Bamboo hearts

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Bamboo hearts

SAMCHEOK, Gangwon province When a woman travels alone she's the center of attention, especially here in Korea. A single woman on a train has to be ready for questions from total strangers usually well-meaning middle-aged couples like "Did you break up with your boyfriend?" or "You're writing a novel, right?"

But last Saturday, when I boarded a train at Cheongnyangni Station in northeastern Seoul, I realized I wouldn't have to worry. I was on a package tour, the Loopline Coastal Train Tour, to a romantic part of the East Coast, and almost half of my fellow passengers were unaccompanied women; the rest seemed to be young couples. The Korean National Railroad's choice of the name "loopline" for the excursion has less to do with the route than with the word's Korean homonym, which happens to be "fantasy."

With a small but audible sigh of relief, I sat next to a woman in her late 20s. Looking out the window, she didn't seem very friendly. But then she broke the ice. "It's good that I don't have to worry about being disturbed because I'm alone and a woman," she said, which was exactly what I had on my mind. She introduced herself as Park Eun-ju, a worker at a medical clinic in Seoul.

The train left the station at 10:22 p.m. and arrived at the first destination, Jeongdongjin Station, at 5 a.m. The town of Jeongdongjin is famous for its sunrises, and we had about two hours before we had to be back on the train. At about 5:30, the sun started to poke above the horizon, a spectacular view over the sparkling ocean. The seashore was crowded with us single women, with serious, empty expressions on our faces. Meanwhile, the couples were busy cooing and whispering sweet nothings. It was a little chilly and windy, so a light jacket was helpful, especially for us loners.

After the day broke, we just relaxed and enjoyed the seashore. Nearby on the beach a local radio station was hosting a morning concert featuring local R. Kelly and Eminem wanna-bes. This was more a nuisance than a pleasure when you're on the beach watching the sun come up you want quiet and serenity. For breakfast, a number of restaurants near the station were selling Korean dishes like seolleongtang, or beef and rice broth. But I opted for the tried and trusted breakfast: ramen noodles. It was offered by other small eateries on the beach for 2,000 won ($1.50).

Back on the train I saw Ms. Park again. She looked a bit bored, but said, "Finally I'm heading to the place I wanted to go." That was where the sad romance movie "Bomnaleun Ganda" (One Fine Spring Day), was shot, in a bamboo wood near Sinheungsa temple just outside of this city. On the way, the train passed along the East Coast. The wind was up, so the sea was choppy. It was a lovely sight, but most of the other passengers were asleep. The train made a brief stop at a quaint seaside town, Chuam, tucked in a small, steep, rocky mountain, which went well with the azure of the ocean. On the shore near the town stands a tall column, called Candle Rock, which is famous for being one of the most beautiful sites in the area.

After 15 minutes, we were back on the train, and 30 minutes along the sea later we were here.

Ms. Park seemed excited, but tense, and asked me whether I'd seen the film that made this place famous. I said yes and she nodded approvingly. "One Fine Spring Day" is about the ephemeral love of Eun-su, a divorced radio program producer, and Sang-wu, a single sound engineer. Sang-wu falls for Eun-su at first sight and they start seeing each other. But after a few months she drifts apart from him. When Sang-wu asks how her love could change, Eun-su only says, "Let's just break up." The bamboo wood and the temple with its sonorous windchimes were where the couple first got close on a snowy night.

When we arrived, we were led to a group of tour buses, and we had to pay our bus driver 6,000 won. A volunteer tour guide, Lim Jin-sook, a Samcheok native, joined us.

"When you are in the bamboo wood, put your ear up to a bamboo tree and listen carefully," she said. "You will hear the sound of water flowing; if you shake the tree, it gets louder." It was by now a lovely spring day with blue skies and a light wind. The bamboo trees were beautiful and verdant, but surprisingly small compared with how they looked in the movie. But the tour guide was right; the sound from the bamboo trees was marvelous. The couples handed their cameras to us loners and asked us to take pictures as they took up Eun-su and Sang-wu poses.

Sinheungsa temple was within walking distance from the bamboo wood. On the way, Ms. Lim, the guide, told us a legend about the temple, which was another sad love story. Back in the Joseon Dynasty era a young man and woman who lived in the village near the temple fell deeply in love. But a war broke out, and the man got killed. Distraught, the woman killed herself after she heard the news. The next year, an Indian lilac tree with beautiful flowers began to grow near the temple, and the people believed it had the woman's spirit. Then a pine tree began to grow from the same roots of the lilac, and the two trees grew beside each other. Naturally, the people thought the pine tree was the reincarnation of the man, and the trees were a manifestation of their love, which was forlorn in this world but consummated in the next.

Warmed by the story, we proceeded to the temple, which was small with a cozy atmosphere.

When the couples started taking pictures again, I fled back to join Ms. Park, who was still in front of the two trees. Ms. Lim was there, too, and spoiled the story of the trees when she said that they were dying from malnutrition. "Unless one of them is rooted up, both will die pretty soon," she said.

Around 11:30 a.m., we headed into Samcheok city to have lunch by the seashore. We were treated to more delightful scenery; it's certainly impressive how much you can see in a single morning on this package. Lunch was either raw fish or spicy fish soup.

Aboard the train back to Seoul, which left here at 12:20 p.m. and would arrive at Cheongnyangni Station at 9 p.m., Ms. Park told me why she was traveling alone ?she had broken up with her boyfriend the night before. I tried to say I was sorry, but she cut in. "Life will teach you that there are times you have to say your good-byes, just like the trees at the temple will," she said. I didn't know what to say back. But one thing was clear it was one fine spring day.

The tour runs Saturdays and the days before holidays, and costs 28,800 won. It is operated by the Korean National Railroad. Schedules vary according to season. For more information, call 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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