Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Train Stations

This spring break, I decided to stay in Korea to explore one of its historic cities, Gyeongju. To get there, we took the KTX, Korea's high speed train. What would have taken around 5 hours by regular speed train (with stops) would be reached in about 2 1/2 hours. The golden glow of the rising sun reflected off the beautiful semi-circle windows of the old station’s dome. Some passengers were arriving by taxi, while others were ascending the escalators from the subway below. The shiny light-colored floors of the brightly lit train station reflected the shapes of the empty silver-colored seats. Samsung LCD TVs played local stations, giving some entertainment to those who weren’t already glued to their cell phone TV reception. Electronic signs posting the departure and arrival information in rotating languages were prominently displayed in convenient locations. True to other Korean public places, the station had plenty of coffee and eatery places, as well as opportunities to shop. 
As I waited for my friend to arrive, I thought about my previous experience waiting for a train - in Chennai, India. What a scene of contrasts. After disembarking a auto rickshaw, I jostled my into the first main waiting hall of the train station. Every seat was occupied, with others plopping themselves wherever they could find a spot to rest. Most had at least two bags - one containing a tiffin of still-hot rice, sambar, idlies, and other South Indian food. The scene was noisy, with family members and friends excitedly talking to each other, while others spoke loudly over cell phones. A single set of signs posted the many trains information, with a large number likely being delayed by quite some time. If you wanted some filter coffee, or something to eat, you went to one of the few small caf├ęs for a cheap eat, or you got something from the kiosks near the platforms. In addition to passengers, trains were being loaded with packages of various sizes. Porters deftly balanced large suitcases on their heads, sometimes also carrying other bags in their hands. Announcements were being made over the PA, but it was difficult to discern anything over the noise.

Entering the equally spotless platform area of the Seoul train station, we easily located the platform and walked down the stairs, free of porters and hordes of people. We looked at our computer-generated ticket and entered the new-looking car - complete with glass on the windows. No pushing needed, no competing for space. The briefcases or small backpacks that most carried easily fit above the seats. Precisely on time, the train took off, with its quiet passengers scattered throughout the non-full car. We could hear each other talking very easily, not having the rumbles and creaks of an old Indian train and rail with which to compete. Trolleys of food were pushed through the aisle, but I kind of missed the loud announcement of “chai! chai!” repeated over and over by the chaiwallahs in India. Instead of mere pennies for a cup of hot drink, these Korean beverages would likely be in the $5 range. 

As expected, we arrived at our destination right on time. From the equally clean train station, we easily located a bus that would take us into town. True, the KTX was a lot more expensive than the cheap transport of India, but it was very easy and efficient - albeit without the character and chaotic-ness that makes India India.

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