立席. Ipseok. That’s what I am looking at, here in the middle of nowhere, in the south-east region of South Korea. I can’t remember what station it was, possibly Pohang. Somewhere quaint, anyway, with remnants of the Japanese era. The station looked definitely like a transplant from another decade, and from across the sea. So. Ipseok. I try to wrap my mind around that concept. 立 means “standing”. 席 means “seat”. Hullo? Standing seat…?
I don’t remember where I was that day, but I remember where I wanted to be – back to the civilisation. I was touring the Deep South, sans Cajun music, with a few friends, and we wanted to go from Podunk, South Korea, to Busan. Not that Busan was/is much of a megalopolis, but as far as amenities were concerned, it’s night and day. So we were inquiring about trains going down there.
Back then, there was no TGV clone, aka KTX, linking Seoul to Busan in 4 hours or so. Plus, KTX trains, as they’re called, don’t stop in pissoir-sized stations anyway. So it was Mugunghwa all the way, a cute name for trains that would look luxurious, I am sure, in Myanmar, Utar Pradesh or Tanzania. It takes these trains 20 minutes to reach cruise speed, but by then they already had to stop a couple of times already, for they are the appointed cattle-movers, and will serve every possible village along the line. Cool when you have to go somewhere remote and otherwise unreachable. Otherwise, a pain in multiple body parts.
My favorite transportation means in the Nineties was long-distance buses. About as safe as unprotected sex in Uganda, the so-called high-speed buses, oh yeah!, emphasis on speed, and high, cover every imaginable place in South Korea. There are a couple of bus terminals in Seoul, I have used three of them, with buses leaving for Gawdknowswhere every 10 minutes. Some people try to reinvent the wheel, Koreans reinvented the human noria. These buses offer relatively comfortable seats – at least when the buses were not moving – and record average times from Seoul to Gawdknowswhere and back. Plus, long-distance buses have their own lanes on highways. And their drivers know how to shove automobiles aside. Nothing. Can. Delay. Them.
But that day, for some reason, buses were not an option. Thus the inquiry at the station. And the answer. “Sorry. Only ipseok for the next train. And the one after that is in two hours.” Yippee Ki Yay, mother. Okay, what’s ipseok, then, I ask. The employee looks at me like I am dumb. Probably. “Standing only. If there are free seats, you can sit, but if people come in with pre-reserved seats, you have to give it back.” Which is basically what happened. Over the two hours and change that it took us to reach Busan, I switched seats a few times, and so did my friends. We were seating more or less as a group when we departed, but when we arrived we were spread all over the carriage. Which made for a quiet trip, of sorts. This was before mobile phones became a must-have, when people would actually talk to each other. So while we didn’t have obnoxious people yelling on their phones, the noise level was somehow high, albeit a loud hum of conversations. Besides, people in that region speak a dialect with a very strong accent, that make them sound louder than they may be. Then again, they’re loud, too…
It was probably one of the most unremarkable trips I took in a train – although, considering my mileage on trains, the number of unremarkable and long-forgotten trips is probably high. It sticks in my mind because of that single word. Ipseok. 立席.