Fields of bright yellow flowers whizzed by the window of the train as we barreled towards our final destination. Tickets had been hastily acquired just minutes prior to the train’s departure time. It was to be my first time traveling with my newly made Korean friends. Only one month had passed since we all met through a mutual friend, who had once been a co-teacher of mine at my academy. They were all part of an English study group, which was perfect for me since my Korean was a shade worse than terrible. The trip to Jinju to see the Lantern Festival and the Gyeongnam Arboretum had been hastily arranged following my trip to Kyoto. After meeting for coffee and to show them the photos I took in Japan, we decided to undertake an adventure of our own. Jinju presented us the perfect opportunity.
The city of Jinju sits in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, about sixty kilometers away from Suncheon, where I live. It takes about an hour and half to get there by the commuter train, which usually runs all the way to Daegu. Under normal circumstances, Jinju is much like Suncheon or any number of other smaller Korean cities. There are different regional customs and cuisines of course, but on the whole same story, different book. But this was not normal circumstances. For the first two weeks of October, the city of Jinju is transformed into a spectacle of light. The Jinju Lantern Festival commemorates the city’s role in the Imjinwaeran War. In 1592, Japan attempted an invasion of the Korean Peninsula. The soldiers of the fortress along the Namgang River in present day Jinju fought bravely, but were ultimately defeated. In their memory Jinju hosts an international lantern festival each year.
Though they live mere hours away, none of my Korean friends had even been to Jinju, much less the Lantern Festival. This was the perfect opportunity for us all to travel together. While I largely do enjoy traveling solo, I am also always open to the possibility of discovering new travel companions. Thanks to an extremely fortunate stroke of luck, this small group of Koreans and I really hit it off, so their potential to become new travel buddies of mine was exponentially great. One night after showing off the photos from my latest, and potentially greatest, adventure in Japan we devised a plan to travel to the Lantern Festival and the nearby Gyeongnam Arboretum together. After the briefest of planning, we decided that we would catch an early afternoon train to the Arboretum, wander around until close to supper time, and then head to Jinju city for their famous bibimbap and the wonderful lights of the festival.
On the appointed day we all met up at Suncheon station to purchase our tickets for Jinju. One member of our little party was running a little late, so we were going to be cutting it close for the next train. We hastily used the computer vending machines to acquire our tickets, and soon enough our last traveler arrived and we made our way to the platform. After excitedly boarding the train and finding our appointed seats, we quickly swiveled the two girls seats around to face us. This is by far the best part of traveling with a group of people on a train in Korea. The ability to all sit together and talk makes the train journeys feel so much shorter. As we traveled the rails we noticed that there were several festivals occurring that weekend. In one small hamlet there was a flower festival, and a party for viewing the autumn foliage in another. Quickly we were lost in idle chit-chat and watching the country side zip past our window.
It wasn’t long before we were approaching Jinju Station. Naturally in Korea, we all whipped out our smart phones to begin searching out the best way to get to the Arboretum. This is when one of my most secret travel fears occurred. For a totally inexplicable reason, I have a certain fear about getting on the wrong train or bus while traveling in a foreign country. Now generally I am probably one of the more lackadaisical guys you could ever meet. It usually takes a whole heap of things going utterly awry before I begin to feel the crunch of pressure. Yet, for some reason, I am always worried about trains and busses. It may stem back to the one time in Italy when I accidentally led a group of non-Italian speaking, American students on to a train heading the complete opposite direction of where we were headed. Though, even in that case, the problem was quickly rectified at the next stop when a conductor ushered us off the train and pointed to the right side of the track for us. I personally consider it rather irrational fear, as I generally assume things will end up working out for the best, but none the less it is still a fear of mine.
My fear was exceedingly close to being realized on that train. A quick internet search alerted us to our error in purchasing tickets. The actual stop for the Gyeongnam Arboretum was a further three stops from Jinju city! As could be expected my Korean friends silently freaked out about the situation. The Korean people in general are very focused on doing “the right thing” and not breaking the rules. Ironically, it is because of this mentality that very rarely have I ever had my ticket checked while riding a train. But to them, the idea of riding the rails beyond where our allotted ticket mandated was a ghastly possibility. Internally, I was freaking out beyond compare. My insides screamed out in utter fear along with my Korean friends. But I could not be seen reacting in such a manor! To them I was the veteran traveler. It was my job not to panic!
I quickly composed myself and formulated a plan. Like I said, in my time in Korea I have never had my train ticket checked before. Bearing that in mind, the plan I had in mind was simple. Stay on the train until we reach the actual stop for the Arboretum. Just play it cool. This briefly assuaged their fears, until they asked what if someone actually did ask to see our tickets?!? Luckily for them they were with me, and when in doubt one of the best possible strategies to get out of tricky situations abroad is to play the dumb foreigner card. Honestly, I am not a fan of doing this as it doesn’t exactly add to the good reputation of travelers from abroad, but it does generally do the trick. For the next thirty minutes we anxiously sat waiting to arrive at the proper station. Checking, and rechecking, the signs to see if we had arrived yet. Of course, the thirty minutes passed without event, and we arrived at the stop for the Gyeongnam Arboretum just fine. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and we made our way on to the gardens to relax from the tension of our misadventure on the train.
It has taken far longer than it probably should have, but I think I am finally starting to get over my fear of getting on the wrong train. In the end, it is just another chapter of the overall adventure. When all is said and done, it becomes nothing more than a funny anecdote to a much larger story. Getting lost is one of the best parts of life, one which I genuinely enjoy when I’m on foot and it is under my direct control. That is probably what I fear the most about getting on the wrong train; the total lack of control I feel when I realize that this vehicle is not taking me where I wanted to go. Next time this happens, and it undoubtedly will happen again, I just need to take a deep breath, lounge back in my seat, and enjoy the ride to a new, exotic location. The journey is as much of the adventure as the destination.
Gyeongnam Arboretum Gallery: