Snow train's mountain fantasy

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Snow train's mountain fantasy

"This winter, befitting a cup of sweet hot chocolate, why don't we travel into our old memories?" said the train conductor, signaling the beginning of our tour. The time was 7:45 a.m.; the place, Cheongnyangni Station, on the outer reaches of Seoul.

Before long, Carol Kidd's pop song, "When I Dream" (made famous on the peninsula by the hit movie "Shiri"), filled the train cars. Passengers, mostly young couples and groups of middle-aged women, peered quietly out the windows decorated with yellow and white plastic snowflakes.

Plastic snowflakes? Not what you would expect to encounter on a train, but that is what you find on a special winter train tour package called "Loop-Line Railroad to the Land of Snow Flowers."

From mid-December to the end of February, the Korean National Railroad runs special train tours that take passengers for a 13-hour round-trip from Seoul to Gangwon province, all for 34,300 won ($26).

The "snow flower" trains, which have been running since 1998, are one of the most popular special train tours the railroad offers. Tickets for the seven train cars are usually gone within 30 minutes of going on sale.

The train passes through Yangpyeong in Gyeonggi province, moves on to Yeongju in North Gyeongsang province, and then Gangwon province, where it makes five stops. Gangwon province, a mountainous and relatively remote part of Korea, is famous - and notorious - for its heavy snow - a difficulty for residents, but very pleasing for tourists. Perhaps the most attractive stops on the tour are the small stations Seungbu and Chujeon.

Seungbu Station

When the train stopped at Seungbu at 1:15 p.m., two of the station's four workers greeted the tourists warmly. Shin Deok-hwan, one worker, said, "Welcome to the hinterland." All around the station, everything you see in all directions is blanketed with snow, from the small roadside restaurants to the far mountains. Snow in this region comes in mid-November and stays until early March. Once off the toasty train, the frigid air outside bites, but it's more refreshing than painful. Seungbu's daily lows in winter range from minus-3 degrees celsius to minus-23 degrees celsius.

The station is small, with only enough room for 30 people, but quite clean, including the restroom (much nicer than the cramped facilities on the train).

Nearby stand a row of six houses and a two-story, five-room elementary school, too big for its three students.

Seungbu village's 20-or-so residents make a living selling items to tourists, such as namul (vegetable dishes) and jujube fruit picked from the nearby mountains.

During the train's 90-minute stop at Seungbu Station, you can walk to the village, crossing a rickety wooden bridge (no more than 15 people at a time) on the way. The biggest attraction is the walk itself, which follows a lonely path alongside the village. Here you can see the spectacular "snow flowers" - ice-encrusted snowflakes covering tree branches.

After the walk, you can talk with villagers at roadside stands. In her mid-60s, Kim Seon-ok is the most senior of the vendors. During the winter, she specializes in ssiraegi, dried radish leaves, which are high in vitamin D.

She does not speak English, but her every word is about the price of her vegetables - 3,000 won for a hearty pile. With some creative sign language (one finger equals 1,000 won), you should be all right. The quality of the vegetables is guaranteed, fresh from the mountain and backed by Ms. Kim's word of honor.

Like many people in Seungbu, she has lived here her entire life. And it appears her legacy will be passed on to her youngest daughter, who recently married a young engineer at the train station. The couple is expecting their first child this March.

Small roadside restaurants sell potato patties and rice cakes with potato powder. Though the grayish rice cakes do not look too mouthwatering, the potato patties are quite good, recommended especially with dongdongju, a traditional Korean rice liquor.

Chujeon Station

Taebaek mountain range runs along the eastern part of the Korean Peninsula from north to south. On the side of one mountain in the range stands the highest train station in Korea, Chujeon, 855 meters above sea level. The train stops at the station for 41 minutes, enough time to take in the majestic view of Mount Taebaek clad in its winter dress.

The station, built in 1973, was originally used chiefly for transporting coal from the mountains, but this had come to a stop by 1995. The station used to be very black from all the coal dust, but now the snow has taken back the landscape.

The station is bigger than Seungbu, with 10 workers, but only two trains a day, aside from the snow flower tour, pass through, one in the morning and the other at night.

You cannot miss the spectacular view of the mountain range. Indeed, there is not much else to see - except a solitary stone monument proclaiming the station to be the highest in Korea.

Finally, at 4:15 p.m., the train started back to Seoul, arriving at Cheongnyangni Station at 8:56 p.m. The journey back was just as full of remarkable vistas, in particular the view of Bukhan River at sunset.

Other Snowy Tour Packages

Winter is an exciting season for Korean tour agencies, and a number of package tours are offered.

If you think that just sitting on a train is too boring, and you want something more fun and active, there are options, including a snow-sleigh and ski tour for Mount Taebaek. For 36,800 won, you can have a one-day round-trip to the mountain, which includes a visit to the coal museum.

Others choices include a chance to visit the small temples in Gangwon province. To buy tickets for the "Loop Line Railroad to the Land of Snow Flowers" you have to go to one of the designated subway stations. Other tickets are available at Korean National Railroad's Internet site, For more information, call the Korea National Railroad at 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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