Prior to my trip to Seoul, I had spent very little time in Asia; I had one day in Singapore last year, on my initial journey to New Zealand, but that didn’t allow much time to explore. So I was excited about getting to see more of the ‘real’ Asia. (I felt that Singapore was very westernised).
Seoul appears to have quite a good infrastructure, it is served by an award winning international airport (with a 4.5 stop over on the way back, I wasn’t bored!), and a smaller airport (Gimpo). There are mainland trains to other cities and towns in South Korea, a metro system, buses and taxis.
Prior to leaving, I wasn’t too worried about finding my way around the metro system. After all, I had regularly negotiated my way around London on the Underground, for the past 6 years .. how hard could it be?
Quite hard it turns out. Night one saw me get very lost and this was just the start of getting lost!
On my first morning, I ran across the road to a local convenience store, where I knew I could buy a T-money card for travelling. I was surprised to find that in an international university area, the guy at the counter barely spoke English. However, I was able to indicate what I wanted by pointing. The card itself cost 2,500 Won ($2.22 USD), which can be refunded at any machine in metro stations. However, I like to keep things like this, so did t get my refund.
The card allows travel on buses and metro (subway) trains, with journeys costing 1,050 Won. The one thing that surprised my with this card however was, journeys are not capped at a daily rate, like in other countries, such as London and Sydney (and even on Christchurch buses). So if you took a few wrong trains, it could work out more costly. Topping up the card was easy, there were machines at every station, with instructions in English on the screen.
My colourful T-money card
I’ll not go into the ins and outs of all my metro journeys, but I did get on and off a lot of wrong trains and went in the wrong direction many times.
One thing I was surprised about was the amount of time that was spent walking from one line to the other when changing at stations. Part of my issue with getting lost was the fact that some lines were similar colours such as dark blue and purple and I ended up in places I didn’t need to be.
Seoul’s metro map .. not as easy as it looks.
I was often seen in station looking at my own metro map that came with my Lonely Planet guidebook. I once had an old Korean man come up to me, smile and say “how long have you been in Korea?” To which I responded, one day. He then said ” Welcome to Korea” which I thought was sweet, but was also surprised by the older generation having some form of English.
Inside a metro station in Seoul
Hongik University station entrance (my local station)
Many times during my trip, I got lost even trying to find the nearest metro station if I’d got off the beaten track. I remember wondering around for 30 minutes in a circuit trying to find one. I was following a sign, but kept taking the wrong street. During this lost spell, I walked past several old men in the street playing chess. At one point a old Korean man with no teeth smiled and giggled at me with his thumbs up. I felt quite the minority in this area.
Although Seoul itself was fairly busy, the metro didn’t feel as crowded as I expected, particularly in comparison to the London Underground. Seoul’s metro system was well air conditioned and I often got a seat in many routes.
one of the many things I saw in Seoul .. this lady selling bunnies at Seoul station. I am more than 100% certain they probably weren’t meant to be purchased as pets!
One of the more scary experiences in relation to travelling in Seoul, was the night I went to Seoul tower
After all the queuing, I managed to miss the last metro from Seoul station. The metro shuts down at midnight, which I didn’t know and so after attempting to ask what seemed like a transport worker about the possibility of a bus (he shrugged). I had to make my way up to street level to try and find a way home to my hostel.
When I arrived up on to the street I was met by hundreds of armed policemen with guns, some wrestling people to the floor, where a protest of some kind was going on. I walked around the scene as quickly as I could.
Not able to find any bus stop, I waited for a passing taxi. It took three taxis to stop before I got a decent speaking English taxi driver.
At one point I stood in the street and shouted to locals “does anyone here speak English?!”
It took me a good 5 minutes to explain the taxi driver where I needed to be. I hopped in and prayed I’d be taken to the right place.
I was. It was the most tense journey of my life. Here I was, in the back of a taxi, with a man who spoke, little English, being driven around a city I didn’t know, after midnight. I had no knowledge of any major landmarks to look out for.
The journey cost 40,000 Won (roughly $38 USD), so this was a costly mistake to make in terms of my travels around the city.
I keep saying I should learn and be more organised, but I don’t think I will. I’ll continue to have many more misadventures.
Anyone who is hop on to travel to Seoul and are organised, should note the above points about times of metro shut down.