Rebecca Butler

Dr Rebecca Butler‘s research interests include nineteenth-century women’s travel writing, mass tourism, periodical culture, history of the book, intertextuality in travel writing, expatriate literary networks, and women writing revolution. Her work is concerned with the impact of gender on women’s approaches to travel and how they write about their journeys; in this extract, she writes about her own experience of travelling in Korea, and of making sense of an unknown environment.

Korea by Train

from Linacre Lines, Spring 2010

When I first arrived, all was a jumble of roads and illegible shop fronts hovering in indefinable space. The icy haze of winter covered everything: a maze of unknown. The railway lines provided a means of ordering the landscape, of making sense of it.

There were three types of trains from slowest to fastest: the Mugunghwa, the Saemaul and the KTX. The KTX could reach speeds of up to three hundred and five kilometres per hour. More like a plane than a train, it even offered an in-train magazine where luxury goods could be purchased. It was the capitalist side of Korean progress. The Saemaul, named after the 1970s rural revitalisation movement, was the go-between. On a tight budget, however, the traditional Mugunghwa was my only viable option.

The Mugunghwa took its name from the Korean national flower, a delicate blossom with white-pink petals and a sweet scent. Although I’m romantically inclined, the literal rarely lives up to the figurative. Stale booze swam in the air among the army officers and mingled with a pervasive ‘kimchi breath’ through fourteen unvented carriages. A staple of every meal, kimchi was harvested by families in October. Slathered in fish paste, red pepper and garlic according to the traditional family recipe, the cabbage slaw was buried underground to ferment until the following spring. Despite its place of honour on the Korean table, kimchi did not travel well. There was more standing space than sitting on the Mugunghwa and ‘personal space’ was a foreign concept.One gruelling three-hour journey saw me cramped in a corner with a stranger’s hairy armpit pressed up against my face.

The café carriage afforded temporary reprieve: syrupy coffee, massage chairs, arcade games, and off-key crooners in the noreabang. Although we were strangers, if my fellow passenger purchased food or drink, they would necessarily provide for me as well. Of course, when the ‘Catch of the Day’ is dried fish sticks, politeness rather than appetite occasions participation in the repast. However, the gesture was always well-intended. On one journey, the man beside me conjured two hard-boiled eggs from his left-hand pocket and handed me one. Then, with a flourish, he removed a ball of tinfoil from his right, seasoned with salt and pepper. We shelled the eggs together and were friends before the first stop, although only conversing in mime.

The Mugunghwa has little time for personal space because it embraces community. The notion of half-occupying double seats in single-filed silence is completely foreign to Korean culture. Children practice their English, marriages are solicited on behalf of lonely relatives, business cards are exchanged at the journey’s end. Although it was mutually understood that communication will not be renewed, we parted as companions who had shared the experience of the journey.