Saemaeul 1151, KTX 507, Saemaeul 101, KTX 414 and Mokpo
This is a trip report for a journey I took in July, 2012.
I decided to go for a day trip from Seoul to the town of Mokpo on the south western tip of South Korea. Instead of taking a fast KTX train, I would take a Saemaul train on the scenic branch line via Daecheon to Iksan, then connect with a KTX service for the remainder of the journey. The only catch was that I had an 11 minute connection in Iksan, but based on the good timekeeping I had seen with the KTX trains, I had faith in that connection.
I caught the subway from my hotel to Seoul’s Yongsan station. When I arrived, there was still about 30 minutes before my train was due to depart, so I went to look for some breakfast. There were no cafes open at the station, so I went into the convenience store. Apart from very buttery cookies and croissants, all I could find were some seaweed wrapped triangles of something. I decided to risk it, and bought some of the mysterious green packages.
By the time I had made my purchase, a red dot was flashing on the departure board next to my train, indicating that the train was waiting at the platform and ready for boarding. I made my way down to the platform to find a rather sad looking Saemaul train. The streamlined effect of the locomotive was ruined by the absence of the nose cone which should have been coving the coupler at the front of the train. The paintwork was cracking and dirty and a missing cab blind had been replaced by newspaper taped over the inside of one of the windows. In contrast to this, the diesel hydraulic engine purred as the train idled at the platform.
I hoped to get a few pictures before I boarded – I wasn’t disappointed. Yongsan station is close to Seoul station and as well as all of the trains originating at Yongsan, all trains heading south from Seoul station pass through. There was a train passing through every couple of minutes, and all too soon it was time to board Saemaul 1151 to Iksan.
The interior of the Saemaul was nothing like the shabby exterior. Large, comfortable red velour reclining seats with leg rests were spotlessly clean. The air conditioning was at just the right level and there were few people on this all stations train. We eased out of Yongsan station right on time at 07:35.
We crawled through the suburbs of Seoul, stopping at a few of the larger stations. I was alarmed to notice that at Asan station, we were already 6 minutes late, and hadn’t even left Seoul’s suburbs yet! We needed to get a move on if I was to make that 11 minute connection at Iksan.
By this time I was feeling hungry, so I unwrapped the seaweed triangles I had bought at Yongsan. It turned out to be cold spiced fish in glutinous rice; not exactly what I was expecting. The snack was unusual, but quite tasty!
We continued in through the lush farmland and green hills of the South Korean countryside, stopping at all stations in small villages such as Onyangoncheon and Sillyewon. By the time we arrived at Daecheon, we were 10 minutes late! I hoped that there was some slack time in the timetable, so that we might make up a little time and I could make my connection to Mokpo, As we arrived at Iksan (9 minutes late), I had the vague hope that my KTX might be delayed too. I should have known better, and as I climbed down to the platform, I saw the KTX that I should have been on gliding out of the station.
Iksan is not a large place, and I was worried about how I would convey that I had missed my train to a country town booking clerk. I made my way to the ticket office and showed my ticket for the KTX train. The booking clerk looked at me, looked at my ticket and looked at the clock on the wall. She shook her head and said “already go”. I said “I know… missed it”. She looked at me sympathetically, then called out her supervisor. I thought there may be some problem exchanging my ticket, but it turned out that they were discussing the quickest way for me to complete my journey. The supervisor said (in very good English) “We have another train for you, it leaves in 10 minutes but is a slow train. You will be late”. I told him that was fine, the ticket was issued, I thanked them and I rushed off to find my train.
This train was another Saemaeul (1101). It was in much better condition that the previous one, and even had its nose cone in place. The train left on time, the journey was uneventful and I arrived in Mokpo only an hour later than planned.
Mokpo has a modern station with a decent sized rail yard. It is a sprawling town, with many low buildings – unusual after seeing so many apartment blocks around Seoul. It reminded me of pictures of Greek or Italian seaside villages; the houses have whitewashed walls and brightly coloured roofs, the streets are narrow, steep and winding, with many tidy little alleyways branching off in all directions.
Mokpo is a port town, which also has many ferries linking it with nearby islands. It has a small mountain between the city and the port. What does one do when one has a few hours to kill in a small town? Climb that mountain! Yudal mountain (Yudalsan) is to to the immediate west of the city, it stands only 228 metres high, but rising from almost flat ground of the inner city area, it appears much higher.
I started towards Yudalsan from the station, first along the steep streets, then venturing up the alleyways. I didn’t know exactly how to get to the summit, but I figured as long as I was going up, I was heading in the right direction. As I exited an alleyway, the houses suddenly stopped. I was now on a mountain road, dotted with Buddhist pagodas and temples. There was a wide footpath on one side of the road (oddly coloured green), so I followed the road higher and higher.
At the top of the road was a car park with walking paths leading off in all directions. The signposts were all in Korean, but I knew which way to go – up! There was a long set of stone stairs leading into the forest, so I started climbing. The stairs went on and on through the cool forest but finally I reached the top – a junction with a pathway. I looked up, and saw that I still had some mountain to climb, so I headed up the path.
After a few hundred metres, I came to some more stairs, this time roughly cut into the rock. I was getting closer to the top, but it was hard going now on the steep steps. After another 10 minutes climbing, and some vertigo inducing scrambles across bare patches of rock, I reached the final ascent – some metal stairs which were so steep they were almost a ladder. I scrambled up, and was rewarded with spectacular 360° views of the harbour, nearby islands and the town, stretching out into the mountains beyond.
After taking some photographs, it was time to descend and return to the station. It always seems much quicker when you return, and I was soon back in the town. I must have taken a different way through the alleyways, because when I emerged near the town centre, I didn’t recognise any of the streets. I had no doubt I would be able to find the railway station, but with only 35 minutes until my train back to Seoul, I didn’t have much time.
After walking in the general direction of the station for 10 minutes, I was getting a little worried that I hadn’t found it yet. The centre of Mokpo is not a large place, and I was running out of places to look. Suddenly I remembered that one of the photographs I had taken from the top of the mountain was of the station. If I could recognise some of the buildings from the picture, maybe I could find the station.
I reviewed the picture on my camera, and immediately recognised a couple of the taller buildings as being only a few blocks away. Using these landmarks, I was able to navigate my way back to the station, arriving 15 minutes before the departure time of KTX 514 back to Yongsan.
At this point I must correct myself; I thought I had arrived at the station 15 minutes before departure. When I walked into the waiting room, I looked up at the departures board and saw that my train was scheduled to depart at 16:45, not 16:55! I hastily made my way over the footbridge and onto the platform. I boarded the nearest doorway, and the train was gliding out of the station before I found my seat.
The journey on KTX 514 back to Yongsan was smooth, comfortable and uneventful. I was able to use the free Wi-Fi with a limited amount of success, and filled the time watching funny cat videos on YouTube. The 20 car train was almost at capacity, and arrival back at Yongsan was on time to the minute.