Where Trains Go to Die

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Seoul, South Korea

Where Trains Go to Die

Life here in Seoul is fairly normal, but we’ve been busy dealing with the errands and chores that we normally take care of in the US at this time of year. We’re trying to negotiate things like dental visits and prescription refills in Korean, so my brain is even more scattered than usual, and I find myself mentally escaping to moments and places that remind me why I’m a traveler. Because I am—whatever the current definition is—a traveler.

Last July, we made a brief-ish pass through Bolivia. We spent a couple of nights on a famous salt flat, then a week or so in La Paz.

Our time in La Paz warrants its own tale of whiny woe, so I’ll save that for another day, but our visit to the Salar de Uyuni can be summed up in one fun fact: we went on a six hour car tour. Neither the guide, nor the other passengers—a Bolivian dad and his two tweens—spoke a word of English.

The salt flat was beautiful and a bit mind-boggling. It looks and feels and sounds for all the world like a vast, frozen lake. You’d think you could lace up some ice skates and do a few triple axels. It’s cold and bright, at least in July, and, like snow, absolutely requires both a warm hat and dark sunglasses. I was enchanted, wandering over this endless white surface, listening to my shoes make icy crunching noises. The best part was when I noticed a tiny hole, about the size of a deck of playing cards. I squatted down to peer in, and realized that what I was seeing was water. It looked thick, almost viscous. It tasted saltier than sea water. My fingers were so cold.

Our guide realized what I was looking at, and came running over. He reached under the salt layer and brought out a handful of perfectly square crystals, the size of ice cubes. I couldn’t understand a single word he was saying, but it was a moment of utter magic.

The other half of our six hour tour was to a ’train cemetery.’ Which is exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of rusty old train cars, sitting in a field in the middle of nowhere. Apparently this is a popular photo op—pose on a decommissioned engine! Poke your head out of a rusty old caboose! I couldn’t see the point. Maybe if I’d understood where the trains had come from? Had some kind of historical significance, or context? This is the problem with taking a tour in a language I don’t understand—I feel like I’m bumbling along, following some random person around without knowing what I’m meant to see or appreciate.

James Taylor says the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time, and I try, but some moments are just quotidian—a bunch of abandoned trains, rusting in an empty field. Sometimes, though, there are real gems hidden under the crust, and if I’m lucky, and paying attention, someone will hold them up for me to see—no language required.

From my writer’s notebook: Speaking of both travel and gems—Dresden has long been on my want-to-visit list. Last November, thieves stole jewels from the royal collection at Dresden Castle. The tidbits I find most intriguing (meaning, the things I can imagine turning into fiction):

—The thieves are thought to have caused a distraction by starting a small fire on a bridge, which resulted in a power outage to the area.

—They cut through the iron bars protecting the window, in order to gain entry to the room, and when they left, they replaced the bars.

—One of the items contains a 49 karat diamond. That’s really big.

To my knowledge, none of the stolen items have been found at this point. I wonder what the pandemic has done to both the stolen art/artifact market, and the global efforts to crack cases like this.

Take care,

Lisa

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