After All: The gentle art of refreshing one's life with trains
Our columnist recalls his recent railway journeys: by a sleeper from Krakow to Budapest and by an uncharacteristically slow Korean train to Seoul.
My cardiologist has advised me to do less long-haul flying. As a result, my last couple of months have been marked by a couple of spectacular train rides – in Europe and in East Asia. he first one, an overnight journey from Krakow to Budapest on board the legendary Chopin sleeper train, had a touch of sadness and nostalgia. Nostalgia was due to the fact that, having lived for a number of years in Australia and then in Britain, one of the things I missed most from my Ukrainian childhood and Russian youth was overnight train journeys – to Kiev, to Moscow, to Leningrad and occasionally for holidays to the Crimea. While in Australia, I did take the Indian-Pacific Express from Sydney to Perth, but the ambience of that three-day-long journey, with nothing but red desert beyond the windows of my matchbox-sized compartment and shift meals in the swish restaurant car, were so different from the European train routine that it did little to quench my longing.
Sadness kicked in half an hour after our PKP DK 407 Intercity train left Krakow Glowny and smoothly came to a stop at the seemingly small and dark Oswiecim (or Auschwitz, in German) station, having thus covered the exact route of the last cattle-truck journeys of thousands of the Krakow Ghetto dwellers in March 1943... I couldn’t go to sleep in my comfortable berth for a long time after that. European train journeys are often wrought with the continent’s tempestuous history unveiling silently behind the windows.
I had a very different train journey while in South Korea last December.
Having looked at the 2018 Winter Olympics facilities in Pyongchang, I took a slow – very slow – Korail train to Seoul from Jeongodongjin, an East Sea coastal town to which people flock from all over the country to watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tracks at its station were closer to the beach than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, walking along the platform towards my carriage, I could see and hear the surf of the East Sea only a few metres away.
The five-and-a-half-hour journey in a spacious and faultlessly clean carriage of a standard Mugunghwa-ho cross-country train, with soft freshly upholstered seats reclining almost to a bed level, was one of the most calm and comforting in my life. The second-class carriage had separate male and female toilets (perhaps a tribute to Confucianism, Korea’s leading philosophy, with its strict segregation of men and women in public places?), a bespoke washing room and a handful of passengers who all kept extremely quiet throughout the journey.
Intercom announcements in Korean and English periodically reminded the passengers not to raise their voices, and no one did, not even a baby boy with a young mum and even younger (or so it seemed) granny in the seat in front of me: well-behaved and serene, like a little incarnation of the Buddha. The whole experience was a reminder of what a great invention railway was – something easy to forget in Britain. I even came to understand the hidden meaning of the Korail logo, rendered – rather clumsily at the first glance – in English on the carriage’s notice board: “Refresh your life with a train.”
We were travelling along the Yeongdong Line – one of the 20 Korail lines criss-crossing the country. This line was opened in 1940, and the first ever train in Korea departed from Seoul to the sea port of Incheon in 1899, much later than in most European countries and the USA. The route was just 32km long, and the maximum train speed did not exceed 55km/h. By 1906, however, a through railroad across the whole of the Korean Peninsula was completed. It was run by Japanese managers and engineers, with Koreans mostly doing hard manual jobs. Since Korea was then a colony of Japan, its railways’ structure and organisation had been largely Japanese, and some of those features are still obvious today: as opposed to all other means of public transport, traffic on South Korean railways is still predominantly left-handed, like in Japan!
... I was soon lulled into a snooze by the rhythmic rattling of train wheels. I slept for a couple of hours to the accompaniment of multiple intercom announcements in English and Korean. In my dreams, one of them said that South Korea was reunited with the North, and the train’s next stop would be Pyongyang. I woke up in a cold sweat to find we were rolling through the suburbs of Seoul, one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities, with clusters of boringly numbered (104, 105, 206, 207 etc.) high-rise residential towers, which reminded me of mushrooms, springing up in batches after an August rain in a Russian forest.
The existence of these human anthills in the city, where in 1960 there was not a single building of over 20 storeys, was another sign of the unprecedented economic boom known as the ‘South Korean Miracle’: by 1970, Seoul already had eight high-rise buildings, and by 1990 – 66! Nowadays, such buildings are simply countless, and one of them was the glass-and-concrete bulk of Seoul’s Cheongnyangni station, at which we soon safely arrived.
At this point you may ask: why did I choose to take a slow train to Seoul, instead of using one of Korea’s famous KTX high-speed ones, based on the French TGVs – the trains that do not only run like clockwork, with 99.9 per cent punctuality (2015), but also, with the rate of 0.058 accidents per million kilometres, are officially the world’s safest?
The answer is simple: the long-awaited KTX high-speed link between Pyongchang and Seoul was opened on 22 December 2017 – three weeks after my journey. But despite the fact that a KTX train, with all its onboard technological gadgets (LTE-R communications systems, Wi-Fi and power points, as well as USB ports, at every seat etc) could cover the same 222.7km distance in just one hour and 40 minutes, I do not regret it a bit.
One huge advantage of slow train journeys is that they allow you ample time to relax, to learn, to look back at your life, and, as in my case, at your childhood too. The Korail motto of refreshing one’s life with trains may not be that offbeat, after all.
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