Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Was - 4
...Sometimes school children were excursioning on the hills, vivid dots among banks of azaleas. Or a couple of old gentlemen would be sitting in a little pagoda of a play-house, half-way up with a good view reserved for such old gentlemen to enjoy. Usually on a hill-side somewhere, were round green knolls, the graves of ancestors, set among a few crooked pine-trees...
Val Yule travelled by train from Seoul to Pusan in the days before Korea was torn apart by war.
The Japanese occupied Korea from 1904-1945. They gave Korea beautiful bridges and a fine railway, but never let a Korean rise higher than a locomotive-fireman. Consequently, after independence the Korean-run service was not very good.
But when we went down to Pusan, to meet our Australian colleagues and pull our luggage through the customs, the train arrived on time, after the eight-hour journey down the length of South Korea.
On the line, the rolling-stock was solidly constructed; the locomotives varied. Some still had the remains of paint upon them; others were incongruously patched - one I saw with corrugated iron. Throughout the journey there were long tunnels, beautifully-designed cuttings, faced with hexagonal granite stone, and the blue-metal on the track was a pain-staking mosaic jig-saw, a work of art. The railway ran neatly beautiful as a model, and beside it the telegraph, its poles mounted on little islands in the primitive paddy fields.
Long bridges swept across shallow rivers and miles of river-flats. Most of the track was built on levees above the flooded paddies.
We passed Suwon, with its railway station built in the style of an old red-cedar summer-pavilion – a contrast to the neo-gothic brick at Seoul - and were in the uninterrupted countryside, unique and lovely, although the hills, deep amber crested with violet, or naked grey, were raddled with erosion, and the average farmer had less than two acres.
Hills and valleys divide the way from Seoul to Pusan into thousands of five-mile landscapes, all essentially the same. Each small flat valley between the bare hills had from one to twenty little villages, and almost every acre in tillage. It was neat and colourful and smelly. Terraced fields of rice and barley, millet and cabbage extended around the hills, up every possible and seemingly impossible crevice, breaking up every eroded gully, their bright greens against the red and brown and grey. Each little village was a nest of crowded copped-thatch huts of lathes and mud; the more distant it was, the more neat and picturesque it seemed. A little way off would often be the more elegant residence of the local poojah (rich man), formerly of course, the Japanese landlord.
There was usually a little creek, if not a great river, with a few pale poplars, a willow or cherry trees in its banks. In a little puddly corner, a group of women would be banging wooden paddled on their washing. (Koreans like to wear white even when ploughing in the paddies and it is surprising how often their women manage to keep them gleaming white, I was told that the origin of the universal white is that it is the colour of mourning, and by old custom, the period of mourning for every death was so long that it was simpler to wear the same outfit all the time.)
Sometimes we saw a church or a hospital. Sometimes school children were excursioning on the hills, vivid dots among banks of azaleas. Or a couple of old gentlemen would be sitting in a little pagoda of a play-house, half-way up with a good view reserved for such old gentlemen to enjoy. Usually on a hill-side somewhere, were round green knolls, the graves of ancestors, set among a few crooked pine-trees.
In the distant hills there were, quite likely, bandits, now calling themselves by the handy name of Communists, who periodically came down to plunder the villages and kill the policeman’s children. Some of the villages had mud and stone walls and a lookout tower against these same bandits.
There would be chickens in the courtyards, yellow dogs in the street, a little black goat by the creek and in the field the humped oxen pulling the ploughs and the white heron standing on one leg afar off. By a little pond squatted the straw-hatted fisherman, with his willowy rod of twenty-foot length.
At last the train reached Taegu, with its rowdy sidings and its orchards of white apple-trees. Our eight hours journey was nearly over.
Towards dark, we arrived at Pusan. Even at that time, it was a shabby enough industrial city, but set in beautiful surroundings of gaunt hill and magnificent harbour.