when I take to the countryside or one of the islands off the peninsula’s west coast, I am passed by a group of serious cyclists with bodies lithe and toned by relentless ascents. I barely hear them approaching on their silent, feather-light machines. “Ya! Ya!” they cry in warning, travelling at speeds which would make a collision fatal. I envy their two-wheeled escape from the stifling proximity which the city inflicts.
In the neighbourhood I live in, the old colonial part of Incheon, a few die-hard ajussis (old men) still ride their bicycles, going so slowly they seem to almost stop. Their bikes are so battered and worn, having supplied a lifetime of servitude. Recycling collection is a big business for the ajussi, and they are a ubiquitous sight in the neighbourhood with their wooden carts attached to an old clunky bike, flattened cardboard piled so high its rider is just a pair of feet peddling away. Without the old bikes though, they would have no livelihood, and who would collect the recycling?
However, there is an inverse beauty to Korea I have discovered since committing my bicycle to the dusty annals of the garage. For every lost, uninterrupted skyline there is a mountain with a spectacular, heady view waiting for me at the top. The journeys to those peaks are as awesome and as liberating as any two-wheeled decent on a still, English summer night.
Still, I anticipate the day I return to my bicycle and an empty, silent horizon. That’s only if she’ll take me back . . .
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