IMAGE OF KOREA Memories of Country Whistle Stops

Recently I came upon news of a high-speed rail line opening between Seoul and Andong. My hometown of Yeongju borders the northern edge of the historical city of Andong, so I’ll now be able to travel there in just one hour and 40 minutes. On a cold winter morning some 60-odd years ago, a 13-year-old boy from a poor mountain village boarded a train at Yeongju Station. That was me – my first solo trip. Many stops with unfamiliar names unfolded before me. And by the time the train reached Seoul, the sky was beginning to darken.

Just think. The very same distance can now be covered in about 100 minutes. What true change, what progress! Still, the surprise and gratitude inspired by the speed and convenience of a bullet train coexists with an underlying longing for the slower pace and sweet scenery of days long past.

© Ahn Hong-beom

The boy’s first-ever train journey set his heart racing with trepidation and wonder. The grown-up sitting next to him asked where he was going and what he planned to do there. I responded proudly that I was going to Seoul to take my middle school entrance examination. The train car was packed with passengers, seated and standing in the aisle. Whenever the train entered a tunnel, the car darkened then soon brightened again. The black smoke and soot belching from the engine car came through open windows.

The train stopped at a small country station. The auntie in the facing seat who shared her boiled eggs with me had been drooling in her sleep, but suddenly she jerked awake and gathered her things. Her back as she stepped off the train, together with a young student in a school uniform, and disappeared beyond the whistle stop… The flowerbeds blooming with various fleeting annuals like cosmos, trembling in the breeze… Such scenes became an inextricable part of my train journey.

Today, KTX trains race past small stops in a matter-ofcourse manner. Many country stations have been abandoned and demolished, having lost their purpose long ago. But some have been repurposed into cafés, diners or little museums, offering people a trip down memory lane and revitalizing these sites as tourist attractions.

Awakening from a light sleep in the deep of night, I sometimes take that young boy I once was and sit him down in the darkness of a lonely, old whistle stop. Then I turn on a faint light in each of the whistle stop waiting rooms that have flowed through the course of my life, and picture scenes from the poem “At Sapyeong Station” by Kwak Jae-gu.

“…with its windows like autumn leaves / who knows where the night train runs / calling out each moment I have longed for, I / tossed a handful of my tears into the light.”

Kim Hwa-young Literary Critic; Member of the National Academy of Arts
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