Getting places in Auckland usually involved driving there in my car.
Here in Seoul I don’t have a car. So getting anywhere usually involves a trip on the subway.
Seoul has one of the best subway networks in the world ridden by more that 7million people a day. There are currently 16 lines with 903km of tracks (Thanks Wikipedia.
I live on line 9. This is one of the newest lines, meaning comfy seats, TV displays, and an express service.
My subway station is just a few minutes walk from my house. I walk down one flight of stairs at exit 2, then step onto the escalator. A womans voice is heard over a speaker. ….. optimus….. esculator….. as the escalator whirrs into life and I’m carried down another flight. I walk through the station to the ticket gates and swipe my T-money card. Most trips are W1150, + W200 for any transfers. This equates to about NZ1.50, that’s cheaper than one stage on the Auckland bus. 95% of the time I veer to the right and down another escalator to take the train bound for Sinonhyon. The other one goes to Gimpo Airport.
This train is never very crowded so I pretty much always get a seat. But usually I jump off at the next station and walk across the platform to board the express train. This can cut as much as 15mins off my journey. The trade-off however can be a crowded train on which I could be standing for the next 18mins.
When I first got here I struggled to stand in a moving train and would hold on to a support for dear life. I would then dedicate all my attention to maintaining my balance, whilst trying to maintain an air of cool composure. I would marvel at everyone else standing on the train. Everyone, including the elderly, small children and even girls in platform high heels, can ride the metro without holding on to anything. I can now stand without assistance, though I’m a little less stable in heels.
It would seem that to ride the Seoul Metro you don’t just need a T-money card. You need a smartphone and headphones. Aside from a few people who will be reading a book, or perhaps chatting to a friend, all eyes are fixed on the 3” screen in front of them. Messaging friends, playing angry birds, watching K-dramas or baseball EVERYONE has a phone. Yes, even people as old as your dad, or young children, everyone has internet on the go. Even if you don’t have anything specific to do on your phone it’s still a great way to avoid eye contact with people sitting opposite you. It’s even better when you’re trying to avoid staring at the crotch of the guy who is standing in front of your seat.
I don’t have data on my phone, and haven’t been able to decipher enough Korean to connect to the subway wifi, so I get bored of my phone pretty quick. I usually just ride with my iPod, which allows me to look somehow preoccupied, whilst I scope out the fashion show before me. A summary of my findings shall be written up in a separate post.
Each station is announced over the loudspeaker “E-bon-you-un ‘Yo-we-do.’ Yo-we-do yok im-ne-da. Orun-chok, yuk im-ni-da” This stop is Yeouido. The doors are on the right. You may transfer to line 5 or the all-stop train of line 9” I disembark and follow the signs to the exit or my next train. It you are at a transfer station it may take a good 5 minutes or more to make your way out of the station or to your next train. In between is a maze of escalators, travelators, stairs and ticket gates. It’s a great thigh workout.
If transferring I’ll consult in station subway maps or an app on my phone to make sure I get on the train heading in the right direction. These all have English and Korean so once you’ve done it a couple of times you can go anywhere. Each line is slightly different depending on it’s age. One thing they all have is an audio clip before the arriving train is announced. In some stations it’s like a bugle in a fox hunt, others have classical music or monochromatic ringtones. Generally they’re tacky and bizarre, but they mean that soon you’ll be boarding your train. A few times I’ve been pushed onboard. The carriage is so full that you can’t step anywhere and just bounce off of the people around you as the train trundles along. Generally I’m not riding peak time so I get to avoid this.
Usually I do not have to wait more than eight minutes for a train. Unless I’m waiting for the first train. On weekdays the trains stop about 1am, so I have to leave most places by midnight. One the weekends the trains stop at midnight. This can be frustrating, especially since I work till 8 so it’s quite ok for me to be out to midnight. Fridays and Saturdays it’s ok for me to be out all hours, but I have to consider how I will get home. Taxis here are cheap, about $1 a kilometre, but I still don’t want to pay $20 to get home all that often, especially when the trip normally costs me $1.50. Several times, usually after a night of dancing I have hung around a little while longer to catch the first train home. These start at 5:30am. And there’s a surprising number of people on these. Particularly travelling from Hongdae on a Sunday morning.
Entering the subway system is a bit like entering an ants nest. You follow the lines of people walking in and out, being sure to keep to the right. There are signs and announcements everywhere brainwashing you into appropriate subway etiquette. These are interspersed with advertisements for plastic surgery, ice tea, K-Pop video clips and children’s cartoons. You have no idea what’s above you, and so it can be really disorientating, travelling all over the city, but only seeing little bubbles. It’s only now that I’m starting to walk between stations, go for bike rides, or take buses that I’m getting a better idea of the lay of the land. The subway is always a cool temperature, with consistent signage and décor. Any platform on Line 9 looks pretty much the same as all the others, but nicer than the older stations. So in many ways the subway reflects a well oiled system that encourages conformity, but it’s also a great place to people watch a cross-section of Korean society.