Thursday, 21 February 2013

The (sleeper) train to anywhere.

I firmly believe that the highlight of any job, no matter how much you enjoy it, is holiday time. When I was in college, those were the trips spent with my family in Omaha and Lincoln or spring breaks spent with my bestie, Mrs Ordinary (she’s anything but), in Kearney or Colorado Springs. Working at my old job whether it was the quick weekend getaways to Galway or extended weekends in UK and mainland Europe, I used to count down incessantly to my next break. I liked my holidays so much that I willing worked any public holiday that I could so that I could use the day at a more convenient break. Thanks to my holidays I’ve been able to travel to quite a few places in Europe and I have visited several different states (11, I believe where I have actually been and not just extended time in the airport!) Whilst I enjoyed all of these holidays immensely and even hold some of them amongst my fondest memories (Nebraska, Summer 2001 anyone?), I would be lying if I did not say that I am delighted that my journey to anywhere did not stop there.

Being in Korea is brilliant and I am so glad that I have the opportunity to visit this amazing country. One of the biggest advantages of living here is that Korea is a pretty good blend of Western and Eastern culture. The food, the palaces, the language and squat toilets etc reminds you that you are in Asia. However, the complexity (ok I don’t find it complex but many other foreigners do) and extent of the Seoul Metro could easily rival one of the many European ones I have encountered such as those in London and Paris. Additionally, the Korail trains which included the KTX (super fast train which I have yet to take) and the Mungunghwa (slow train which I frequently take) would put (and should put) Iarnoid Eireann to shame. South Korea is not that much bigger area wise than Ireland (CIA Factbook: South Korea: 96,920 sq km, Ireland: 68,883 sq km), and while it does have a much denser population and it’s terrain is much rougher than our own they have trains that go everywhere. Furthermore, where the trains don’t go, there is an express or intercity bus that does. Additionally, the trains here are really cheap– I can travel to Gyeongju, a city 4 hours away, for less than W30,000 which is lessthan E20.00 or $30). Transport aside, the skyscrapers, easy access to WIFI and the tons of coffee shops on pretty much every urban street (even in the smallest urban dwellings) are a constant reminder of the influence the West has on Korea. I personally find that this heady mix is a great way to acclimate to Korea. You get the exposure to Korea and Koreans but some of the best conveniences of the Western World (coffee and subways, I’m talking to you!). However, the best advantage to living in Korea – it’s a gateway to the rest of Asia. Whether you want to go to Japan, the Philippines or Thailand, it’s relatively easy to access from here.

When I went to Vietnam last month for two weeks, I was amazed at how different Vietnam feels to Korea. Whilst, I do sometimes complain of the lack of paths in Korea, in Vietnam, this was immediately noticeable. Further, (and this probably because I live in a small town in Korea) the noise levels were higher, the roads scarier (try walking across a road with motorbikes coming at you in every direction AND you have the green man!) and the prevalence of sidewalk bins comforting (these are a rare sight in Korea – I only ever find bins in the Subway and Train stations or at some of the monuments. There are very few on the actual streets – in fact, I’ve yet to see one). Not only is the food different, but so is the approach of its people. Nothing against Koreans, but a lot of them (as I have already detailed) will stare at you in disbelief when you board the bus or are in the market trying to buy a banana. In Vietnam, we were greeted like old friends, called sweetheart and had street vendors desperately trying to have us buy their wares. While most adult Koreans that I talk to have a rudimentary understanding of English (NB my co-teachers have excellent English), the Vietnamese were really quite good – granted we were in more touristy areas but even when I got dresses made they understood not only what I wanted but also an aside to my friend.

One of the biggest highlights of my trip there was taking (once almost literally) the midnight train to anywhere. 5 of us took a sleeper train to Da Nang (where we transferred to Hoi An) and then from there a few days later to Hanoi. Our room had 6 bunks, 3 on either side stacked up on top of each other (so three levels). Our first night was great fun, we chatted, ate bread and sweets, played cards and despaired that there were only “squat toilets” on the train., Eventually, we slept. One big difference between Korea and Vietnam in relation to trains was that the train can arrive early (same as Korea) but also LEAVE early (definitely not the same).
The next morning I woke up around 7, so my friend and I went to find bathrooms.  I was looking at the stops and trying to figure out how long we had. I figured we were coming to the stop that was two stops before Da Nang, so I stopped one of the train officials to check only to be informed that we actually were coming into Da Nang. We ran back to our cabin, woke everyone up and dragged our belongings (which had somehow spread ALL over the cabin) into anyone’s bag that they would fit and out of the cabin. We were just pulling the last bags out when the official ran to tell us – that no, we weren’t at Da Nang, we were actually at the stop that I thought we had been at originally.
Disappointed but impressed that we had managed to get ourselves sorted in a few minutes we sat back down to some more card games and a few rounds of Stop the Bus. Our second train trip was not as eventful. This time we took a train at almost midnight and slept peaceably until the next morning. Sadly, this time we were not altogether in once cabin. However, we had a few Vietnamese people stop by to practice their English with us (and hit on one of us). One thing that did happen that was hilarious but extremely embarrassing was that the bathroom door did not close on one of the squatter toilets. And yes, you guessed it, someone opened it!  I found out afterwards that there was a normal toilet on the other end of our carriage (and the door wasn’t broken)! Whilst mortified and embarrassed, I now know how to use a squatter toilet, something that I had avoided successfully in Korea, and now have a funny story to boot!

So you might think, I’m mad to not want to stay in Korea forever especially with the fantastic transport system. You might think I’m mad to have even used a squatter toilet and to have taken a train that was most unreliable. Well, the thing is, I am “working hard to get my fill” of adventure – every funny story, every city or country visited is another element that gives me my “thrill”. I love travelling and living in Korea has been my gateway to cultures and people I didn’t know much about before I moved here. However, I don’t want to stop believing or holding on to the feeling that life has so much more on offer for me. I want to believe that the world really is my oyster and if I stay in Korea for the rest of my life, that world could become limited and no longer provide me the thrill of winning a new experience.

I hope you enjoy these photos that I have included they are from my trip to Vietnam.
PS This post was inspired by “Don’t stop believin’” by Journey.





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