Riding the rails, just for funThere is something inherently romantic about taking a train ― the chugging sound, the rhythm of the ride, the whistle of the conductor. You can watch scenery pass without thinking about traffic, driving or directions. You may see flashes of verdant nature, junkyards or complete bareness. It’s all part of the ride.
So in theory, the Seoul Night Train, a two-hour trip around the city’s perimeter, has potential.
Seoul has bridges lit up at night, mountains to the north and south and soaring skycrapers in between (some more glamorous than others). For 29,000 won ($26), passengers on the Night Train tour ride a renovated Mugunghwa train, styled as a “luxury” train, with wine and live jazz.
The idea behind the tour, organized by KTX Tour and Leisure, is to make use of the slower trains like the Mugunghwa that have seen less use since bullet train service began. Every Wednesday and Thursday, the train leaves Seoul Station at 7:15 p.m., and runs counterclockwise through Shincheon, Ilyeong, Euijeongbu and Cheongryangri before returning to Seoul Station at 9:39 p.m.
In other words, a short tour of the city lights, with the luxury and romance of ― well, maybe not the Orient Express or Rovos Rail, but a local equivalent. With such thoughts in mind, a friend and I step onto a balloon-decorated passenger car for the second-ever departure of the Seoul Night Train.
It looks better than the old Mugunghwa. The seats are comfortable, with plenty of knee room, and can be spun around to face each other. The windows are bigger, and the restroom car and the bar car have been paneled with wood. There are enough people on board that it doesn’t feel empty, but not so many that it feels crowded. To my right, three women turn their chairs around and unpack boxes of sushi.
This brings up the first problem: This is a luxury train with no meal service.
When passengers make their reservations, they are advised to bring dinner along. My friend and I picked up soup and sandwiches from Au Bon Pain; most of our fellow riders seem to have bought their dinners at the eateries at Seoul Station.
But there is wine ―all the wine you like, in fact. About 10 minutes into the trip, two uniformed women come up the aisle pushing a cart full of bottles. Each group of passengers is given a bottle of red or white Kretikos Boutari and some clear plastic cups. We also get bread rolls and cheese, store-bought chocolate chip cookies and saltine crackers on paper plates with tiny napkins.
With dinner over, it’s time to savor the scenery. But we soon realize that there is none.
The interior lights have been left on, quite brightly. At night, of course, that means that just about all you see when you look out the window is your own reflection.
Luckily, a man with a guitar soon comes wandering through. But as he gets some of the passengers to wave their hands in the air and clap along to his rather corny songs, I have to rethink “luckily.” He moves on to the next car. Soon after that, a woman comes by, announcing that the jazz concert is about to begin.
I walk past the bar car to another compartment filled with plastic blue chairs. A jazz trio, said to have a standing Friday gig at Once in a Blue Moon in Apgujeong-dong, stands at one end. Passengers try to score seats, rearranging chairs and climbing over each other. The guitarist, now an emcee, says a few words, and again gets the passengers to wave their hands in the air.
Once most everyone is settled in (some passengers are still standing), the trio’s saxophonist and guitarist start playing “Autumn Leaves.” It’s sweet. The vocalist joins in; her voice is an unexpected gentle touch. The trio moves on to “My Funny Valentine.” Some passengers nod along, and a few couples hold hands.
I return to my seat to relax and sip more wine. The music is being piped through the sound system. At my dark and opaque window, I listen to “Route 66.”
The three women next to me are old friends whose children attended the same elementary school. “Every year, we meet at a restaurant, a noraebang or a coffee shop. Instead of the usual, we thought we would try something different. This is a perfect way for us to eat, hang out and catch up with each other’s lives,” says Ahn In-sun, 58, before turning back around to gossip with her friends, and drink wine.
Evidentally, she’s not the only one taking advantage of the unlimited wine. When the jazz stops, the swinging beat of Korean trot music starts up. I can hear the emcee taking the mike, encouraging people to sing along. One man’s voice in particular stands out; he sounds drunk. Soon he’s yelling gibberish, as if trying to wrestle the microphone away. The sound system is abruptly shut off.
Later, I walk to the next cabin and chat with some passengers. “It’s not a tour for young people,” says Kim Byeong-jin, a man in his 20s or so who is here with his girlfriend, Park Eun-jeong. “They need to come up with more modern concepts.”
A few seats down from them, an older couple is smiling. I had noticed the man, Yang Seong-gyu, during the jazz concert; he had been a very enthusiastic clapper. “Our daughter bought us tickets as part of our 29th wedding anniversary,” he says. “It’s great to be part of something new.”
Back at my compartment, the three women are talking about the yelling earlier. “Did you see that drunk man?” one whispers. That aside, they enjoyed the ride. “Although I wish there were more pop songs or honky tonk, you know?”
Apparently, taking this train is like traveling in any other group: Everyone has a different idea of what makes a trip wonderful.
Perhaps 15 minutes before the end of the ride, the lights finally go off. Out the window, we can see the warm hues of city lights shimmering off the river. Now this is what I came for.
by Joe Yong-hee
For more information on the Seoul Night Train, go to www.ktx21.com.