I glared at the bicycle in stark disbelief; am I really required to paddle this two-wheeler at the ripe age of twenty-two in one of the most developed parts of Asia? I heard some squeals around me and turned to see a few girls from India, Nepal and Bangladesh also astonished by the sight and the same question etched across their faces.
The cause of such bewilderment was the sight of dozens of cute and colourful bicycles lined up together. That in itself would have been pretty harmless if not for one caveat- that all the tourists are required to ride these bicycles around the beautiful city of Gyungju in South Korea to explore its many attractions in what is known as “the bike tour”.
Our surprise may have been slightly misplaced for the program guide did underline the buzzwords of “ecotourism” and “green development” yet it had failed to create an image of such ascetic recreation. Hailing from developing countries, we quantified development and progressiveness in terms of the number of cars on streets, webs of highways and concrete jungles all around us. This also translated into some set notions of recreation that involved luxury in five star hotels and restaurants, high horse power cars, and extravagant shopping malls.
Preserving cultural and historical heritage
The Gyeongju tour in South Korea defies all such notions and challenges its participants to experience a completely different manner of tourism in the historic city that echoes with the legacy and remains of the long past Shilla Dynasty. Also called “the stamp tour”, this eco-tour is ingeniously designed with unusual yet thoroughly enjoyable activities around the main haunts and attractions of the city such as the Seokguram grotto, Bulguksa temple and Yangdon Folk Village, all of which are also designated as “World Heritage Sites” by UNESCO, in addition to Anabji Pond, Shilla Millenium Park- fifteen sites in total.
Mission accomplished: stamps on the booklet
The participants are handed a map, a bicycle and a small booklet that lists all these places- and then left on their own. They need to study the map, take cues from the helpful street signs and reach these sites on their bikes; at each destination, there is a booth that prints the trademark stamp of the historic site next to its name on the tourist’s booklet to certify “destination reached”. Certain programs divide the participants into teams who race with each other to reach all the sites; the team that collects all the stamps in the shortest duration wins it all.
My initial measure of incredulity and scepticism soon turned into an exhilarating experience of sheer pleasure and learning. Tentatively putting my second foot on the paddle and gripping the handles bar for life, I took a deep breath, completely unsure of my balance. Old habits die hard or so it seemed as I effortlessly took a short round with nothing to betray that I hadn’t cycled in more than ten years! The ecstatic rush had also to do with the lush coolness of greenery, sweet fragrance of raw earth, crunch of the gravel path beneath my wheels and an atmosphere unfettered by vehicle emissions, smoke, honks and the usual city din.
(L) The winding path to Seokrum Grotto (C) Water fountain to refresh the visitors (R) The serenity of temple is well worth the walk
Apart from the bike tour, the city preserves its heritage sites by leaving the paths to these sites unpaved and thus encouraging people to take long, refreshing walks- which are often hikes- to these sites, e.g. the route to Seokrum Grotto was a winding ascent but totally worth the perspiration. Also, the restaurants in the city are on board this project and offer traditional Korean food in an eco-friendly way- the food is laid out on low tables which the diners partake while sitting on the wood polished floor- and, yes, shoes are taken off outside the eat-outs.
Traditional Korean diner: sit on the floor and eat!
Such ecotourist programs are part of the larger Green Movement in South Korea which seeks to balance out environmental degradation from high paced industrialization and to preserve the country's national heritage- in their much revered yin-yang approach, i.e., good and evil harmony. The world renowned POSCO Company of Korea, for example, has entry and exit sprays and flow side jets which maintain the air eco-balance in Pohang-its home city- and diminish adverse impacts of industrial by-products.
Green Development in Korea: harmony between growth and environment- Yin Yang
As a visitor from Pakistan, such measures intrigued me to no end. Absorbing such new concepts, I could not help but replay Pakistan’s scenic landmarks of the North or the deep rooted cultural and historical heritages of the South, languishing in neglect for the most part with little thought to a sustainable preservation policy. Could we also launch such invigorating yet eco-friendly tourist programs? Watch this space to find out more. Till then, the grass is greener on that side.
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