Wednesday 9 May 2018
Arriving in Seoul yesterday evening, out of Auckland via Singapore, I had a quiet evening trying to figure out if it was possible to get to the JSA this trip. After many inquiries I discovered the area is closed just now – no-one is sure why. Instead I booked a 3-day rail pass with Korail or KTX
Having looked up the trip on Google, I set off by bus for the station around 8.30am it was a clear day in Seoul unusual as its usually covered in a smoggy haze.. I headed to the information desk with a screen copy of my pass on my phone. The helpful guy at the counter went and got someone else, who got someone else, who explained that this is a private high-speed train company (they have 52 million people in this small country so no doubt can afford the odd private train line) that does not accept passes. He politely provided directions for getting to Seoul Station on the MRT. I was at the MRT station checking out the map when a young woman came over and asked in really good English if she could help. We boarded the train together and Selina explained how she was studying Russian and planned to be a diplomat, a good one she will no doubt be. We arrived at Seoul station just in time to jump on the bullet train a couple of minutes before it departed. As I had not booked a seat I was ushered to a pull down seat between the carriages by the conductor. As soon as we were underway I found a couple of empty seats and sat by the window enjoying the the view as we left the city heading southeast into the hills.
This place is impressive. The hills are all bush covered with no sign of cultivation and every time we pass through flat land between the hills it is intensively farmed. Along the edge of the hills there are often hundreds of 20-storey-plus apartment blocks, obviously housing thousands of people. With a population of 52-plus-million, 26m of whom live in Seoul, it still leaves a lot of people to fit into this reasonably small country. It sits 24th in the world for population density with 513.25 people per square kilometre. New Zealand at 200 on the list of 241 countries has 16.78, over a million of whom live in Auckland giving it a density of 1210 per sq km, far too many in my opinion. Seoul is at 10,400 per sq km.
Apologies for the poor photo quality there are no opening windows on these fast trains.
The train headed south-south-east to Daejeon a city 0f 1.5 million, then southeast towards Ulsan, before turning south to Busan. Arriving at the elevated station I could see to the east lots of brightly coloured houses on the island of Yeongdu-gu. Heading out of the station I wandered east towards the island past the cruse liner terminal. In the distance was a huge crane, which I tried to take a photo of but was yelled at by a security guard indicating photos not allowed. Following the road around onto the bridge to the island I saw again the crane floating on the harbour. Apart from one captured in Germany and now in the Panama Canal this is the world’s biggest crane, capable of lifting 3,600 tons. This Hyundai crane, surrounded by tug boats, was being moved around the harbour.
0n the other side of the bridge I got close to the colourful houses, some of which were being demolished to make way for new buildings – thats progress I guess. I had also spotted a large suspension bridge going back to the mainland. Hoping it might cater for pedestrians I walked around to it. No pedestrians allowed! It is however well worth a look with a circular road joining it to bring in traffic from the east.
I strolled back to the bridge I had come over through another part of the ship building area. This place is really clean and tidy with the odd single-storey old building still surviving amongst the high rises. The streets are clean and in good repair. Crossing back over the bridge I headed north to the markets. These must be the best kept markets in the world; the pavements in good nick and everything clean, tidy and hosting a large range of dried fish, herbs and all sorts of other stuff. An old lady pushed a large cart through the streets laden with fruit and vegetables selling to the stall holders.
Back at the station I booked a seat for the return journey after which I headed to the information counter to find out if I could get a train tomorrow from Seoul to Goseong on the east coast, just south of the border. Google maps showed a line going there. “No train there”, I was told, but there is one to Gangneung further south. Later at the platform a guy came up to me and asked how I got on at the information counter; it turned out he had lived in NZ for 3 months. He warned me that Google maps weren’t to be relied on here.
Arriving in Seoul I found the bus station and got on the bus number stated on Google maps. Holding the money out and showing it to the driver as I had done in the morning, the driver yelled at me and indicated forcefully I should get off the bus. The next bus came, I got on, threw some change on the money box and off we went, I checked the map to make sure we were heading in the right direction, which we were for the first 10 minutes, then we gradually swung around to the north, which was not good. The map showed a rail line running under the street so I got off and went underground to the station. While checking the subway map a very helpful chap came over and told me in good English which trains to take to get back to the hotel.
Thursday 10 May 2018
I caught the subway to Cheongnyangni Station, then the high speed train to Gangneung. This high speed line was only finished last year in preparation for the Winter Olympics held earlier this year. It used to be a 5 hour train journey now cut to under two hours. I grabbed a jump seat between the carriages and showed my photo pass to the guard who went off and found me a spare window seat. The country was similar to yesterday with bush clad hills and cultivated flats.
Arriving at the very new and well laid out station in Gangneung I headed through the town to the river. Crossing the river I headed downstream on the stop bank which had a nice tree-covered path on it. Between the river and the stop bank there are lots of sports fields. Looking back across the river to the town I was surprised how small it was with a population of over two hundred thousand. As I headed down river there was a large industrial area with every bit of spare land supporting crops of various kinds. A few kms south I could see a control tower for an airfield from which fighter jets were taking off every few minutes, circling north towards the border and returning.
At the river mouth a tower on each side supported a flying fox with lots of people queueing up for the ride across the river and back. Crossing the foot bridge to the north side I discovered a nice beach resort with lots of cafes and shops. All the cafes had English names as did many of the shops. The beach extended several kms to the north, where lots of kite surfers were showing off their skills. As I walked up the beach I came across many trenches dug into the sand, some with overhead cover. A compound surrounded a tower with a heavy machine gun facing out to sea.
They waste little space here as even the ground between a block of appartments and the beach, which one would expect to be lawns, was cultivated and growing produce. A road through more fields took me back to town. There are still the little statues on street corners from the Olympics.
On the ride back as the sun was going down I dozed off. Waking just before the station I grabbed my pack and shoes and headed onto the platform. As the doors closed I realised I had left my camera on board. While trying to work out how to go about getting it back, a young couple who had got of the train asked if there was anything they could help me with. I explained the camera situation and Lee said “don’t worry we will get your camera back”. He got on his phone and called someone he knew who worked for the railway. His girlfriend Park also helped. Park had to head of to see someone so Lee decided he would come with me to Seoul Station and help me get the camera. We headed to a local subway and while on the journey he got a call to say the camera had been handed in and taken to the lost property. Arriving at the station we headed to the lost property and there it was. Lee then rode the train back to the hotel with me as Pack lived nearby. She was waiting for us as we arrived at the hotel. Unfortunately they had to rush of to a meeting and could not stay and dine with us. I am going to make a point of catching up with them next time we are in town.
I don’t think I have been anywhere in the world and struck so many friendly and helpful people in such a short time. To think this country was ravaged by war just over 60 years ago with every substantial building north of Busan and the surrounding area destroyed. These people have done a great job of rebuilding their country.