Life at the top, of sorts: Manning a desolate mountain station

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Life at the top, of sorts: Manning a desolate mountain station

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TAEBAEK, Gangwon ― Call it the loneliest train station in Korea: On the average day, it has only three visitors, and as many staff members.
Standing 855 meters (2,805 ft.) above sea level, Chujeon station (its name means “bush clover field”) first opened in 1973, when it became the highest point on the rails that ran throught the scenic Taebaek Mountains. At the time, it served an important purpose as a transfer point for freight trains carrying coal mined nearby. Until the mid-1980s, trains departing from the station delivered up to 100,000 tons of stone coal a month.
The town surrounding the station had bustled with people. It was so prosperous there was a saying that “even the dog in this town wanders around with a 10,000-won bill in its mouth.”
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But the mining industry declined, and so did the town around the station. The station was in a near-isolated state when this reporter and a photographer arrived here last weekend. It was located much further into the valley and away from where most people now live downtown.
No passenger trains stop here anymore. From Gohan station, the train skips Chujeon and stops at the next station, Taebaek. The only train that stops here is the commuter train for the three workers from Korea Railroad who man the station and a few remaining freight trains that load one-sixth of the coal that the station used to ship out.
Several wooden signs and rusty metal posts stand along the tracks gray with coal dust. One reads, “Welcome to the station closest to the sky,” while another stated in fading painted letters, “You are going to the highest point in Korea.”
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In mid-April, the sun was high but the air was bitterly cold and the altitude made one’s ears pop and ache. Ko Ju-hyeon, the youngest of the three staff members, looked excited to have visitors. He asked if we cared for a cup of coffee or tea. According to the young man, we were the third visitors of the day.
“The first one was a man in his 60s who said he lived in the mining town that used to be here across from the railway,” Mr. Ko gushed. He said the man looked around the woods long enough to finish a cigarette and left. “I was amazed to hear his story.”
The station was no more than a single-story box housing an office for three workers, a restroom and a display room filled with old black-and-white photos from the days when waiting passengers lounged around the station. Before Mr. Ko could continue chatting, a loud beep blared from the operating table. He leapt toward it.
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“Chujeon station, train number 1117” he rattled into the microphone. Trains running between Seoul and Gangneung, and those traveling between Jecheon and Taebaek, pass by 43 times a day, though none ever stop. It is Mr. Ko’s job to mark the time the train passes and alert the next stop’s engineer that it will soon arrive. A short while later, another freight train chugged by.
An old-style briquette stove sat in the middle of the office. The stove was burning the briquettes 24 hours a day. The stove is kept hot year-round except in August, the only month when the mountains are warm enough to spare the briquettes. “It snowed again the othe day,” Mr. Ko said.
“At night, it gets freezing,” said Kim Su-gi, the oldest and highest-ranking staff member at the station. “This is my second year here after transfering from Taebaek station, but I still can’t get used to the night shifts.”
Mr. Kim said the place is so dark at night everything outside the door is inky black. In line with an energy conservation campaign, the Korea Railway recommended that the station leave only two lights lit during the nighttime.
“It’s only about 15 steps to the restroom outside, but walking in the dark, and hearing the strange howls from the woods, believe me, you get the creeps,” he said. His body actually visibly shuddered. “I try to run to the bathroom as fast as I can and turn on the lights in there as fast as possible, but it’ll scare you every time.”
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To say the area is uninhabited is not exactly true: There are plenty of wild animals around. Mr. Kim said he has seen lynxes, wild dogs and deer wandering around in the woods. The less fortunate ones slide over the tracks and are chewed up by the trains. None of the men had thought their new job on the railways would be to move carcasses off the tracks.
Mr. Kim blamed what he called the “overwhelming number of wild animals” on strict animal protection laws that block hunters from thinning herds. “I already picked up and buried several [animals] this year,” he said.
Is he armed?
“We have no cash saved here,” he replied. “Who would come all the way up here to rob us?”
There’s been a slight uptick in the number of passengers arriving at Chujeon station, though not for the facilities around it: There aren’t any. The draw is the Taebaek Snow Festival, which offers a month-long ice-sculpture competition and plenty of sledding around normally desolate slopes. Festival-goers have the opportunity to ride trains to whistle-stops like Chujeon and stand around in the middle of nowhere. If you’re from Seoul, that might be a rare opportunity.
Chujeon station usually sees about 40 centimeters (almost 16 inches) of snow a year; this year, with the festival in full swing the area got far less. The trains went to Taebaek and Tongni stations instead, a few tunnels away from Chujeon.
“But tourists who have heard about the history of this station occasionally stop by,” said Jung Han-deok, the other worker there. He said he enjoyed taking souvenir photographs for couples and families who dropped by. Despite a regulation that trespassers on the railway tracks are fined up to 10 million won ($11,000), he said he occasionally, quietly lets the rare visitor step inside the track for a quick photo shoot.
“It’s because we appreciate the people who came a long way to see us,” he said.


Other ‘whistle stops’ in Korea

1) Seungbu station in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang province
The station is in Seungbu town, the village probably the most back wood part of the country. There are less than 30 homes left in the town. No shops or motels here. Unless you asked for a home-stay before the trip, finding accommodation and food is impossible. A writing on a rock by a train attendant from 1960s shows that it was once a proud, busy stop though: Seungbu station may be only 10 square meters (12 square yard) wide, but this station is the heart of mid-eastern part of the country and the artery of transport system of Korea.

2) Simpori station in Samcheok, Gangwon province
Located 450 meters above sea level and surrounded by thick forests, cars do not have access to this station. Only the commuting train that come and go twice a day for attendants that work here can reach the isolated place. The station is famous for operating a railway line that stretch zigzag up the mountain designed for trains that had operated on steam. Because of the near-impossible gradient, the steam locomotives would start up the mountain but soon moved astern to climb further up, soon changing its direction forward again to climb more. Such zigzag movement continue for 4 kilometers until it reach the station. Now, the trains are powered by electricity but the railway tracks still remain and the commuting train move zigzag as it always did.

3) Kimyujeong station in Chuncheon, Gangwon province
Named after a late novelist, Kim Yu-jeong, this station is the only stop in Korean railway that had been named after a person. Originally called Sinnam station, the Chucheon city changed its name in 2004 to commemorate the novelist whose novels often cite his hometown of Sillye village in Chuncheon as its backdrop.

4) Huibangsa station in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang province
The station is crowded only during the weekends when hikers get off here to climb Mount Sobaek. During the weekdays, the station is empty. The train stops four times a day here. To the back of this station, there is the Huibang-sa, or the Huibang temple, which was founded in AD 643 during the Queen Seondeok’ regime in the Silla Dynasty. During the hike to the temple, you can see the 28-meter high Huibang waterfall, which is the longest in the mid-eastern part of the country.


by Lee Min-a

How to visit Korea’s loneliest station-keepers: From Cheongnyangni train station, take the Taebaek train line, which ends at Gangneung. Get off at Taebaek station. From there, take a cab for a 10-minute ride to Chujeon. For a more adventurous trip, take a town bus bound for Yongyeon Waterfalls from a bus stop in front of the Taebaek station. Get off at the Chujeon bus stop. Follow the road sign to the station. It’s a 15-minute walk up-hill.

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