Railbikes: sightseers put the pedal to the metal

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Railbikes: sightseers put the pedal to the metal

“I want to ride it again!” Shin Ye-in, 5, screamed as soon as she got off the railbike in Jeongseon, Gangwon province.
She had just taken a traintrack tour of the countryside on a railbike, a two or four-person platform that fits over railroad tracks and moves somewhat like a bicycle. That is to say it has pedals, you sit it in, and it goes forward. Just don’t expect to be able to steer or pass anyone in front of you.

Although Ye-in sat in the back seat of a four-person bike, and was too short to reach the pedals, the little girl giggled and hopped around. “It was cold because the wind was blowing in my face, but it was so exciting, especially the colorful tunnels and ghost sounds,” she said.
Now that cold weather has come to the peninsula (and come in a hurry), time is running out to participate in the most melancholy and low-key of Korean hobbies: viewing the ochre-toned autumn foliage before it’s swept off the streets. But if you’re into something more active, you can head out to a remote village surrounded by mountains and valleys and hop on a railbike, all while soaking in the autumnal serenity.
There are three places that offer railbikes in Korea: Jeongseon, Gangwon province; Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang province and Gokseong, South Jeolla province. I picked the railbike in Jeongseon, the newest and the longest of the three, despite the draining trip out from Seoul.
The “Sold Out” signpost standing in front of Gujeolli station, where the railbike departs, is a testament to its popularity. “It’s nearly impossible to get a ticket for the railbike without a reservation, even during weekdays,” said Nam Ji-hoon, an official from KTX Tour & Leisure Co., the operator of the tour. “It’s best to make a reservation a week in advance.”
Jeongseon was once one of the largest coal-producing-regions in Korea, producing 6.5 million tons a year and accounting for 27 percent of nationwide coal production in 1988, its peak year. But due to the decline in the coal industry, mines started closing in 1989, and none are still working in the region; the last Sabuk Dongwon mine complex closed last year. The train that transported coal and people between Gujeolli and Auraji stations stopped operating last year, when its owners realized they would never get back into the black. The county office and Korea Railroad Corp. were left with an empty track and an empty economy. Their solution was the railbike.
The first thing one notices at Gujeolli station would be the cafeteria, which is in the shape of two katydids. The restaurant was made by renovating two abandoned rail cars. “The cafeteria became a feature in the town, and lots of tourists have their photos taken in front of it,” Mr. Nam said. He added that the county office and the railroad agency are planning to make another cafeteria at the Auraji station, using abandoned train cars to look like eoreumchi (Hemibarbus mylodon), a species of fish native to Korea and one that is particularly abundant in the region.
As the railbikes enter the station, people hustle to grab seats. The two-seaters are 15,000 won ($14) per bike, while four-seaters are 20,000 won. For the latter, however, only the two in the front seats can pedal, while the other two in the back just sit and watch the scenery. “The seats for the riders of the four-person bike are so hard my butt ached after riding it,” one participant complained.
Although the seats for two-person bike were more cushy, as a short person I found it a little difficult to reach the pedal. I had to push my butt far forward in the seat.
Riding the railbike wasn’t so demanding. Most of the trail is on a downward slope, except for 1.5 kilometers of level land. You don’t even need to pedal all the way, because at some points gravity takes over and all you need to do is brake. The brake, incidentally, is in between the seats. The average speed is 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) per hour, enough to make things chilly and also discourage one from playing bumper cars with the bike in front.
The trail really is gorgeous, with a stream flowing deep down one side and a beautiful mountain on the other. Further down the track was a group of women gathering potatoes, farmers harvesting crops and residents just walking by.
There are two places set aside for breaks, a photo zone and a rest stop, but if there’s nobody behind you, you can stop pretty much anywhere. Just make sure that before you get off the bike, put the steel bar in front of it in order to prevent it from rolling away. At the photo zone, people got off the bikes and stood in awe of Songcheon valley, and at the rest stop, a vendor sold snacks like gamjaddeok (cakes made from potato starch), a Gangwon province specialty.
A rider can forget that they’re on a real railroad until they hit a crossing, where traffic lights and a barrier will stop cars and let a railbiker pass.
The course includes three tunnels, two of which are festooned with fluorescent light bulbs in green, blue, purple and red. It sounds festive but actually was chilling ― easy to imagine how it would have been for actual coal miners not so long ago.
“The trip was shorter than I expected, considering that it takes more than nine hours for a round trip from Seoul to Jeongseon,” said Kim Myung-ock, 40, who came with her husband. But Choi Mi-ryang, who came with 12 other members of an online club for railway buffs, said it was worth the hassle.
“It’s fun, and it lets you get some fresh air and enjoy beautiful natural scenery,” she said.

by Park Sung-ha

Public transportation to Gujeolli station from Jeungsan station isn’t so convenient, so it’s best to buy a package trip that includes transportation from Seoul to Jeungsan station, then to Gujeolli station. The railbike and an additional tour in the region is included. The package, organized by KTX Tour & Leisure (www.ktx21.com), costs 35,000 won ($33) to 54,900 won depending on the train class and additional tour programs. Other tours can include the five-day market, Arari Village ― a traditional village that houses traditional houses, pubs, farm implements, a water mill and more across 8.6 acres.
For lunch, try gondre namul bap (rice cooked with gondre herbs), another Gangwon specialty. One resident said the two best restaurants are near the Jeongseon county government office: Dongbakgol (033-563-2211) and Ssarigol (033-562-4554). A course for one person costs about 4,000 to 6,000 won.
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