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A Day Trip to Chunchon
By Matt Reeck
One rainy day in late June my friend called and proposed that we go the Soyang Reservoir near Chunchon in Kangwon Province. I love traveling on rainy days, especially to destinations I don't know, as rain makes the world more intimate and so approachable. My friend said it was a day-trip _ we would catch the train at Chongnyangni and easily get back to Seoul that night. Everything sounded good; I was stoked.
I love train rides. Once the engine starts up and the landscape starts to slide by, I usually get lost in reveries. Trains transform the world outside, as the windows turn you into a voyeur and the landscape beyond the glass pane, a fantasy. Once we boarded the train, this transformation began. Outside the station were the staples of Korean city life: buses, cars, department stores, restaurants, brothels, bars, and apartments _ in short, nothing affording much surprise. But even while sitting in the train at the station, I looked out the window and that world became suddenly somewhat foreign and full of untold possibilities.
The train started up, and I tried my best not to fixate on the conversations of the MT (MT means ``membership training,'' that euphemistic Konglish term used in place of a more honest one, ``co-ed party'') _ bound college students who largely comprised the afternoon's passengers. We passed the station for Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a stop I had gone by countless times as a passenger on the subway's first line, and yet in my new state of mind even it seemed strangely full of pathos, like a place I should return to and discover anew.
Sokkye passed by, and we were in the countryside. The fog was thick and hung in the valleys. The rain intensified and then let up. We passed through a suburban town of apartment buildings that needed only the finishing touches put on _ windows set in the frames outside, electrical wires to be shored up in sockets inside. It was eerie looking through the fog and rain at their cadaverous forms, and it was unclear just who was going to move in once these apartments were finished. It seemed like a perfect scene for a crime or, as I don't wish that to happen, a movie about a crime.
Town after town the students disembarked, the majority of them at Kapyong, a city along the Buk Han River and of MT-fame. (Imagine soju and banana boats.) While we were still well within the reach of Seoul, the sudden lack of people, the forbidding weather, and the mountainous landscape gave the feeling of great distance from humanity, even though its outposts passed just on the other side of the train's large windows. But distance isn't always measured in kilometers, but in a difference in sensibility: outside was the real world, firmly rooted in its familiar forms, but inside my friend and I were witnessing it as part of a passing dream, each of us creating our own imaginary kingdoms. Our reality wouldn't start again until Chunchon.
We disembarked there, two hours from Seoul. The rain had let up, or, imaginably, it had never been as strong at Chunchon that day as elsewhere. There was a bus heading to the reservoir from the station, and we boarded. As the bus wove through town on what for its driver must have been an all-too-customary route, we looked out and speculated upon how different the people were in Chunchon from those in Seoul. There was an army base, secure behind its fence crowned with barbed wire. Were its soldiers happy? We passed by shops, ordinary establishments that would not have been worthy of a second glance in Seoul, but here they deserved consideration _ were their owners prosperous? On bad days did they dream of closing up shop and moving to Seoul?
The fresh air passed into the bus through one or two opened windows. The smells of vegetal life and rain were a welcome contrast to the miasma of Seoul, thick with its human smells. The bus began to climb and we reached the reservoir. The bus stop was beneath a large wall, its face a stone sculpture of the reservoir's locally famous ``pingo'' fish. (My dictionary says ``pond smelt,'' if that helps you any.) We walked in the direction of the reservoir's boat launches. The road to the launches was lined with food stalls, one ajumoni after another selling these pingo fish, deep-fried in batter.
The only boat operating on a regular schedule was one that went over to the landing for Chongpyong Temple, hidden away behind the reservoir's far reaches. The short boat trip completed, we hiked along the road toward the temple although we soon turned back as we had only a half an hour until the day's last return boat. We returned to the dock. The atmosphere was listless. Suddenly an SUV appeared coming down the row from the temple and when it stopped at the dock, two elderly women hobbled out.
Back across the reservoir and within the relative limits of civilization, we did what we had held off doing on the way to the launch: we had dinner. Roasted corn, deep-fried pingo fish, potato ``chon,'' and country liquor made from corrn. As the fog formed and reformed over the reservoir's waters, each moment seemed new. The shape-shifting clouds gave the sense of illusion, a physical and convincing manifestation of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. We were sitting beneath a picnic table's canopy when behind us a driver carelessly knocked over one of the ajumoni's food displays. The driver, a man, emptied himself onto the road and took up arguing with a cadre of ajumonis, led by the aggrieved vendor. Cicadas were whining, and the people resolved nothing. The man climbed back into his SUV and accelerated down the road, and the vendors kept up their muttering as they helped the woman right her stock.
We were ready to leave. We went to the bus stop and after a short wait a bus swerved into the small cul-de-sac. The drive back to town was as unremarkable as the drive to the reservoir had been full of interest: we knew that we were returning to the known world, and we returned to reasonable thoughts. Here, in Chunchon, people are more or less the same as the people in Seoul _ the army recruits, the shopkeepers, the ajumonis selling their roasted corn and their famous fish, which when we thought about it with full bellies were less tasty than we had imagined them to be.
The trip back to Seoul passed without conversation. Some country folk boarded, including a woman who spoke in such a raucous tone that it led me out of frustration to conclude that she was slightly retarded. The trip seemed to take twice the time as the outward journey. I strained to see the city lights as we passed into Seoul's periphery, needing them to dispel the bitters weet traces of the dreamlike day.
How to get there
The Soyang Reservoir is easy to get to. Trains leave from regularly from the Chongnyangni Station and cost around 6,000 won, and the return trips to Seoul are frequent as well. The bus to the reservoir stops right in front of the train station. It costs another couple thousand won