SEOUL, Korea – To Koreans, Baekdu-daegan, nicknamed the “spine of the Korean Peninsula,” is not just a chain of mountains running across the country. It is also a symbol of the peninsula’s history, culture and scenery.
In the early 20th century, the mountain range and the surrounding regions not only offered splendid landscapes but also supported the nation’s economic growth, with its rich volume of natural resources.
However, with the decline of the timber and coal industries over the years, the area faded from the public’s attention. Only the decades-long industrial railroad remained as testament to its past glory.
It was here that KORAIL decided to introduce tourist trains, specially developed to explore the mountainous and rural areas.
The state-run rail operator last week launched the “V-train,” an exclusive sightseeing train that passes through the valleys of Baekdu-daegan, shuttling from Cheoram, Gangwon Province, to Buncheon, North Gyeongsang Province.
KORAIL also began service of the “O-train,” which loops around the mountainous regions and connects the country’s three major railways ? the Joongang Line, the Taebaek line and the Yeongdong line.
“The deep gorges of the central inland region offer a unique sight, the true characterisitc of Korea’s eastern provinces,” said a KORAIL official.
“Because of the geographic location and the traffic inconvenience, however, its charms were largely veiled to the public.”
Visitors are often discouraged by the curvy, unpaved roads but on the V-train, they can enjoy the hidden mountain landscapes and the peaceful countryside, as well as the tourist services provided by KORAIL, the official added.
In order to access the V-train, visitors are recommended to first take the O-train, which connects Seoul and Jecheon, and then loops around Jecheon, Yeongju and Taebaek.
Trains depart from Seoul Station at 7:45 a.m. every morning, arriving at the transferring Jecheon Station at 9:55 a.m.
From there, passengers may flag specific stations and routes to reach the valley area and the V-train.
In order to provide a thorough view of the steep ranges and valleys, the V-train operates at an average speed of 30 kilometers per hour in most sections and stops every now and then at photogenic spots.
The close view of the untouched valleys and the tranquil landscape of the rural whistle stops offer an unparalleled experience, not only to senior citizens but also to foreign visitors to Korea, according to the official.
Seungbu Station, for example, is a small wooden building consisting of a single waiting room, just as in old black-and-white movies. Located in the midst of rocky mountains, it is sure to conjure up feelings of nostalgia.
At Cheoram Station, passengers will find themselves encircled by massive coal mines, which acted as one of the key driving forces of the country’s economy long ago.
“In order to boost the synergy effect of our sightseeing train routes, we have worked with local communities to develop unrevealed attractions,” said the KORAIL official.
The most recommended route is to stop at Buncheon Station and follow a newly developed hiking course to the next station. Yangwon Station, too, offers a variety of walking options, including the “Watercolor Road,” leading to the nearby Guam Buddhist Temple and the riverside hiking course following the Nakdong River.
Those who wish to visit neighbouring tourist spots may book car sharing programs through KORAIL, which is expected to kick off its new service by the end of this month.
Unlike standard rented cars, which are rented by the day, these KORAIL-affiliated vehicles may be taken by the hour, enabling tourists to take short tours around the station.
Using these transport means, they may choose to visit Bulyoungsa, the Buddhist temple nestled in the Bulyoung Valley in Uljin, North Gyeongsang Province. The area, with its rugged granite cliffs and deep valleys, has long been renowned as a scenic spot, as well as a fishing place.
In the vicinity is a famous colony of Geumgang pine trees. The area covers some 1,800 hectares of land and incorporates some 80,000 trees, most of them over 200 years old.
The history of the pine forest goes back to the late 17th century, when the Joseon Dynasty’s King Sukjong ordered that the area be administered by the central government.
Those who choose to stop at Cheoram Station are likely to visit the “Windy Hills,” a wind power energy complex located at the top of Maebongsan Mountain. The massive wind power mills surrounded by endless highland vegetable farms create a magnificent sight, especially for landscape photographers.
Another tourist option is Yongyeon Cave, a 300-million-year-old cave located at an altitude of 920 meters, which is higher than Bukhansan Mountain in Seoul.
“Based on the initial passenger responses, we will develop tourist packages encompassing train tickets, restaurants and lodging reservations, hopefully before the summer holiday season,” said the official.
Tickets for the O-train and V-train may be purchased through KORAIL’s webpage, mobile applications and from train station counters, just like ordinary trains.
The Seoul-Jecheon O-train ticket for adults is 18,900 won (S$20.77) during weekends and is offered at a cheaper price for senior citizens and children. Daily free passes will also be available from July, officials said.