Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Catching the first sunrise of the new year in Jeongdongjin

Ever since Andy first mentioned it, I've always wanted to take the train over the Taebaek mountain range in Gangwon-do, especially in the winter. As well, I often walk through the lonely lobby of the Cheongnyangni train station and notice the sparse crowds lined up to take an infrequent train to destinations you have never heard of. The problem, of course, is that as nice as the train is, there's not a whole lot to do in Gangneung after the summer. Gangwon-do, of course, is a great place to hike, but I wasn't quite in the mood for a death hike through feet of snow on deserted mountains.

Enter Jeongdongjin: isolated, beautiful, accessible. Ever since it was featured in a scene in a drama over fifteen years ago, it has acquired a cult following. The name Jeongdongjin (正东津) itself is rather interesting: it was named as the farthest point due east (正东) of Gwanghwamun, though subsequent study has shown that it's actually due east of Dobongsan. Whatever the case, Jeongdongjin makes for a stunning location.

The train station at Jeongdongjin is on the trip from Seoul, which technically runs on parts of three lines (the Jungang, Taebaek and Yeongdong lines) and follows a meandering, indirect route to Seoul. Jeongdongjin is the second-last stop, and it makes for a dramatic introduction. You could, in fact, never leave the station and still go away impressed. The train stops about 10-20 metres from the station, with a narrow beach and barbed wire being all that separate the platform and its stadium seating from the sea.

However, Jeongdongjin has evolved in the way of all tourist spots, particularly ones with cult followings that attract an impossibly large number of tourists for a single shot. Hotels in Jeongdongjin and nearby Gangneung are sold out on New Year's Eve despite charging extortionate rates, and all trains going to Gangneung on December 30 or 31 are sold out about a week in advance. There is no shortage of hotels in the area, culminating in the Suncruise resort, a hideous monument to tastelessness that sends chills down my spine every time I look at it, and doubly so at night.

I ended up staying in Gangneung on New Year's Eve and took a train to Jeongdongjin in the morning. Barring a second Korean War, you will never see this many people pack a train departing from Gangwon-do at 6 am on a Sunday. Judging from the crowds and the traffic jams I saw, such as a 30-minute wait to have breakfast at a non-descript, randomly chosen restaurant at 6:30 am, I would guess that between 10,000 and 30,000 people came to Jeongdongjin to see the sunrise.

The sunrise itself was a bit disappointing. Those expecting to see a brilliant orange disk in the sky were sorely disappointed. Most of the crowds were gone before anything resembling the sun was visible in the sky. To give you an idea of how quickly the crowd disappeared after the sunrise of 7:40 am, there was a traffic jam as far as the eye could see by 8 am. By lunchtime, there was nobody left but locals and the piles of garbage left behind by tourist.

I got to spend an extra day in Jeongdongjin, having dinner as snow blew in and leaving by walking in 4-5 inches of fresh snow. As fantastic of a place as Jeongdongjin is, I wouldn't consider it attractive or even tolerable on New Year's Eve or the morning of New Year's Day. For me, the real highlight of the trip was the time I spent on its deserted two-lane main strip by the beach, smelling the wood fires and the train ride back home.

The trip from Gangneung to Cheongyangni takes six hours, compared to three hours or less by bus. Note that while train delays are rare and never more than ten or twenty minutes, the bus can easily be delayed by an hour or more. The train costs about 20,000 against 14,000 or so for the bus, but the train is definitely worth it, especially in the winter. It slowly travels down the sea coast from Gangneung to Donghae, past furious waves, barbed wire and empty beaches. I spotted a group of women on one beach being approached by a group of soldiers, having somehow negotiated the cliffs and the barbed wire on this beach in the middle of nowhere.

After Donghae, the train runs inland and creaks through the mountains of Gangwon-do, which here were snow-covered. Gangwon-do is probably Korea's poorest area, neither a good place to farm nor fortunate enough to receive the patronage of successive dictators that has transformed places like Pohang or Gumi. However, it is likely Korea's most beautiful, though I haven't spent much time on Jeju. The current trend towards opening up eastern Gyeonggi province and western Gangwon-do, the more mountainous part of the province, will probably make life better there, though it will make it the place little worse to look at.

1 comment:

hkindependent-traveller-blog said...

It will be nice to see photos of the place. Thanks!