South Korean Weltscherz Series: (No.1) Jaunt to Mungyeong

This is the first of a fortnightly series of the little day trips my wife and I take around Korea, with the intention of dispelling a certain weltscherz that I’ve steadily accumulated over the last few years in this land, and my efforts to rediscover the best of Korea.

From where my wife and I live in Daegu, Mungyeong in North Gyeongsang (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g2024849-d10354228-Reviews-Mungyeong_Rail_Bike-Mungyeong_Gyeongsangbuk_do.html) is an 80 minute drive over smooth highways, past a patchwork of smallholder farms, and a vision of plentiful grey-green hills that dominate the distant-landscape. Given the countryside setting nestled among the verdant forested cliffs of ochre and fast-flowing translucent streams of glistening blue-silver, it’s a place far from the tourist hordes.

Mungyeong played its part in industrialising Korea’s tiger economy. This tiny place provided the coal from its once rich-seems that helped the ROK to eventually emerge as a regional power after the fall of the Japanese Empire. Nowadays, the arcane, rusting, creaking tracks transport people rather than dirty, finite minerals. 

Exchanging umpteen black-stained carts of iron for a fleet of slender rail bikes, it’s predominately local Koreans escaping the nearby metropolises, like Daegu, rather than serious Seoul-based industrialists of yesteryear that come to Mungyeong for some light exercise while enjoying the engulfing natural environment; no Westerners made this journey as far as we observed. This suited the brief we set ourselves: to have a short jaunt to a place neither of us had been to, that wasn’t in the guidebook, and gave us a new, if small, experience that added to our Korean immersion.

Korea is a particularly wonderful place in Spring. Cherry blossoms are little short of magical, but disappointedly shed their petals far too soon. The flowers of pink and white and yellow that bestride the flanks along the rail-journey in Mungyeong was certainly worth getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning (advisable to beat the crowds unless you reserve ahead). With earthy, woody scents and long, postcard-worthy views on either side of the lugubrious stream, it feels almost alien compared to the neon monoliths of Seoul, and the concrete colossuses of Busan. Higher up, the craggy, lacerated hillsides are strewn with an array of quintessential Korean features: bijou pagodas that offer trekkers respite and a place to picnic; pretty pensions perched overlooking the panorama, and thick forests that hide its depleting wildlife.

Spring certainly feels the best time to come here. A robust breeze provides relief from the pockets of stifling heat, with the abundance of blossoming flora offers a constant gallery as one cycles the length of the 7.5 kilometre roundtrip, which takes around 50 minutes (primarily because the rail bike is kept at the same pace by the dynamo to the rear, so no bonus points for the ultra-athlete(s) wanting to break the sound barrier with their peddling). Summer would be far too humid even for the short journey; Autumn is often too wet, and Korean winters can be harsh without adequate insulation.

Personally, as a Brit, I found the rail bike a liberating and empowering activity if only for this reason: to finally experience a rail service whereby my wife and I determined the pace and time of our arrival, rather than hearing the dull diktats of employee-announcers in the background or following the proscribed schedules of company bureaucrats on lofty overhead screens as in England. At 25,000 won for two people (though, with more people the price per person depreciates; maximum of four to a ‘bike carriage'), it was worth the privilege and it's something pregnant wives can enjoy doing (though, I'd like to note that my wife 'went native' and let me do most of the physical work, taking the immersion brief too far).

In a word, the experience was pleasant, which, after a hard week is certainly something to savour. 

Thomas Dowling

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