The evolution of public transportation was pushed to the back burner while industrializing America in lieu of focusing on cars and personal transportation. This means that unless you are in a big city, most people in America travel by their own car. In Korea, using buses, trains, and subways is very common and surviving and traveling without a car is much easier than back in the states. This isn’t to say that in navigating and assimilating to the commuter world we haven’t run into our fair share of drama and horror. Here are some of our hard won lessons in Korean Transportation
If you have read our old blog you will recognize this article from our “Lessons in Froupleship: Cooking”. Go give it a read if you’d like!
Subway Doors or The Jaws of Death
In any form the transportation of Korea waits for no one. The buses leave exactly when they say they will, the city buses will blow past you if you’re not standing directly at the curb waving, and the subway doors will close whether you’re standing in them or not. This was a treacherous lesson for me. A few months ago our friends Tracy and Maeghan visited from America and we were dead set on showing them as much of Korea as possible. This meant booking our days full of activities that required us to rush between buses and subways. Having lived in Korea for 6 months, the “Bali, bali” mentality was quite ingrained when I traveled in the city. Bali bali means to hurry and move quickly, but more than that it’s just how Korea operates. No wonder they became a developed country so soon after being devastated by the war, they just don’t stop.
We were making a mad dash to try and reach the Gangnam Express Bus terminal after our tour in the DMZ. We had a little less than a half hour to be sitting in our seats on the bus to Daejeon and as I said, we knew it wasn’t going to be delayed. We were to make a transfer between subway lines and as soon as the doors opened, I jogged over to the set of stairs that would lead us to the next train. I reached the platform just as the doors opened and I turned to find my friends. Tracy appeared not too far behind me as I stood in between the open doors. I started hollering for her to hurry.
“Where is Maeghan!?” I asked as Tracy jogged over to me. I glanced into the subway and spotted this Ahjussi, older Korean man, watching us, a look of pure amusement on his face as he witnessed the struggle of the waygookins (foreigners). Just as Maeghan appeared the doors began to close. I didn’t think much of it, back in the states sensors would halt the doors if there was any object in the way. As the doors continued to close onto my leg, the ajusshi’s look of amusement turned to horror as he was about to witness a waygookin lose her leg to the subway. At the last minute I yanked my leg free and the train sped off just as Maeghan reached us. That poor ahjussi was probably still reeling from what he almost witnessed. Like I said….Korean transportation waits for no one.
Kelly’s Lesson: Do NOT stand in the doorway of a subway and expect to come away with all of your limbs.
Rachel’s Lesson: Never let Kelly guide your friends alone, you miss all the fun.
Korean Buses – Akin to Human Catapults
I have learned a lot about public transportation while in Korea. Previously, I had little to no experience with buses, subways, or the like, even when the people involved spoke the same language as me. So getting used to looking out for my bus stop or figuring out where I’m going in general has been quite an experience. On many buses, there is a little TV that conveniently displays the upcoming stop, as well as the next and the last stops made. However, this is almost always in Korean, so I have made myself a little project to remember all of my important stops in order to have a handle on where I’m going. Getting lost is a very intimidating concept, so I try my best to keep track of my route. Also, Korean bus drivers are crazy. Ok maybe that’s unfair, but honestly I think their only goal is to be as efficient as possible, and make it from Point A to Point B in record time. The result of this? Jerky movements, sudden stops and accelerations, and the elevation of the importance of handrails to that of life-preserving devices. Local buses have two doors, one on the front for people getting on, and one in the middle for those departing. I find that this usually works quite well. However, the more long route buses usually just have one door, for people coming and going. This means that if you get on the bus and end up wayyy in the back, you will have to run to the front of the bus to make it out the door at your stop after the 5 seconds the bus driver gives you.
Such was our predicament when Kelly and I were taking the bus back to my house one evening. It was one of those buses with one door, and only one door. We were about midway down the bus, so I thought getting out would be fine. Big mistake. As the driver got close, I stood up and started to walk to the front. I’ve memorized these important stops like I said, so no biggie right? Walk up and get out in a timely fashion, no big deal. My dear friends, my lesson for you is never take getting on and off of a Korean bus lightly. As I started to walk to the front, the bus driver stopped so suddenly that my momentum catapulted me to the very front in a mad dash. I could not stop, and so I ended up sprinting to the front, in tiny quick steps because I was trying to stop. As I whizzed by, I heard at least one poor person exclaim “Omo!” (exclamation equivalent to “oh my” or “oh no”, usually said in surprise) as a gut reaction. The foreigner was going down! And I would have too, if not for a god-given pole at the front of the bus. I grabbed that baby like I was clutching a baton at a relay race. And Kelly would not let me hear the end of it. We cracked up about it for at least the rest of the night, just the visual of me step-step-stepping so quickly on that bus! So much for not being a foreigner that would stand out in a crowd.
Rachel’s lesson: Always be wary of sudden movements of bus drivers, and know what to hold onto for dear life when standing or walking at all on a bus.
Kelly’s lesson: When on a bus with Rachel, always let her go first, or you might get knocked over by her pure goofy force. And possibly have a video camera ready. Might be worth it.
When traveling in Korea, you can rank the mode of transportation in terms of extremeness. The most calm and smooth would be the trains, second the express buses. But setting foot onto a city bus or into the back seat of a taxi is like taking your life into your hands. After a night of drinking in Boreyeong, Rachel and I had stayed too late to catch an express bus home to my city of Cheongyang. This meant we had to take a taxi back. The road between the two cities is riddled with curves and sharp turns as it snakes its way through the mountain. In a bus this is just a casual ride with beautiful sights. But taxi drivers do not understand the meaning of fear; it must be bred out of them. They also must not believe the breaks are a vital part of their vehicles because as far as I have noticed, they are barely used. Rachel climbed into the front of the taxi and I went into the back. I was extremely thankful for this because after a few beers my ability to maintain a poker face is even worse than when I’m sober. The driver began whipping around the corners and curves, not even paying mind to the lanes on the highway. I kept gasping as I was knocked back and forth across the backseat. Another thing taxis don’t seem to believe in…seat belts. Finally to keep from probably wetting the seat, I spent the rest of the ride with my eyes closed trying to reach my happy place. Taking a drive in a taxi is most certainly on the severe end of the extreme meter.
Kelly’s Lesson: Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and have faith.
Rachel’s Lesson: Let Kelly ride in the front seat from now on, this would be a much better show.
Train Stations – Hard Mode of Korean Transportation
Trains are hard. Train stations are hard. Train stations in Korean cities are intimidating and difficult and confusing. The first time I experienced a Korean train station, I was supposed to be sending Kelly off from Suwon near my home so that she could get to Daejeon (city in central Korea). She may have thought I’d know something about how to get her on her way, I mean considering that it’s my city and all. At first I thought I could figure it out, like a bus terminal, which is usually pretty easy. But I came to realize that at least the Suwon train station is very hard.
Suwon station is actually really awesome, and I love partying around there. There is a huge shopping mall called AK Plaza, which has multiple stories of shops and restaurants and a movie theater. Kelly and I had a good time exploring it. My favorite part is probably Food Street on the basement floor, which consists of a huuuge food market with all the yummies imaginable in the form of food stalls and a grocery store, and a cafeteria style area that has a Korean and a Western style food section, and there’s a bookstore there too! My most commonly bought items there are cheese, pizza, and occasionally a Kpop album if I am so inclined. This area also has some nice restaurants and cool places for foreigners to hang out and drink! So I guess what I’m saying is, I like this area and I know it pretty well.
But the actual train station was a whole different beast. We were running every which way like lost bunnies, and we could not find the right platform. We thought it was a certain way, followed the signs and the arrows, and we kept ending up in the wrong spot. It got to a point where we were sure Kelly would miss her train, and her phone was dying to boot. Finally, somehow, we got to the right place and confirmed that Kelly’s train was almost there! You can imagine the amazing sense of relief we felt. I didn’t know much, but at least I was able to send Kelly off! I didn’t really help to be honest, but dear Lord were we both determined, and in the end it paid off! I feel a little more confident with trains now, and I’m learning to get used to them more and more!
Rachel’s lesson: Together, Kelly and I can do anything if we work together and put our minds to it!
Kelly’s lesson: Yeah ok same as Rachel’s lesson, but also don’t trust Rachel with knowing how to get places. Even in her own city, try to have a Plan B, C, and D lined up if you want any hope of making it to your destination.
When on the subway, do as the Koreans do
As long as you don’t tempt fate with the doors, the subway is quite a relaxing way to travel. Though I recommend avoiding it during rush hour as once Rachel and I were so crammed into a subway car I could count the nose hairs on the guy I was pressed up against. But usually, it’s a casual mode of transportation. After navigating the subway lines of Seoul successfully for months, Rachel and I thought we had it all figured out. This is when we learned that sometimes the announcements they made in Korean are not always the names of the stops. We were riding the subway back to our hostel when all of a sudden all the Koreans on the subway got up and left. We weren’t yet at our stop, and didn’t understand what the announcement was so we awkwardly sat on the subway as the only passengers. We pulled out of the station and stopped in the middle of nowhere.
“What is going on?” I asked, peering up and down the train cars. We saw a woman in uniform walking towards us. She asked us our destination and our friend who speaks Korean, but clearly doesn’t like to listen to it, told her. She told us to wait a while as the train was going to change tracks. This also was lost in translation as we didn’t know we were suddenly on a different line. When we finally noticed, we were in Hongdae, our favorite place in Seoul. We decided to get off and enjoy ourselves instead of heading to the hostel. Though it worked out in this case, we have learned that when in Korea, do as the Koreans do. Do NOT be the last person on the train when the locals all vacate. You’ll end up on a frighteningly empty train, and all nicely set up for a horror movie.
Rachel’s Lesson: Always take cues from those around you, sometimes it’s a good idea to follow the crowd.
Kelly’s Lesson: Don’t always trust your Korean friends to guide you, zoning out is a cross culture occurrence.
A Letter or Two Can Make a Big Difference
Gwangju. Ohh, Gwangju. This name might not mean much to most people, but to me, it encapsulates all the mistakes I’ve made with getting around in Korea. You didn’t know it, but it’s all been leading up to this story folks. This is what you’ve all been waiting for, and you had no idea at first, much like how I was clueless when this whole thing started.
It began innocently enough. I wanted to meet up with Kelly in Cheongyang, but she was in Daejeon at the time. It didn’t make sense for me to go out of my way to go to Daejeon when we were meeting at her place later anyway, so I figured I’d arrive at Cheongyang early and rest a bit before she got there. Ha. Thinking about it now, oh how naive I was.
So I got to the Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam, as I do, and tried to get a ticket to Cheongyang. Dang, it wasn’t quite working out. So, I figured I’d head to probably the closest place to her that I could, Gongju. In fact, there was a bus leaving in 5 minutes, lucky me! I got my ticket and ran to make it in time, not thinking about much besides making the bus. It was a little weird that there were so many times available for Gongju, and that it left from a different platform than Cheongyang, not to mention that this small place seemed so popular. You see, the more popular the bus destination, the more times that are available to go by bus. Anyway, whatever, no big deal, I made it on the bus and I was on my way! Oh, I was on my way all right.
I got about thirty minutes out when I finally reviewed my ticket. The first thing I noticed was that my destination was about 250 kilometres away. That’s weird, Cheongyang is only 150 kilometers, and Gongju is close to it… hold up just a second. Oh no. I was not going to Gongju, not at all. Nope, I was heading to a completely different city called Gwangju. Gwangju is at the very southwest edge of Korea. It is twice the journey of one going to Cheongyang. I was on a 5 hour bus ride to the wrong location! Nooooo!!!
I feel like I went through the five stages of grief from there. No way, there’s no way I’m going that far for no reason. Can’t be. Except it was. Rawrr I can’t believe this! Ughhh!! I’m going to be so late to Kelly’s, and I’m going to lose so much time for no reason :,(. God, can you make it so we stop at some other bus terminal on the way please? Then I can change buses. Sigh… well, I’m heading to Gwangju.
To be fair to myself, the Korean for Gongju and Gwangju is very similar. Well, sort of. Gongju is 공주, whereas Gwangju is 광주. Similar, right? Right friends? Righttt?? Well anyway, self-justification aside, I got to Gwangju, and settled down to meditate on my new place of being for a while. Kelly was staying in Daejeon longer than expected so I got a ticket to Daejeon, and after a few more hours we were reunited at last! Hopefully I will never make such a grave mistake again.
Rachel’s lesson: Well, when all is said and done, if I make a mistake travelling in Korea, at least it ain’t no Gwangju.
Kelly’s lesson: Oh, Rachel. Rachel Rachel Rachel, what am I gonna do with you. Gosh darn it, at least you try.
South Korea is a marvel between the way it utilizes all the space available, the fact that it will deliver just about anything to just about anywhere, and the reliable and available public transportation. Like moving anywhere, learning the ropes of getting around is a struggle and trying to do so while speaking another language just adds to the fun. But once you figure it out, you will be unstoppable.
Frouple’s Lesson: The best way to learn is through making mistakes. Getting lost is part of the fun, and it will usually turn out to be a fun story. And even if you do mess up, at least it ain’t no Gwanju!