Seoul Station (서울역) Line 1 – Station #133, Line 4 – Station #426, AREX – Station #A01

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For almost anyone who travels, there’s a certain romance associated with rail travel that other modes of transportation can’t quite match.  Flight had its moment of glam in the postwar years, but few still find anything romantic about the process of contemporary air travel with its steadily decreasing comforts and increasing security indignities.  Boat travel within developed countries all but doesn’t exist, and cruises aren’t so much travel as the vacation itself.  Trains, however (and their whiff of outdatedness for long distance travel may in part explain this), still evoke a certain charm, a sense that wonderful things might happen not only at your destination, but on your way there.  The names of the great routes – the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian, the Blue Train – and the great stations – Grand Central, Union, Gare du Nord, St. Pancras – reflect that.  It’s no coincidence that the Hogwarts Express was a steam train and not a jetliner.  Magical people take the train.

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Alas, Seoul Station is not one of the world’s greats, but that’s largely due to a political twist of fate.  If reunification ever becomes a reality, Seoul will become the terminus for what would undoubtedly be one of the world’s longest and most incredible journeys: Lisbon to Seoul overland.

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Until that day, however, those of us who live and travel here have no choice but to accept the fact that what counts as Korea’s ultimate rail journey is the between-meals run to Busan or Mokpo.  What the Korean railroad suffers in its geographical limitations, however, it compensates for in its quality and in its wonderful station.

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Uh, make that two stations.

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Seoul Station, now, refers to the new Seoul Station, but it used to refer to the old Seoul Station right next door.  In the interest of historical linearity, let’s start there.

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The old Seoul Station is a beauty of a thing; it looks the way a train station is supposed to look.  Designed by the Japanese architect Tsukamoto Yasushi and completed in 1925, thick stone slabs ring the bottom below reddish-pink bricks, all below an arched central window and Byzantine dome.

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While trains may no longer run from the old station, it has fortunately been brought back to life with an extensive refurbishment and reimagining.  Reopened on August 9, 2011 and rechristened Culture Station Seoul 284 (화역서울 284), it’s been turned into an exhibition space, and until February 11 it’s hosting a preliminary exhibition entitled ‘Countdown’ before fully opening as an art complex in March.  The current exhibition is a mélange of disciplines and styles from a number of artists, foreign and Korean.  Works range from sculpture to video to slideshows to audio to site-specific installations.

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As interesting as the artworks, if not more so, is their juxtaposition with the restored station and the station itself.  The new Seoul Station is a paragon of modernity, but the original captures the imagination in a way particular to old rail stations.  It’s not hard to envision a curl of cigarette smoke drifting out from a shadowy corner, followed by a trench coated Graham Greene or Paul Theroux, leather satchel in hand.  Thick granite columns line the foyer, and light streams through a stained glass skylight in the ceiling.  There are fireplaces, candelabras, and wood-paneling on the walls.  The exhibit guide notes where the Ladies’ Waiting Room and the Barber Shop were, and you can stroll the carpeted floor of what used to be The Grill, for a long time Seoul’s best Western restaurant, imagining the intrigue as foreign powers plotted Korea’s fate in the pre-war years.

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In at least one location, the old station offers an even deeper look into its past.  In the old barber shop and restroom on the second floor, refurbishment has been left half-completed, so that you’re able to view original construction materials and techniques from behind protective glass.

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The old station is connected to the new by Seoul Square, which is known by many Seoulites primarily for being a popular gathering spot for the city’s homeless.  Indeed, you’ll always find several wandering around or seated on blankets or cardboard, drinking or eating cup ramen, but their presence here is less pronounced that at similar stations in the U.S.  There is also, more often than not, the odd demonstrator or two, bearing a sign and airing a grievance, as well as members of the Seoul Station Street Church (서울역 거리 교회), with their bright jackets, fliers, and eager entreaties to know Jesus.  I had one member, a genial middle-aged man with a voice that sounded like he lived on a diet of cigarettes and gravel, follow me down the street for a block or so before deciding to try his luck with someone else.

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Also on the square is a rather badass statue of Kang Woo-kyu (왈우 강우규 의사).  The statue, which was only unveiled last year, commemorates the anti-colonial activist who, when he was already in his 60s, threw a bomb at the Japanese Governor-General Saito Makoto on this spot in 1919.  Sporting a goatee and some serious boots, his hanbok flowing behind him, Gang’s right arm is tensed at his side, ready to unleash the grenade in his hand.

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The new Seoul Station (서울역) is bright and airy, and it handles its bustle well.  Lined with fast food places and shops, it also has floor exhibits where the likes of Chevrolet show off their latest products, but the tall, high windows create the feeling of space, and people move through the station efficiently.  A department store is attached to both the first and second floors of the station, and on the upper concourse, in addition to a food court, you’ll also find space for photo exhibits and the Open Concert Hall, where two pianos and a keyboard sat at the ready.

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After looking around the interior of the station for a bit I decided to head out to the mezzanine above the tracks, from where I could watch the trains pulling in and departing and watch the flow of passengers.  I was briskly making my way there when a line of yellow tape that I spotted on the ground caused me to stop in my tracks.  On the tape was text that read, in English, ‘We Trust You: (Only paid customers can cross this line.)’ (고객 신뢰선 (운임경계선) in Korean).  That was the security check.  All of it.  Of course, tickets are checked on the train, but there were no guards, no metal detectors, no baggage inspection.  It was remarkable, and even though I had no intention of sneaking onto a train it seemed so good-natured, so trusting, so esteeming of my character that the yellow line actually made me pause and consider for a moment whether or not I should cross it, and when I did I needed to take a moment to convince myself that what I was doing was OK, that I was acting in the name of reportage and wasn’t actually doing something wrong.

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Outside, below the woven gray canopy of beams, the sleek metallic trains lined up even-spaced on the tracks like silverware in its case, awaiting dinner.  I found a spot near the mezzanine’s edge to watch as, a stream of hundreds of dark coats poured out of a newly arrived train and up the escalators.  It was New Year’s Eve, and lots of soldiers were out on leave, heading home to spend time with their families. A group of about 20 army men went by, all dressed in identical camouflage uniforms and with green canvas duffels strapped to their backs.  More stylish were the marines in snappy gray topcoats with polished gold buttons.

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In front of Seoul Station and Seoul Square is the busy Hangang-ro (한강로), and, leaving the station behind, I headed south on it, past a busy taxi queue, to see a bit of the neighborhood.

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Several more of the city’s homeless were here and there on the street surrounding the square, including one I passed who was squatting over a pile of discarded wires, peeling the plastic coating off by hand to get at the valuable copper inside.  Not much further on, just past Exit 13, was a line of people on the sidewalk, about 50 people deep, waiting their turn to get into a soup kitchen that was being operated in a small storefront.  Workers in bright yellow jackets watched over the crowd, and when someone had finished their meal and exited they guided the next person in.

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Beyond the soup kitchen were a couple of shops on either side of the street selling medical oddities like old wooden crutches, prosthetic limbs, and fake silicon hands in a variety of sizes and colors.  None of them were open, and it was unclear if they were simply closed for the weekend or for good.

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In the opposite direction, via a five-minute walk from Exit 4, is one of Seoul’s most well-known landmarks, Sungnyemun (숭례), more commonly known as Namdaemun (남대).

Of course, for the time being there’s nothing to see, as an enormous white shed encloses the gate as it undergoes restoration following the 2008 arson attack that partially destroyed it.

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If you walk there you’ll notice that the area north of the station is far more lively and eclectic than the area to the south, owing, of course, to the nearby presence of Namdaemun Market (남대문시장) (which we’ll cover when we get to Hoehyeon Station (회현역)).  But even on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로) there’s plenty of market spillover, and the sidewalk is lined with tables where vendors sell everything from headlamps to scarves.

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To the west lies Seoul Station’s backdoor, a largely residential neighborhood whose character is entirely different from the neighborhood to the east.  I actually stopped here first, stepping out Exit 4 onto a pleasant little cobblestoned plaza planted with a ‘garden’ of blue and red-tipped metal poles.  Directly across the street was a fire engine-red complex of buildings behind a matching concrete wall, that upon closer inspection turned out to actually be warehouses for the National Theater Company of Korea (국립극장).  Right next to the complex was a recycling yard where a half-dozen men were using heavy equipment to noisily move some metal beams about.

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Behind the warehouses and the recycling yard, the hilly area between the station and Mallijae-ro (만리재로) is an older lower-class neighborhood full of brick apartments and homes, some with tile roofs, and modest, not very profitable-looking stores and businesses.

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Business picks up after you climb up to Mallijae-ro, and it’s just off here where you’ll find the Sohn Kee-Chung Athletic Park (손기정체육공원).  The easiest way to reach the park is to go out Exit 4, cross Cheongpa-ro (청파로), turn right, merge left onto Mallijae-ro just before the overpass, and cross the pedestrian overpass that will come up ahead of you.  After you cross go down on the left and Mallijae-ro-31-gil (만리재로31길) will be directly in front of you, where a small sign points to the park 120 meters away.

Longtime readers (and those savvy to Korean athletic history) may find that name ringing a bell, as we earlier had a run-in with a Sohn memorial when we visited Sports Complex Station (종합운동장역).  We touched on his history in that post, but to briefly recap: Sohn was born in 1912 in Sinuiju (신의주), on what is now the North Korean border with China.  Because Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time, Sohn was forced to compete under the Japanese flag and a Japanese name, Son Kitei.  In Berlin he set an Olympic record, and on the medal stand he used a pin oak sapling he had received as victor to cover up the Japanese sun on his chest.

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Befitting a park dedicated to Sohn, the emphasis here is on athletic facilities, and there are several terraced into the slope, including tennis courts, a nice soccer pitch, and even a ping-pong table.  Additionally, there is the Sohn Kee-ChungCulture Center (손기정문화센터) and Library (독서실), housed in handsome red brick buildings with ivy climbing up their sides.

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There are two sculptures of Sohn in the park.  One is a large rendering of just the elderly Sohn’s head, looking out from the park’s highest point over a wonderful view of the rooftops of central Seoul.  In front of the sculpture is the pin oak (손기정 월계관 기념수) that was given to Sohn upon his victory in the ­­­­1936 Olympic marathon.  According to the nearby plaque, Olympic medalists were originally presented with crowns of Mediterranean laurels, but starting with the ’36 Games the laurels were replaced with pin oak.  The oak that Sohn received was planted at Yangjeong High School (양정고등학교), Sohn’s alma mater, but when the high school relocated the former site was turned into the athletic park.

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The second statue is partway down the slope, and captures Sohn in a pose as the runner is more commonly remembered.  The bib on his chest identifies him as racer number 382, the number he wore in the Berlin race.  He is midstride, his head cocked at a peculiar angle, straining to outrun the other athletes and, just as surely, the shame and burden he was made to carry.

Culture Station Seoul 284 (화역서울 284)

Exit 2

Hours | Tues – Fri: 11:00 – 19:00; Weekends: 11:00 – 20:00; Closed Monday, January 1, and Lunar New Year’s Day

Admission: Free

02) 3407-3500

http://www.culturestationseoul284.org

www.countdown2011.org

Seoul Square

Exit 1 or 2

Seoul Station (서울역)

Accessible directly from subway

Sungnyemun (숭례) / Namdaemun (남대)

Exit 4

Straight on Namdaemun-ro (남대문로)

Sohn Kee-Chung Athletic Park (손기정체육공원)

Exit 4

Cross Cheongpa-ro (청파로), turn right, Left on Mallijae-ro (만리재로), cross pedestrian bridge, Right on Mallijae-ro-31-gil (만리재로31길)

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Parts of this post first appeared in the April 2012 issue of SEOUL magazine.

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3 thoughts on “Seoul Station (서울역) Line 1 – Station #133, Line 4 – Station #426, AREX – Station #A01

  1. Pingback: May 1, 2012 Issue No. 526

  2. Here is what I was searching for!! Yeah! At long last someone writes related to
    Seoul Station (서울역) Line 1 – Station #133, Line 4 – Station #426, AREX – Station #A01 Seoul Sub→urban.

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