Long night's journey into day

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Long night's journey into day

ABOARD THE KOREAN NATIONAL RAILROAD - There is something romantic about train tours, and South Korea's is no exception. You can enjoy beautiful scenery while comfortably seated, chugging across the landscape.

Since the peninsula is a compact place (it takes only 40 minutes to fly from Seoul in the northwest to Busan on the south coast), you might be tempted to think the potential for train travel is somewhat limited.

What room is there in Korea for those staples of train tours, the sleeping car and restaurant?

Well, the trains of the morning calm have both of those options and more - even wedding cars - all available at reasonable prices.

First of all, you should know that there are basically four kinds of trains in Korea. The newest and best trains are called Saemaeul - literally meaning "new town," this class was named after the former President Park Chung Hee's national movement to boost the economy in the 1970s. Mugunghwa, the next-best class, was after the national flower. Tongil means reunification and Bidulgi means dove, the symbol of peace. Bidulgi has been phased out of service and Tongil is almost gone, still available only on a few routes in Gangwon province.

Saemaeul trains provide service in four languages - Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. Mugunghwa, in contrast, offers very limited foreign language service. Both Saemaeul and Mugunghwa trains have first-class and economy seats. The first-class seats for Saemaeul are 1.2 meters wide, and the economy are 1.12 meters - the same as first class in Mugunghwa. Economy class in Mugunghwa are only 1.04 meters wide. All the chairs in Saemaeul and those in Mugunghwa first class can be tilted back 25 degrees.

For my trip, I traveled from Seoul to Busan and back - the longest single route in Korea at nearly 500 kilometers. I rode a sleeping car from Seoul to Busan, then returned to Seoul in two legs, first on a Saemaeul restaurant car to Daegu, then in a regular Mugunghwa the rest of the way to Seoul.

All told, the trip cost 90,500 won ($70). The sleeper to Busan was the most expensive (especially on a Saturday night), costing 56,800 won. It then cost 8,100 won for the first class Saemaeul train from Busan to Daegu, 6,500 for breakfast and 19,100 for the ride from Daegu back to Seoul.

10 winks

"This is rather scary," cried Lee In-ja, a passenger in her 40s, at her first sight of the 24 sleeping compartments packed into the one train car, The compartments sit on each side of the aisle, 12 to a side, half of those on the ground floor and half above, reached by a small ladder. Each compartment is 1 meter wide, 2 meters long and 0.96 meters high, with a window, hanger, a pair of slippers and an alarm clock, not to mention pillow and sheets.

The car even had its own conductor, Kim Yong-hwan, who made frequent rounds throughout the night to make sure his passengers were all content.

I made myself comfortable, getting ready for the 11:55 p.m. departure. The room was certainly on the petite side, but it was passable for one night's sleep and, most important, clean. The air in the room seemed dry and the temperature controller indicated it was between 16 to 18 degrees centigrade. Mr. Kim assured me that the train gets fresh air from the outside and either heats or cools it to a comfortable temperature - ideally 18 degrees in winter and 26 in summer.

The Korean National Railroad launched sleeping cars in 1977. The railroad's plan is to keep the same trains in operation for 25 years, but eight of the sleeping cars were remodeled last year rather than be decommissioned.

Since it takes only four and a half hours for Saemaeul trains to reach Busan from Seoul, there are no sleeping cars on Saemaeul trains. Mugunghwa trains, however, do have sleepers because they take 5 hours and 31 minutes for the same journey.

That Saturday night, tickets for the sleeping cars were sold out, something which rarely happens on weekdays. According to Han Seung-il, who works in the railroad's ticket sales department, most of the passengers in the sleeping cars are merchants taking clothes from the wholesale markets at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, Seoul. Ms. Lee, who carried two large bags stuffed with clothes, turned out to own a women's shop in Busan. For several years, every other week she would take a bus from Busan to Seoul and back to do business for her store. This was her first time in a sleeping car.

She splurged for a train ticket this time, she told me, because she was tired and wanted to sleep.

And sleep she did. My berth was directly below Ms. Lee's, and though we each had a door on our tiny rooms, I could hear her snoring loudly - all night long. The rumbling of the train was loud, but not enough to drown her out.

Around 5:15 a.m., Mr. Kim made his final round to awaken passengers. We were to arrive in Busan at 5:26 a.m.

More curry, Miss?

For the past year, the national railroad's dining cars have been managed by the Radisson Seoul Plaza hotel. On the Busan to Daegu leg of my trip, I had my first meal on wheels. There are 10 kinds of food available, from gimbap, rice, vegetables and meat rolled in seaweed, for 3,000 won, to galbi jjim, or braised beef, for 10,000 won. Yu Chun-oh, my waiter at breakfast, had a pleasant manner, often saying "Excuse me" as he set down chopsticks or brought me water. Even though it took 15 minutes for the curry and rice I had ordered to arrive, I didn't notice it because Mr. Yu was so polite and apologetic about the time it took. Plus, I had plenty to see out my dining car window: a spectacular view of the Nakdong River and the verdant Togok mountain range.

The dining car also offered a variety of drinks, from cappuccino for 3,000 won, to a bottle of Imperial whiskey for 55,000 won.

Mr. Yu said that the train's kitchen staff prepares all the food, before the train leaves the station, in hotels in Busan and Daegu, and then travels with the train to Seoul. He recommended ordering in advance by calling 02-3270-7513, especially if you want to eat one of the more popular dishes or have special diet needs. He also suggested the hamburger steak and curry and rice for Westerners. The railroad recently added fast food restaurants for two Mugunghwa trains, one for the Seoul-Busan run and the other for Seoul-Yeosu, South Jeolla province. More routes are planned.

Other Facilities

A couple of Mugunghwa trains have Internet cafes. One "PC room" car has 20 computers, and charges 2,500 won per hour. There are also baduk (go) rooms, where people can play the old board game for 3,000 won per person. "We have developed special magnetic baduk stones lest they should be shaken on board while trains are running," said Shin Dae-eon, a manager for Korean National Railroad.

For parents who need to take a break from their kids, some Mugunghwas have children's play rooms, which include plastic and wooden slides and ball pools. Though the children's room that I saw on my way to Seoul was small and not terribly clean, it was free. Apparently, however, no children wanted to play there for more than an hour, so no one need worry about the rooms being too crowded.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the trip was the handicapped facilities. Every train is required by law to have four seats for the disabled; but instead, my trains only offered special empty spaces where people could park their wheelchairs.

As for those wedding cars, Mr. Shin said that the national railroad is doing its best to attract couples. The wedding cars are equipped with seats for guests and a red-carpet aisle. For brides and grooms, that's a train tour that is truly romantic.


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