Today I traveled by train with a colleague to Waiguan (왜관), a town to the west of Daegu. We took the Korea Train eXpress (KTX) high-speed train from Seoul Station to Dongdaegu Station, then switched to a local train (열차) and backtracked to Waiguan. The KTX was extremely comfortable (the local train wasn’t too bad either). We visited an American in Waiguan, and then we went home. It was an all-day trek for about an hour and a half of work. At lunchtime, we stopped at a delicious mandu (만두, or Korean dumpling) restaurant not far from the train station. For some reason, the restaurant’s name is "Pusan Kaya," (부산 가야) a combination of the City of Pusan and the name of a Korean Buddhist temple. Waiguan is quite far from both places. I ordered potato noodle soup (감자수쩨비). The side dishes were fair, but the soup was delicious, a much-needed change from the run-of-the-mill bulgogi and bibimbap restaurant.
The entire trip conjured memories of times when I traveled around the world by train. In my younger days, I traveled through Europe by train, and a few years ago, my wife and I visited Egypt for a couple of weeks. The KTX portion of Seoul Station reminded me of the Hauptbahnhof in Hamburg, Germany. I had fun figuring out our train platform on the big electronic board, reminding me of the old days when finding the correct train platform and departure time meant the difference between moving on or being stranded. As I watched the Korean countryside pass by my window, I was reminded of when I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Narita Airport, Japan, watching the green rice fields and rolling hills fly past. As the day grew hazy, the air ladened with moisture, I recalled one morning in December 2001 when my wife and I took the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor, Egypt. The sun had not yet risen on the horizon, and the scene along the verdant Nile River was quite spectacular. Palm trees intermingled with fields of cotton and other vegetation. I caught glimpses of that memory from the window of the KTX train today.
The town of Waiguan reminded me a bit of Luxor, Egypt. I’m not sure why, because the two towns really are very different. As I stepped out of the main entrance of the Waiguan train station and surveyed the square and colorful, diverse buildings lining the main street that led away from the station, I recalled a similar scene in Luxor. Luxor, ancient capital of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, is famous for its temples and the Valley of the Kings, among other sites. Yet Luxor is also a modern, mid-sized Egyptian city. The scene from the Luxor train station is eerily similar to the one that greets you in Waiguan. Beyond that, the similarities end. I felt a bit out of place visiting a small Korean city as a Westerner garbed in a business suit. I late learned that U.S. Forces Korea’s Camp Carroll is not far from Waiguan, and the residents of Waiguan are quite used to cohabitating with the 1,000 or so Americans who live in and around the camp. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that not too many Americans dressed in business attire walk around Waiguan. It definitely had a different feeling than Seoul–more casual and rural.
The KTX train was luxurious. It’s the first time I’d ridden first class in a train. As a youth, I bought a railpass and sat and slept wherever I could find space. I didn’t even bother to rent a coachette, or bunk bed, when I traveled overnight. Those days are long gone. Later in life, I rarely rode trains apart from egalitarian subway trains. Riding first class on the KTX was wonderful. I sat back and caught some Korean television and laughed when Korail aired "Nightrider," an old NBC television program starring David Hasselhoff and an super-intelligent black Corvette named "Kitt." Talk about remembering the old days. The hostess, who served us twice, was very gracious and offered us drinks and freshening towels. It was much more relaxing than traveling in Korea by car in stop-and-go traffic. I think that when my family visits Pusan we will take the KTX train. My son, the train aficionado, would be so excited.