That we managed to leave the guesthouse at 6.30 a.m. Pat on the back for all of us.
Today we were planning to take the O and V Trains out to the central inland region of Korea. More information about the trains can be found in the comments section to this entry.
Bought some snacks (in addition to those we'd already brought... pigs) and boarded the O-train! Chairs can be rotated for a 2x2 seat formation so you're facing your friends. The train is perhaps a bit too colorful.
As far as I could tell we were the only non-Koreans on the train, which was maybe 70% occupied. The passenger demographic was simply retirees who were dressed for an easy hike, and us. Hahaha.
Equipped with kimbaps, string cheese, mediocre bread courtesy of Passion 5 and uh some heavy duty reading material, we settled into our seats as the train pulled out of Seoul station at 7.45 a.m. sharp.
As we leave Seoul for the neighboring Gangwon-do province, the urban sprawl characterizing the metropolis changes into an occasional cluster of buildings amidst farmland. You know you're nearing a train station when more buildings start appearing, though these satellite towns never quite reach the density that Seoul possesses.
At Yeongwol station I notice a seriously cute disused train on the tracks.
Unless I'm dog-tired, I have difficulty sleeping if I'm not lying down. I've spent 14 hour flights completely awake before, and those flights felt like they would never end.
I guess waking up at 6 a.m. had made me dog-tired, because before I knew it I had awoken with a start to find the train at Jecheon station. Most of the other passengers were alighting here. Must be a good spot for hiking.
I had woken up because a well-meaning ajusshi (uncle) had prodded me on the arm.
"Agasshi, an naeryoyo?", asks Ajusshi. ("Miss, aren't you alighting?")
"Ah, ajikiyo," I mumble. ("Ah, not yet.") "Kamsahamnida," I add as an afterthought. ("Thank you.")
Unable to return to sleep, I force Lee to take pretend candid pictures of me :)
Our train finally pulls into Cheoram station, where we have to switch to the V-Train. The air is already noticeably cooler here than it was in Seoul.
The O-Train was gaudy but the V-Train is adorable. It's a train pretending to be a zebra.
I then find out that there're no toilets on the V-Train. I didn't have to go immediately, but knowing that I won't be able to use the bathroom till we reach Buncheon station 1.5 hours later makes me paranoid. Once I get paranoid I have to go immediately.
Cheoram station was under renovation when we were there so there were only two cubicles in the makeshift bathroom. As a result the line for the ladies maybe stretched all the way back to Seoul. Bahaha obviously an exaggeration, but only slightly.
To reward myself for surviving the queue I buy drinks and a cup of sweet potato sticks from the convenience store, which turn out to be awesome.
I love the interior of the V-Train. The top half of the train walls have been converted into glass windows and there are outward-facing benches (like the one we're sitting on) to enable passengers to get a better view of the natural landscape of rural Korea on the train ride.
To say that I'm excited to be on the V-Train doesn't even cover it. I've been looking forward to this for months! Ever since I saw it on... never mind.
The V-train makes a short stop at Seungbu station which according to the KTO's website has "particularly beautiful scenery" so passengers can pose for photos with the surrounding landscape.
I didn't find the scenery particularly beautiful in comparison with the breathtaking views the train ride had afforded of the Baekdudaegan mountain range so far, but it sure looked like Lee was happy to be here.
Sad thing was that we were a few weeks too late to catch the azaleas. I can't imagine how gorgeous the valley would have looked studded in purple blooms.
At Yangwon station (Fun fact: Smallest station in Korea) everyone ran down the train toward the tents set up on the platform. I'm not actually exaggerating when I say they ran.
Yangwon is a tiny town famous for producing the best makgeolli (fermented rice wine) in Korea. The V-Train stops here for exactly 10 minutes for passengers to gulp down as much makgeolli as they can within that time frame. The sense of urgency is real - if you miss the train the next one is a 3 or 4 hour wait. Gotta love Korea.
Seeing the hesitation written on our faces, the middle-aged couple sitting next to us ushered us down the train hurriedly and made us join them for makgeolli. We had to down a sizeable bowl of it at one go ("one-shot") and hold the bowl upside down over our heads when we were done. We went through two rounds of this. Ajusshi bought us spicy pig skin as well and I ate it to be polite hahaha. Lee enjoyed it - she likes these things.
We scrambled back onto the train giggling and happily drunk just before it left.
This was hands down the most memorable part of the entire trip, and one that still brings a smile to my face when I recall it 6 months later.
Finally the train pulls in at Buncheon station in Gyeongsangbuk province. Nothing around here for miles except a little village nestled in the mountains. The air felt so pristine I wanted to prance around in song and dance. My body does not process alcohol well.
Ajusshi and his wife have insisted that we join them for lunch. We follow them to the row of tiny eateries near the station, where they order up a storm.
A huge pot of dongdongju (a variation of makgeolli) arrived first, followed by haemool jeon (seafood pancake). Both were really good. Then the vegetable bibimbap arrived. I didn't expect much from it because it was meatless. Haha.
The bibimbap was mind-blowing.
Whatever they had added in it to make it taste that good, it was magic. The vegetables and herbs tasted so fresh they must have left the ground that very morning. My favorite component was the shredded bracken.
Ajusshi made sure to speak in a Seoul accent initially, as most Koreans are wont to do when speaking in Korean to foreigners. He then got increasingly excited as he drank more dongdongju, and insisted on speaking in his version of English (consisting mostly of invented words) to us. When it was clear we couldn't understand him he would provide an explanation to me in Korean in a thick Gyeongsang-do dialect, expecting me to translate it for my friends. I just kept nodding and pretending that I understood what he was saying. Hahaha.
Found out from Ajusshi's wife that they'd met in elementary school, and grew up together. She giggled a little as she said that they had driven here from Ulsan to go on a "date" in the Korean countryside. Sooo cute :)
We fought (like, physically tussled) to pay the bill, but Ajusshi and wife won out in the end. Felt so bad about it but they claimed it was payment for our company. Ahhhh <3 I'm in awe that there're such good and kind people out there, and thankful to have the good fortune to meet them on our travels.
Clearly drunk, Ajusshi and his wife have insisted on driving us to Ulsan so we can visit their place, before they drive us back up to Seoul tomorrow. We would have loved to go with them but I have a feeling that once they sober up they would regret promising us a 4.5 hour drive to Seoul, not to mention the return drive to Ulsan after that.
"Whyyyyyy", wheedled Ajusshi in English. Hahaha. His wife then gave us a farewell speech in Korean about how cool it was that fate had brought us together, before we hugged them goodbye. I love them both. I hope you both lead long and happy lives!
Wanted to grab a rental bike and ride around the village after that, but the rental booth was unattended. I was also feeling too tipsy from the alcohol to try and learn how to ride a bike (I KNOW), so I took a nap in the train station, using Charlotte as a pillow.
As the weather becomes chilly and I am, as always, without a jacket, we take our nap into the waiting room. The interior of the room is fashioned like a hanok, or a traditional Korean hut. Straw walls, a boiler for winter, and a low wooden platform for people to sit on. I lie down on on the platform like one of those countryside grandmas you so often see in daily dramas.
Before long one of the station staff approaches us for a chat, asking with interest about where we've come from and what we're doing in such a remote and rural area. He invites us for coffee in the office but we decline politely because we're too lazy to move from where we are.
After he leaves, a group of 4 grandpas travelling together enter the waiting room. It doesn't take long for them to notice us and strike up a conversation as well. We got a lot of attention because I hadn't seen anyone all afternoon who was under the age of 60. Well apart from Ajusshi and his wife, who looked to be in their early 40s. I guess these folks are probably wondering why we look young but behave like we're their age, with the napping and all.
One of the grandpas (who happened to be immaculately dressed) speaks seriously impressive English. He tells us that he visited Singapore in the 70s' and stayed at the Shangri-La. His friends listen solemnly to his anecdotes, nodding gravely at the pauses, though it's clear that they don't understand most of what he's saying hahahaha how very supportive of them. Another grandpa who's making instant coffee from satchets with hot water from the dispenser offers us some, which we accept gratefully. Sorry station guy.
These grandpas have also been friends for a long time, and were on the way to Jecheon (where the O-Train experienced a mass exodus that morning) to spend the night. I hope I get to do fun things when I'm old too.
When I leave a place such as this I know it's unlikely I'll ever return, because there's just too many places in the world I want to see and too little time to see them all. Farewells are always a little bittersweet, but I'm happy I had the chance to be here. Buncheon gave us the opportunity to experience the graciousness and hospitality of Koreans first-hand, and I'll always remember it for that :)
On the way back to Seoul the O-Train makes an extended stop at Chujeon station, which at an elevation of 855 metres above sea level is the highest train station in Korea.
We pose quickly for pictures, then head to the convenience store where I buy my third bottle of 17 Tea for the day - that's pretty much all I drink when I'm in Korea. Started that habit because Jeon Ji Hyun models for 17 Tea, and the ad made it seem like all I had to do to look like her was to drink that stuff a lot. LIARS.
Anyway. It feels like I've been here before. I don't mean in a past life, but possibly on my first trip to Korea when I was 15. Or maybe I saw this place in a drama and imagined myself here hahaha. It happens.
It's a painful 6-hour train ride back to Seoul from Buncheon. We're all passing time in different ways.
Lee is alternating between sleeping and reading her book on God.
Charlotte is watching an episode of Hannibal on her iPad. She also watched it in the waiting room at Buncheon station without plugging in her earphones and the rest of us were subjected to screams and horrible squelchy noises that sounded an awful lot like people getting carved up.
I'm struggling to concentrate on Cheryl Strayed's "Wild". Eventually I put the iPad back to sleep and stare out the window. Dusk is gradually enveloping the countryside, casting its shadow over rolling fields of farmland.
The O-Train finally reaches Seoul station at 9.45 p.m. I have newfound admiration for the lady working on the O-Train, who happened to be serving us on the same train out of Seoul that morning as well. I felt tired and I was seated the entire time.
We head back to the apartment to freshen up, and I grab a jacket before we cross the road for dinner at Sinseon Seolleongtang. The milky seolleongtang (ox-bone soup) served here is perfect for warming you up on a cold night. Ordered mine with mandu (dumplings) because why not?