Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Navigate Seoul's Metro System

I might as well have been looking at the control panel for a NASA space shuttle when I stared down a subway kiosk on the outskirts of Washington D.C.

It didn't take much to confuse me at this point. On Wednesday, a 13-hour flight had brought me home from South Korea. On Thursday, we packed up and left Atlanta for D.C. During the all-night drive, my jet lag was an advantage: The 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. shift? No problem.

But now it was Friday. Sleep-deprivation had caught up with me. And if the fatigue wasn't enough to muddle my brain, the puzzle of buttons, fare charts, digital instructions, money receptacles and receipt dispensers on the D.C. metro kiosk finished the job.

I wasn't the only one struggling. At 10 a.m., travelers were already pouring into town for Fourth of July celebrations. Everyone who arrived at the Greenbelt station needed instructions, and they looked haplessly to a lone attendant who, judging by his palpably annoyed state, had spent his entire morning dealing with ignorant tourists.

In the end, I left with two tickets in hand, one each for my wife and me, but the process wasn't easy. First I had to find the reduced holiday rate on the chart above the kiosk. Then I had to select a pass or single fare card. Next I had to choose the quantity of fare cards and the value of each. The machine's configuration was mind-numbing. With no automation, I had to add up the total fare in my head. And there were no numbered buttons. The fare simply started at $20.00, and I had to use what looked like a white plastic light switch to toggle all the way down to $4.70.

At this point, I really began to miss South Korea.

Compared to D.C.'s, the metro system in Seoul is a breath of fresh air. English is available at all kiosks, most of which have bright, intuitive touchscreens that make the ticket-buying process quite simple. In Korea, I could recheck the destination on my map, write down some notes, buy the ticket, retrieve my change and head to the turnstile faster than I could figure out how to simply work the machine in Washington.

Of course, your ability to navigate any subway will be directly related to prior experience. If you've never negotiated the pulsating, bullish crowds, the labyrinthine tunnels, the oft-confounding ticketing systems, your first time will likely be more of a crash course than a joyride. I've ridden subways in Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, D.C. and Atlanta, and the experience undoubtedly helped me in Seoul.

With more preparation, Korea would've been even easier, so I'm offering a few words of advice for those who might be planning a trip. I'm no expert, so more experienced folks, please feel free to correct or augment what follows.

Getting on

Seoul proper has nearly 11 million people, and the city claims that about half South Korea's population - more than 24 million - live in or commute to its metro area. Those numbers prove that the moving around this city will mean trial by fire for the first-time subway rider.

It sounds simple, but I've found that half the battle is knowing where you're going and being prepared. I recommend grabbing a metro map at the airport and studying the 10 lines during the hour-long bus ride into Seoul from the airport in Incheon. That way you'll at least have an idea how to hit the ground running upon arriving at the hotel. I really don't have any tips on how to best read a subway map. It's mostly just instinct, experience and most importantly, attention to detail.

Find the nearest subway station to your hotel. Any will do, but if you're at a confluence of different lines, consulting a map first could help you pick a line with a quicker route to your final stop.

With your destination in mind, stroll up to the kiosk. If you're an English speaker, you'll have no problem seeing the ENG button at the bottom of the screen, a stark sight in a sea of Korean. I'm assuming if you're reading this you're an English speaker, but just note that Korean and English are the only two languages offered at the kiosks. I saw some Japanese girls and a Chinese couple having to use English to select their destination on the digital screen, although the paper map I got from the airport listed stops in Chinese and Japanese.

After you select English, you'll have to choose what type of fare you want. I chose "single journey" every time, although if I were staying longer I could've loaded up a T-money card. Even buying single fares, the metro is considerably cheaper than in most American cities. It cost me just a little more than a dollar for a one-way fare that allowed me to traverse the city.

Once you've tapped a ticket type, many of the most popular stops will flash up on the screen. If yours doesn't appear, click the letter(s) the stop's name begins with, and an alphabetical list will come up. You're not bound to this particular stop if you change your mind during the ride. The machine just uses your stop to calculate your fare. If you disembark at a different destination, make a visit to the clearly labeled "fare adjustment machine" to pay what you owe or get your change, whatever the case may be.

Note also that your fare will include a 500-won deposit to cover the cost of the orange metro card in case you don't return it. After you get off, make sure to take your card to the "Deposit Refund Device." Slide it into the slot, and take the 500-won coin that drops down into the coin return. While 500 won doesn't seem like much - it's less than USD $0.50 - the cost adds up after double-digit subway rides. Get in the habit of getting your deposit back, and it won't be a problem.

Finding Direction

After scanning your newly acquired orange fare card and passing through the turnstile, the next order of business is to figure out which way to go. This is crunch time. Deciding which train will mean the difference between being late or on time. It's tough at first, because the Seoul metro maps and signs don't give you cardinal directions like east or west. They list a smattering of stops pointed toward each of the lines moving in opposite directions.

I devised a sort of scheme to deal with this. The ideal situation is to see your stop on the sign, but that won't happen if you're transferring down the line or getting off at a lesser-known stop. This is another reason it's important to have a map handy. You'll have to match the unfamiliar words on the sign with the unfamiliar words on the map to see which ones correlate with the direction of your final stop. This is one of the toughest parts of navigating the metro, as the choice between one direction and another often must be made in a split second with people rushing, tones blaring and doors sliding shut. Not to mention that the names on the signs, though transliterated, can sometimes begin to look and sound the same to foreign eyes and ears.

And now to my non-foolproof system: I quickly check my destination on my map and scan for the next and last stops in that direction. I also look for any potential landmarks in between. Stadiums, shopping districts, universities and tourist sites all generally make the cut.

The Ride

So you're through the sliding doors, out of the stifling heat that hangs in the subway corridors and into the quiet, air-conditioned comfort of the train. And hopefully you've picked the train moving in the right direction.

Now what? If it's not crowded, slide into a seat, but be sure not to take one of those designated for the elderly.

Once you're seated, the ride is pretty easy. Just don't expect many people to talk to you. I had a few benevolent souls speak to me, but mostly I just kept to myself. Others will be doing the same. For the most part, everyone will be engrossed in whatever content their cell phone is feeding them at the time: TV, texting, conversation, Web surfing. It's all on the table. And the people who aren't engaging in one of those activities are holding the phone in their hand, poised to pounce at the next chance for conversation.

Memorize your stop and its corresponding number, and you can chill a little, especially if it's a long way away. Announcements in English and Korean, along with a festive little recorded song, warn passengers as each stop approaches. It's smooth sailing from here, but keep checking the maps as you pass each stop. Leaving mental breadcrumbs will help build a map in your head that will make this process easy to replicate on the way back.

Getting out

Getting out of the subway isn't hard. Mostly you just follow the signs that say "Way Out" in English.

But picking the right way can be tricky. Subway stops often double as underground crosswalks. Exits are numbered, and each one will usually spit you out on one of the four corners created by intersection. The key again is to know ahead of time which way you need to walk once you get above ground. If you know that as well as the appropriate road to follow, convenient maps on the wall will help you find your way.

Other issues:

1. Dealing with crowds - Like most Asian countries, the violent crime rate in Korea is pretty low. But just because you likely won't get mugged, don't assume that you won't get robbed. Without being paranoid, be aware that valuables are called such for a reason. Take care of them. Keep bags in front of you, and watch out when the crowds really begin to press in.

2. Entertainment - There are actually lots of things to do on the subway if you're creative. My favorite? Watch people. Also you can watch TV on the phone of the person sitting next to you. Read or take notes. Study your map. Notice the personalities of the different subway stops. Count the number of people talking on cell phones.

There's always the occasional alms-seeking entertainer, too. At one stop, I saw a South American guy playing an assortment of flutes from the Andes and selling his CDs. On one train, a blind man walked through with an outstretched hand, playing "Take it to the Lord in Prayer" on a harmonica.

3. More Resources - This isn't the definitive guide. The Korea Tourism Web site has some great information that I haven't covered. More resources are linked below:

-Apps with maps - Seoul metro on your iPhone or iPod touch
-Interactive map with all major Korean cities' metro lines
-Click the Seoul metro map above to see a full-size version

Video of Andean flute player:

Anybody out there got any words of wisdom, disagreements to add?


alanserpa said...

Hi there, what a great article. I traveled twice to Seoul for work and to visit my girlfriend who was teaching there for a year. We loved the subway system so much I made her a shirt from a web site called www.zazzle.com/stepasideapparel. The t-shirt has the Seoul Metro Map on it and she loves it. Thought I would share that with you.



Joshua said...

Here's what I've seen for people trying to get money on a subway:
1-Some dude passed out some papers that said something in Korean and talked on a loudspeaker. A few gave him money. Not speaking Korean myself, not sure what it was about.
2-A blind person holding a walking stick in one hand and a bag for money in the other.
3-Lady passed out gum. Them she comes back around to recollect the gum or money (the goal). Just know about this crap beforehand. One of the people I was with didn't and learned about it after he opened the box. Seems best to just not even allow her to give it to you in this case.

Anonymous said...

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- Norman

Angela said...

Thanks for this! I'm doing a beginners Korean language course at SNU this summer and the thought of traveling on the subway is a bit terrifying. This terror is reinforced by the fact that NO ONE has spoken English to me yet when I've tried to get out and about. I'm afraid if I get lost I'll have no way to ask for help! However, I didn't come to Seoul to sit pouting in my little apartment, so I'm going to try to explore some today. I feel significantly less anxious after reading your article. Thanks again! :)

Trevor Williams said...

@Angela: Glad I could help. I know having something like this would've made my trip a little simpler. I never envisioned it helping someone who's actually living in Seoul. I'm thinking about doing a similar post for Tokyo. I traveled there in January and found it relatively easy, thanks to some great tips I got from friends.