images of the crossing over

Iksan to Gyeryong

My travel this vacation, once from school to home, once from home to Seoul and back, and then once from home to Mu Sang Sa International Zen Center and back, has for the first time ever happened almost exclusively by train. For me, prone to car sickness and always nervous on Korea’s roads, this has been wonderful.

My short 24-hour trip to Mu Sang Sa began in a slight drizzle and ended in one. In the grey damp, I boarded an inter-city bus in my home city yesterday, miraculously catching the one that stopped not only at Iksan Bus Terminal but also continued on to the train station. Clambering onto the bus at 1:17, with a scheduled departure of 1:20, I asked the driver: “I have a 1:54 train to catch. Will I make it?” The driver grimaced the way older Korean men do when asked something improbable. Not impossible, but: “It’ll be tight,” he replied, mildly scornful. I shrugged. “Whatcha gonna do? I have to go to the station at any rate.”

At 1:47, the bus pulled into Iksan Terminal. At 1:50, it was waiting at the light to turn into the station parking lot. At 1:51 and some odd seconds, I rushed down the rain-slick steps of the bus and entered the station at 1:52 and some seconds. Racing down and then up the station’s platform stairs, I launched myself onto the train at 1:53, scrambling by chance into the snack-bar car. Good thing, too: I hadn’t had time to buy a ticket. I have never once travelled without a ticket. Never jumped a subway turnstile, never scammed a ride. Yet here I was, waiting for a conductor to approach me, asking to see my ticket; I would explain, pitiably, how if I didn’t take the 1:54 I was doomed to wait until the 3:35, I couldn’t buy a ticket at the counter and catch the train, surely I could buy a ticket on the train, catching the first possible bus, the rain, and so on. But no conductor approached me. I bought some crackers to go with the cheese I’d stuffed in my pocket as I ran out the door, and prepared for the interview I would be conducting while sipping orange juice to wash down the crackers.

Steady rain out of Iksan and as we wound up through the fields of the provinces. The rain, thick in Iksan, lessened as we moved north until, outside of Nonsan, it thinned from plump droplets to flecks on the windows. Mountains in the distance, blue like a blanket of rumpled sleep and tangled in low misty clouds; the glaring jumbles of tin-roofed villages and one-street towns between stretches of winter-brown barley stubble, rivers and bridges and dikes controlling water into the paddies: it all unfolded and then passed outside the windows. There’s a high-speed train in Korea, the KTX, and it’s fast and convenient, but I enjoyed the mid-speed Munggunghwa much more. The cheesy snack car, the old seats, the comforting rhythm of a train passing steadily through the countryside, the views of that countryside–the Korea I know and consider home.

There was a young student crouched on the floor at the end of the counter I stood at, going over interview questions. He buried himself in a book, and I took a chance on taking his picture. I honestly didn’t think he noticed; but then, a few minutes later, he approached me and asked in English, “May I take your picture?” The habitual refusal rose up, but he forestalled it: “You took mine.”

Caught red-handed. I laughed and said, “Sure! Take a picture!” The one he got shows me with my glasses perched on top of my head, and my head thrown back in both amusement and self-consciousness, smiling broadly.


5 responses

  1. Oooh, the quick bite of karma!

    February 28, 2011 at 2:19 pm

  2. Bill Young

    I enjoy your notes as much as the photos, and in this case, the sense of journey they give you. And the slower, mid-speed approach to seeing Korea sounds much more interesting. Paul Theroux would, I think, agree.

    February 28, 2011 at 11:49 pm

  3. Paul Theroux’s least favorite train was, after all, the high-speed train in Japan. I thought a lot of him and those travels when the KTX came in. And while I have taken advantage of the speed of KTX often to get to and from places in a mere couple hours what used to take a half day or more, given some leisure I’d happily spend it on the train as off. I’m sure you’d agree!

    March 1, 2011 at 12:39 am

  4. A friend of mine is also prone to motion sickness, so the combination of motion and old-bus smell is just deadly.

    Having already seen a lot of Korea, I really like the KTX. It’s actually gets me there faster than the airlines. No distant terminals to go in and out of, no all day on buses, and a smooth ride straight to the city center. Not too bad!

    March 1, 2011 at 7:45 am

  5. Chong Go Sunim! Wonderful to “see” you.

    I like KTX for very good reasons, speed and convenience being obvious; cleanliness, “won-du coffee,” and computer booths being others.

    It’s funny, though: I never tire of the Korean countryside. I’m enamored in much the same with the American countryside, and love driving long distances in the US, too. It’s not, then, that I don’t like the KTX but that I have reasons for liking the Munggunghwa (less the Saemaeul, which simply crawls) that are as good and provide a “benefit” as great as those offered by the KTX.

    …but on the motion sickness count, it doesn’t matter what kind of a bus it is, inter-city or express. I dread riding them!

    March 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

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