Take me to the river

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Take me to the river

GOKSEONG, South Jeolla -- Is this train going to North Korea?, I wondered. The train tour was supposed to head to the Seomjin River in South Jeolla province, on the southern end of the peninsula. But there it was on my ticket: Amnok.

Amnok is the longest river in North Korea, stretching along the border with China. Later, however, I found out that Amnok is also the name of a rundown station in Gokseong county, near the Seomjin River and my ultimate destination. The train, just a regular second-tier Mugunghwa, left Seoul Station at 7:10 a.m.

Relieved that I wasn't going to cross the border, I tried to sit back and relax -- until I realized the train had been overrun by families and their many, many children. Without any hope for serenity, I examined the program.

No wonder. The program, called "Picnic by the Seomjin River," included many activities that would make a perfect Sunday for children -- a bicycle race along the river, making your own earthenware, doing traditional things like kite-flying. A little boy and a girl who sat next to me began planning their to-do list, and before long got into a fight over who was going to fly the kite first. The fight continued for the whole trip, and was echoed by nearly all the children on every car on the train.

Just before the train arrived at Amnok Station around noon, a vice magistrate of Gokseong county suddenly started to speak over the public address system. The point was to welcome guests, but he went overboard, rambling on about how the county was the origin of the traditional tale of Sim Cheong, a girl so full of filial piety that she gave her life so her blind father could see again. He kept talking until the train came to a halt, but, anyway, I couldn't hear his voice over the brother and sister fighting.

The Seomjin River was within walking distance of the train station, and a group of volunteer guides in yellow vests were kind. The guides and workers at the event venue were almost all inhabitants of the county, from the vice magistrate to the members of the women's association at the lunch counters. Only the magistrate himself was forbidden to make an appearance due to the approaching election, out of concerns of fairness.

The surface of the river glistened in the sunshine of the lovely day. Alongside the river stood booths and tents where tourists could enjoy a variety of activities and food for the five hours before the trains headed back to Seoul.

The county indeed put much effort into coming up with things to do -- perhaps too much effort. There was also too much to do, and many of the events were rather disorganized. The official program included some events -- an exhibition, rafting on the Seomjin River -- which were hard to find or hardly available.

Children were enthusiastic about playing traditional games like rolling steel hoops, flying kites and shooting bamboo water pistols, but there weren't enough to meet the high demand.

Two of the most well-received and well-prepared events were riding a traditional ox-cart for free and making earthenware. For 4,000 won ($3) to cover the cost of materials, you can make a small clay pot with your name carved on it. Be ready, though, for long lines of really enthusiastic children waiting to ride the oxcart.

Off to one side of the venue, there are lunch counters selling specialties of the Seomjin River region, things like marsh snail soups. There are no other alternatives for lunch, so visitors have to eat here. Marsh snail soup, fresh from the river, costs 3,000 won and seafood patties at 4,000 won were passable at least.

Although I appreciated the county's efforts, to make the most of the trip you really need to get away. For 3,000 won you can rent a bicycle for the whole afternoon and take a ride along the riverside ?a pleasant and uplifting experience. Romantic couples who prefer each other's company to the pandemonium of mischievous children can rent a tandem bicycle for 4,000 won.

Riding the bike, with a soft breeze blowing and the beautiful river by my side, reminded me of when my mother taught me how to ride many years ago. Though she always promised that she would never let go of the bicycle, I always found those promises were made to be broken.

I haven't touched a bicycle in the past five years that I've been living in the heart of Seoul, so at first I worried that I might fall or get in an accident. But even though you have to ride on the road, the routes in the country contained very few cars, and those I did encounter actually yielded -- a most rare occurrence elsewhere.

Along the roads are traditional chalets on stilts at intervals, good places to rest. Once while I was taking a break, a passing family offered me a cup of ice-cold water, without even being asked.

If bicycle riding is your thing, one of the best routes requires taking Gorisil ferry to the northern part of the river. Almost no one goes there, and the trip is challenging, but it pays off.

Im Chae-hwan, a financial affairs manager at the county office, is a volunteer ferryman. A friendly, middle-aged man, Mr. Im took about 15 minutes to maneuver the boat across the river. For the World Cup season, Mr. Im is worried that he will have groups of foreign guests and he is learning Japanese. "Just in case," he said. English? He said he's trying hard.

Back at the event venue, around 4 p.m., a singing competition was taking place, with prizes of towels, grape extract and wine -- another Seomjin River specialty, believe it or not. Though the competition was held under the title "Nature-Friendly Concert," I found the opposite to be the case. A rather loud and threatening master of ceremonies asked members of the audience to come up and sing a song along with the town orchestra. He was too forceful, and ruined the pleasant atmosphere.

Rather than suffer through the event, and risk having to sing myself, I made a detour to the other side of the Gokseong county where I found Gokseong villagers busy taking care of their rice paddies. Next to the rice paddies, there lay a tributary of the Seomjin River where I could catch my own marsh snails, easily enough to half-fill a regular mineral water bottle. It felt more like the authentic Seomjin spirit than the jarring singing competition.

Back on the train, which arrived at Seoul Station around 10 p.m., another uproar was waiting for me. The brother and sister were crying over a broken clay pot and other young people were on the verge of being drunk from the prize they'd won at the competition. Annoying, but less bad than a train trip to North Korea's Amnok, I guess. Overall, however, this little day trip to yesteryear was refreshing enough that I soon fell fast asleep, ignoring my fellow passengers, and dreaming of the river and a bicycle.

Korean National Railroad runs "Picnic by the Seomjin River" every Sunday and holiday. Tickets are available at 30,200 won. For more information, call 1544-7788.

by Chun Su-jin

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