The Long Riders' Guild

Riding Across Korea


by Isabella Bird FRGS

These diary extracts were published in Isabella Bird’s book, Korea and Her Neighbours, which recounts her journey to that nation in 1894.

Setting Off

The day before I left was spent in making acquaintance with Mr. Yi Hak In, receiving farewell visits from many kind and helpful friends, looking over the backs and tackle of the ponies I had engaged for the journey, and in arranging a photographic outfit.

For the benefit of future travellers I will mention that my equipment consisted of a camp-bed and bedding, candles, a large, strong, doubly oiled sheet, a folding chair, a kettle, two pots, a cup and two plates of enamelled iron, some tea which turned out musty, some flour, curry powder, and a tin of Edward's ''dessicated soup," which came back unopened! Warm winter clothing, a Japanese hirumaya’s hat (the best of all travelling hats), and Korean string shoes completed my outfit, and I never needed anything I had not got!

The start on 7th November was managed in good time, without any of the usual delays, and I may say at once that the mapu (grooms), the bugbear and torment of travellers usually, never gave me the slightest trouble. Though engaged by the day, they were ready to make long day's journeys, were always willing and helpful, and a month later we parted excellent friends. As this is my second favourable experience, I am inclined to think that Koreans are a maligned class. For each pony and man, the food of both being included, I paid ^i, about 2 shilling, per day when travelling, and half that sum when halting. Mr. Yi had two ponies, I two baggage animals, on one of which I rode, and a saddle pony, i.e. a pack pony for the occasion.

Korean horses and their mapus (grooms).

The Lilliputian Korean pony

The overfed and self-willed ponies, chiefly roan and grey, are very handsome, and showily caparisoned, the heads covered with blue, red, and yellow balls, and surmounted with great crimson silk pompons, the bridles a couple of crimson silk scarves, the saddles a sort of leather-covered padded pack saddle 12 inches above the animal's back, with wide, deep flaps of bright green silver-bossed leather hanging down on either side, the cruppers folded white silk, and the breastplate shields of gold embroidery. The gorgeous rider, lifted by his servants upon this elevation, stands erect in his stirrups with his feet not halfway down his pony's sides, his left hand clutching rather than holding an arch placed for this purpose at the bow of the saddle. These officials made no attempt to hold their own bridles, their ponies were led by servants, retainers supported them by the feet on either side, and as their mounts showed their resentment of the pace and circumstances by twisting and struggling with their grooms, the faces of the riders expressed " a fearful joy," if "joy" " it was.


On the 14th of April, 1894, when the environs of Seoul were seen through a mist of green, and plum and peach blossom was in the ascendant, and the heliotrope azalea was just beginning to tint the hillsides, and the air was warm and muggy, I left the kind friends who had done much to make my visit to Seoul interesting and agreeable, and went on pony-back through the south gate, passing the temple of the God of War, and over a pine-clothed ridge of Nam-San to Han Kang, four miles from Seoul.
Pack train leaving Seoul.


A grey and murky morning darkening into drizzle, which thickened into a day's pouring rain, was an inauspicious beginning of a long land journey, but the crawling up the north Han had become monotonous and change and action were desirable. Being an experienced muleteer, I had arranged the loads for each pony so equitably as to obviate the usual quarrel among the mapu (grooms) at starting! The men were not regular inaptly and were going chiefly to see the Diamond Mountain. One was well educated and gentlemanly, and the bystanders jeered at them for “'loading like scholars." They were a family party, and there were no disputes.

My first experience of the redoubtable Korean pony was not reassuring. The men had never seen a foreign saddle and were half an hour in getting it fixed. Though a pony's saddle, it was far too large for the creature's minute body, the girths were half a yard and the crupper nearly a foot too long. The animal bit, squealed, struck with his fore and hind feet, and performed the singular feat of bending his back into such an inward curve that his small body came quite near the ground. The men were afraid of him, and it was only in the brief intervals of fighting that they dared to make a dash at the buckles. It was "tight-lacing" that he objected to.

When she ventured to Hawaii in the late 19th century, English Long Rider Isabella Bird learned to ride astride thanks to her Hawaiian hosts. In addition to rounding up the wild cattle imported by the King of that island, the Mexican vaqueros had also taught the local women to ride astride. Bird not only adopted this technique, she used her vaquero saddle when she later explored the Rocky Mountains (right), Japan, Persia, Tibet and Korea on horseback.


The Korean pony is among the most salient features of Korea. The breed is peculiar to it. The animals used for burdens are all stallions, from l0 to 12 hands high, well formed, and singularly strong, carrying from 160 to 200 lbs. 30 miles a day, week after week, on sorry food. They are most desperate fighters, squealing and trumpeting on all occasions, attacking every pony they meet on the road, never becoming reconciled to each other even on a long journey, and in their fury ignoring their loads, which are often smashed to pieces. Their savagery makes it necessary to have a groom for every pony, instead of, as in Persia, one to five.

At the inn stables they are not only chained down to the troughs by chains short enough to prevent them from raising their heads, but are partially slung at night to the heavy beams of the roof. Even under these restricted circumstances their cordial hatred finds vent in hyena-like yells, abortive snaps, and attempts to swing their hind legs round. They are never allowed to lie down, and very rarely to drink water, and then only when freely salted. Their nostrils are all slit in an attempt to improve upon Nature and give them better wind. They are fed three times a day on brown slush as hot as they can drink it, composed of beans, chopped millet stalks, rice husks, and bran, with the water in which they have been boiled. The grooms are rough to them, but I never saw them either ill-used or petted.

Dearly as I love horses, I was not able on two journeys to make a friend of mine. On this journey I rode a handsome chestnut, only l0 hands high. He walked 4 miles an hour, and in a month of travelling, for much of it over infamous mountain roads, never stumbled, but he resented every attempt at friendliness both with teeth and heels. They are worth from 50 shillings upwards, and cost little to keep.

Their attendants, the mapu (grooms), who are by no means always their owners, or even part owners, are very anxious about them and take very great care of them, seeing to what passes as their comfort before their own. The pack saddle is removed at once on halting, the animals are well rubbed, and afterwards thick straw mats are bound round their bodies. Great care is given to the cooking of their food. I know not whether the partial slinging of them to the crossbeams is to relieve their legs or to make fighting more difficult. On many a night I have been kept awake by the screams of some fractious animal, kicking and biting his neighbours as well as he was able, till there was a general plunging and squealing, which lasted till blows and execrations restored some degree of order.

After I mounted my steed, he trudged along very steadily, unless any of his fellows came near him, when, with an evil glare in his eyes and a hyena-like yell, he rushed upon them teeth and hoof, entirely oblivious of bit and rider.


The pony is not used in agriculture. Ploughing is done by the powerful, noble, tractable, Korean bull, a cane ring placed in his nostrils when young rendering him manageable even by a young child. He is four years in attaining maturity, and is now worth from 3 to £4, his value having been enhanced by the late war and the prevalence of rinderpest in recent years. Milk is not an article of diet. In some districts ox- sleds of very simple construction are used for bringing down fuel from the hills and produce from the fields, and at Seoul and a few other cities rude carts are to be seen; but ponies, men, and bulls are the means of transport for produce and goods, the loads being adjusted evenly on wooden pack saddles, or in the case of small articles in panniers of plaited straw or netted rope. In the latter, ingeniously made to open at the bottom and discharge their contents, manure is carried to the fields. Both bulls and ponies are shod with iron. The pony carries from 160 to 200 lbs. Sore backs are lamentably common.


 Local Hospitality

Denuded hillsides gave place to wooded valleys with torrents much resembling parts of Japan, the rain fell in sheets, and quite in the early afternoon, on reaching the hamlet of Sarpang Kori, the grooms declined to proceed farther, and there I had my first experience of a Korean inn. Many weeks on that and subsequent journeys showed me that this abominable shelter, as I then thought it, may be taken as a fair average specimen, and many a hearty meal and good sound sleep may be enjoyed under such apparently unpropitious circumstances.

There are regular and irregular inns in Korea. The irregular inn differs in nothing from the ordinary hovel of the village roadway, unless it can boast of a yard with troughs, and can provide entertainment for beast as well as for man. The regular inn of the towns and large villages consists chiefly of a filthy courtyard full of holes and heaps, entered from the road by a tumble-down gateway. A gaunt black pig or two tethered by the ears, big yellow dogs routing in the garbage, and fowls, boys, bulls, ponies, grooms’ hangers-on, and travellers' loads make up a busy scene.

A Korean restaurant.

On one or two sides are ramshackle sheds, with rude, hollowed trunks in front, out of which the ponies suck the hot brown slush which sustains their strength and pugnacity. On the other is the furnace-shed with the oats where the slush is cooked, the same fire usually heating the flues of the common room, while smaller fires in the same shed cook for the guests. Low lattice doors filled in with torn and dirty paper give access to a room the mud floor of which is concealed by reed mats, usually dilapidated, sprinkled with wooden blocks which serve as pillows. Farming gear and hat boxes often find a place on the low heavy crossbeams. Into this room are crowded grooms, travellers, and servants, the low residuum of Korean travel, for officials and nobles receive the hospitalities of the nearest magistracy, and the peasants open their houses to anybody with whom they have a passing acquaintance. There is in all inns of pretensions, however, another room, known as "the clean room," 8 feet by 6, which, if it existed, I obtained, and if not I had a room in the women's quarters at the back, remarkable only for its heat and vermin, and the amount of bundles of dirty clothes, beans rotting for soy, and other plenishings which it contained, and which reduced its habitable portion to a minimum. At night a ragged lantern in the yard and a glim of oil in the room made groping for one's effects possible.

A Korean house.

The room was always overheated from the ponies' fire. From 80° to 85° was the usual temperature, but it was frequently over 92°, and I spent one terrible night sitting at my door because it was 105° within. In this furnace, which heats the floor and the spine comfortably, the Korean wayfarer revels.

On arriving at an inn, the master or servant rushes at the mud, or sometimes matted, floor with a whisk, raising a great dust, which he sweeps into a corner. The disgusted traveller soon perceives that the heap is animate as well as inanimate, and the groans, sighs, scratchings, and restlessness from the public room show the extent of the insect pest. But I never suffered from vermin in a Korean inn, nor is it necessary.

After the landlord had disturbed the dust, Wong put down either two heavy sheets of oiled paper or a large sheet of cotton dressed with boiled linseed oil on the floor, and on these arranged my camp-bed, chair, and baggage. This arrangement (and I write from twenty months' experience in Korea and China) is a perfect preventative.


Bad Roads

The roads along which the traveller rides or trudges, at a pace, in either case, of 3 miles an hour, are simply infamous. There are few made roads, and those which exist are deep in dust in summer and in mud in winter, where they are not polished tracks over irregular surfaces and ledges of rock. In most cases they are merely paths worn by the passage of animals and men into some degree of legibility. Many of the streams are unbridged, and most of the bridges, the roadways of which are only of twigs and sod, are carried away by the rains of early July, and are not restored till the middle of October. In some regions traffic has to betake itself to fords or ferries when it reaches a stream, with their necessary risks and detentions. Even on the “Six Great Roads" which centre in the capital, the bridges are apt to be in such a rotten condition that a groom usually goes over in advance of his horses to ascertain if they will bear their weight. Among the mountains, roads are frequently nothing else than boulder- strewn torrent beds, and on the best, that between Seoul and Chemulpo, during the winter, there are tracts on which the mud is from one to three feet deep. These infamous bridle tracks, of which I have had extensive experience, are one of the great hindrances to the development of Korea.

Among the worst of these is that part of the main road from Seoul to Won-san which we followed from Sar-pang Kori for two days to Sang-nang Dang, where we branched off for the region known as Keum-Kang San, or the Diamond Mountain.

The earlier part of this route was through wooded valleys, where lilies of the valley carpeted the ground, and over the very pretty pass of Chyu-pha (1,300 feet), on the top of which is a large spirit shrine, containing some coarsely painted pictures of men who look like Chinese generals, the usual offerings of old shoes, rags, and infinitesimal portions of rice, and a tablet inscribed, “In the spirit Song-an-chi, dwell in this place." There, as at the various trees hung with rags, and the heaps of stones on the tops of passes, the mapu bowed and expectorated, as is customary at the abodes of daemons.

More than once we passed not far from houses outside of which the mutang or sorceress, with much feasting, beating of drums, and clashing of cymbals, was exercising the daemon which had caused the sickness of some person within. Portions of the expensive feast prepared on these occasions are offered to the evil spirit, and after the exorcism part of the food so offered is given to the patient, in the belief that it is a curative medicine, often seriously aggravating the disease, as when a patient suffering from typhoid fever or dysentery is stuffed with pork or kimshi.  Recently a case came under the notice of Dr. Jaisohn in Seoul, in which a man, suffering from the latter malady, died immediately after eating raw turnips, given him by the mutang after being offered to the demons at the usual feast at the ceremony of exorcism.


 Avoiding Tigers

The scenery became very varied and pretty. Forests clothed many of the hills with a fair blossoming undergrowth untouched by the fuel gatherers' remorseless hook; torrents flashed in foam through dark, dense leafage, or bubbled and gurgled out of sight; the little patches of cultivation were boulder-strewn; there were few inhabitants, and the tracks called roads were little better than the stony beds of streams. As they became less and less obvious, and the valleys more solitary, our conversations were more frequent and prolonged, the grooms drove the ponies as fast as they could walk, the fords were many and deep, and two of the party were unhorsed in them, still we hurried on faster and faster. Not a word was spoken, but I knew that the men had tiger on the brain.

Korean tiger hunters armed with matchlock muskets.

Blundering through the twilight, it was dark when we reached the lower village of Ma-ri Kei, where we were to halt for the night, two miles from the Pass of Tan-pa-Ryong, which was to be crossed the next day. There the villagers could not or would not take us in. They said they had neither rice nor beans, which may have been true so late in the spring. However, it is, or then was, Korean law that if a village could not entertain travellers it must convoy them to the next halting-place.

A Korean village.

The grooms were frantic. They yelled and stormed and banged at the hovels, and succeeded in turning out four sleepy peasants, who were reinforced by four more a little farther on; but the torches were too short, and after sputtering and flaring, went out one by one, and the fresh ones lighted slowly. The grooms lost their reason. They thrashed the torchbearers with their heavy sticks; I lashed my groom with my light whip for doing it; they yelled, they danced. Then things improved. Gloriously glared the pine knots on the leaping crystal torrents that we forded, reddening the white clothes of the men and the stony track and the warm-tinted stems of the pines, and so with shouts and yells and waving torches we passed up the wooded glen in the frosty night air, under a firmament of stars, to the mountain hamlet of upper Ma-ri Kei, consisting of five hovels, only three of which were inhabited.

It is a very forlorn place and very poor, and it was an hour before my party of eight human beings and four ponies were established in its miserable shelter, though even that was welcome after being eleven hours in the saddle.



I went up to Seoul on horseback, snow falling the whole time. So safe was the country that no escort was needed, and I rode as far as Oricol without even a groom. The halfway house of my first visit was a Japanese post, and going to it in ignorance of the change, I was very kindly received by the Japanese soldiers, who gave me tea and a brazier of charcoal. The Seoul road, pegged out by Japanese surveyors for a railroad, was thickly sprinkled for the whole distance with laden men and bulls.

At Seoul I was the guest of Mr. Hillier, the British Consul General, for five weeks. The weather was glorious, and the mercury sank on two occasions to 7° below zero, the lowest temperature on record. I received the warmest welcome from the kindly foreign community, and was steeped in Seoul life, the political and other interests growing upon me daily; and having a pony and a soldier at my disposal, I saw the city in all its turnings and windings, and the charming country outside the gates, and several of the Royal tombs with their fine trees, and avenues of stately stone figures.


Freezing in the Saddle

Glorious weather favoured my departure from the ancient Korean capital. The day's journey lay through pretty country, small valleys, and picturesquely shaped hills, on which the vegetation, whatever it was, had turned to a purple as rich as the English heather blossom, while the blue gloom of the pines emphasized the flaming reds of the dying leafage. The villages were few and small, and cultivation was altogether confined to the valleys. Pheasants were so abundant that the grooms pelted them out of the cover by the roadside, and wild ducks abounded on every stream. The one really fine view of the day is from the crest of a hill just beyond 0-hung-suk Ju, where there is a second defensive gate, with a ruinous wall carried along a ridge for some distance on either side. The masonry and the gate-house are fine, and the view down the wild valley beyond with its rich autumn colouring was almost grand. It was evident that officials were expected, for the road was being repaired everywhere — that is spadefuls of soft soil were being taken from the banks and roadsides, and were being thrown into the ruts and holes to deepen the quagmire which the next rain would produce. From four to seven men were working at each spade! A great part of the male population had turned out; for when an official of rank is to travel, every family in the district must provide one male member or a substitute to put the road in order. The repairs of the roads and bridges devolve entirely on the country people.

The following day brought a change of weather. My room had no hot floor and the mercury at daybreak was only 20°! When we started, a strong northwester was blowing, which increased to a gale by noon, the same fierce gale in which at Chemulpo  Mrs. Edgar lost her boat with forty-seven men. My pony and I would have been blown over a wretched bridge had not four men linked themselves together to support us; and later, on the top of a precipice above a river, a gust came with such force that the animals refused to face it, and one of them was as nearly lost as possible. By noon it was impossible to sit on our horses, and we fought the storm on foot. When Im lifted me from my pony I fell down, and it took several men shouting with laughter to set me on my feet again. When Mr. Yi and I spoke to each other, our voices had a bobbery clatter, and sentences broke off halfway in an insane giggle. I felt as if there were hardly another "shot in the locker," but if a traveller ''says die," the men lose all heart, so I summoned up all my pluck, took a photograph after the noon halt, and walked on at a good pace.

Isabella Bird was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her last equestrian journey was to Morocco, where she rode a black stallion gifted to her by the Sultan. Prior to her death in 1907, she is seen wearing the Manchurian dress of the Chinese court.

But the wind, with the mercury at 26°, was awful, gripping the heart and benumbing the brain. I have not felt anything like it since I encountered the "devil wind" on the Zagros heights in Persia. At some distance from our destination Mr. Yi, Im, and the groom begged me to halt, as they could no longer face it, though the accommodation for man and beast at Tol Maru, where we put up, was the worst imaginable, and the large village the filthiest, most squalid, and most absolutely poverty-stricken place I saw in that land of squalor. The horses were crowded together, and their baffled attempts at fighting were only less hideous than the shouts and yells of the grooms who were constantly being roused out of a sound sleep to separate them.


Sudden Disaster

In crossing the plain at a point where the road was good, I was remarking to Mr. Yi what a pleasant and prosperous journey we had had, and hoping our good fortune might continue, when there was a sudden clash and flurry, I was nearly kicked off my pony, and in a moment we were in the midst of disaster. One baggage pony was on his back on his load, pawing the air in the middle of a ploughed field, his groom helpless for the time, lamed by a kick above the knee, sobbing, blood and tears running down his face; the other baggage animal, having divested himself of Im, was kicking off the rest of his load; and Im, who had been thrown from the top of the pack, was sitting on the roadside, evidently in intense pain— all the work of a moment. Mr. Yi called to me that the soldier had broken his ankle, and it was a great relief when he rose and walked towards me. Everything breakable was broken except my photographic camera, which I did not look at for two days for fear of what I might find!

Leaving the men to get the loads and ponies together, we walked on to a hamlet so destitute as not to be able to provide either wood or wadding for a splint! I picked up a thick faggot, however, which had been dropped from a load, and it was thinned into being usable with a hatchet, the only tool the village possessed, and after padding it with a pair of stockings and making a six-yard bandage out of a cotton garment,

I put up Im's right arm, which was broken just above the wrist, in splints, and made a sling out of one of the two towels which the rats had left to me. I should have been glad to know Korean enough to rate the gossiping grooms, three men to two horses, who allowed the accident to happen.

The Korean interpreter, soldiers and grooms who accompanied Isabella Bird.

The animals always fight if they are left to themselves, and loads and riders are nowhere. One day Mr. Yi had a bit of a finger taken off in a fight, and if a strange brute had not kicked my stirrup iron (which was bent by the blow) instead of myself, I should have had a broken ankle. When we halted at midday the villagers tried hard to induce Im to have his arm “needled" to “let out the bad blood," a most risky surgical proceeding, which often destroys the usefulness of a limb for life, and he was anxious for it, but yielded to persuasion.

Korean horse being shod using a method commonly practised in China and other parts of the Far East.

For more information about Isabella Bird, visit The Isabella Bird Collection published by the Long Riders’ Guild Press.

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