Life In Korea: How to Ride the Subway Without Killing Yourself

Click the image for an enlarged version. Source: Seoul Metro.

When the only form of transportation around you has been the good ol’ automobile for as long as you can remember, it can be quite a drastic change when you’re forced to use public transportation.

After having used the Seoul Subway for what amounts to three months, I can say that I have a good grasp of all the nooks and crannies of the metro system – whether for good or bad.

So take out your pens and pencils, because if you’re a subway newbie (like me) that will be experiencing the chaotic fun that is the Seoul Subway, you’re going to need a couple of heads-ups:

Figure out which side you’re going to exit in advance

This tip is pivotal to having a survivable, if not enjoyable, ride on the Metro, versus your getting a hernia as you try to squeeze your way through what seems like millions of blank faces that just-won’t-get-out-of-your-way and you end up missing your exit, all because you were standing at the other end of the doors.

There are route maps above each door and they clearly mark which doors open at which station. White dots mean the doors open on the right, while yellow dots mean they open to the left. Memorize them so you don’t have to squint at the English translations. Make use of them before you have to learn the hard way, and the rest of your day will be that much better.

Keep track of your umbrella

For some reason, the designers of the subway trains elected to install shelves above the seats, and position them at an extremely appealing height that just catches your eye as you drag your weary self onboard at the end of a very frustrating, very wet day. Your brain may possibly entertain the thought that your umbrella would fit very nicely on that appealing shelf.

Do not do it. Maintain a vice grip on your umbrella at all times. To repeat, do not, under any circumstances, let your hand leave your umbrella. Because this is what happens:

*puts umbrella on shelf*

*30-40 minutes pass*

*body is tired from standing on the subway and having to breathe the tepid subway air*

*wants to get out of there as fast as you can*

*doors open*

*you rush out, leaving behind one orphaned umbrella*

For some reason, umbrellas are incredibly cheap in Korea – you can pick on up for around ~4000 won, easy. It only adds to the massive amount of umbrellas at the Seoul Metro Lost & Found every year. I’m convinced it’s a conspiracy on the part of South Korean convenience stores and the Metro operators to make umbrellas that easy to buy, and that easy to lose.

Despite appearances, transfers to Line 9 are free

Transfers happen all the time on the Seoul Metro. They’re easy, simple, and quick if you keep an eye for the omnipresent directional signs everywhere. And you only have to swipe your card once – although, of course, the cost increases for the length traveled.

Line 9 is somewhat different, however. For reasons unbeknownst to everyone but the Line 9 Corporation, they have decided to install gates at every single entrance to every single Line 9 station.

That means you have to swipe your card, even when you’re transferring. This can be somewhat of a hassle, especially when you’re decidedly late and you have to pause to yank your wallet out of your unyielding back pocket.

The more aggravating thing, I’m sure, is that you have to pay again – wait, not so.

Despite what it may look like, transfers to Line 9 are completely free. There’s usually a tiny sign that hangs from the ceiling, that says something to the effect of ‘transfers are free’. You get the drift.

God knows why they still make you swipe your card.

So the next time you find yourself travelling on Line 9, don’t be turned off by the turnstiles – just breeze on through, and your wallet will thank you for it.

On a related note, I highly recommend using Line 9 as often as possible. It’s fairly recent, and it shows – the corridors are wider, and the trains are smoother.

Do not accidentally board an ‘express’ train

Lines 1, 9, Jungang, and Gyeongchun offer special ‘express’ services that skip certain stations. Fortunately, they do their job pretty well. Unfortunately, they’re not always clearly marked.

On Line 9, for example, there’s little in the way of informing you that you’ve accidentally boarded an express train unless you manage to actually pay attention to the tinny announcement, or stare at the television monitor mounted on the wall which says “Line 9 (express)” for about four seconds.

If you find yourself on an express train, don’t panic – just get off at the next station and wait for the next train, which will be a regular-service train.

Just because transfers exist does not mean that they are easy

Yes, transfers are free.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re always easy.

Although the vast majority of Metro stations offer easy, simple ways to transfer from one point to another, some do not. On some stations, they actually require you to walk through another line’s platform to get to your destination platform! And for others, you’ll have to watch the signs closely the minute you step off the train – one initial set of stairs will lead to one side of the platform, and the other side will require you to make a U-turn to head up another set of stairs at the far end of the platform you’re currently standing in.

Also, some transfers require you to walk inordinately long amounts of empty corridor. These stations are only one station in name, while they should’ve been labeled as two separate stations connected by one looooong underground corridor.

Moral of the story: plan extra time for transfers. A lot of extra time.

Avoid the ‘weak air-conditioned’ cars

It’s a hot summer day. You descend into the station; it’s still as humid and sticky as ever (the stations are not air-conditioned). You know the trains are air-conditioned. So you look forward to the arrival of the train like the Second Coming.

The doors whoosh open. You enter, expecting a cool rush of air to hit you in the face.

It never happens. The door closes behind you, leaving a sweaty you to find a seat amidst the barely-better-than-the-outside car.

Congratulations. You’ve experienced what it feels like to be sitting inside one of the Seoul Metro’s head-scratching ‘weak air-conditioned’ vehicles.

These death traps pop their ugly heads once every 4 cars or so, and it’s clearly marked with a sign on the glass doors at the platform that says, “약 냉방칸”.

Ostensibly, these vehicles are meant for those who find the other cars too cold to their liking. Do yourself a favor. Stick with the regular vehicles. You know, the ones that don’t turn you into a portable turkey oven.

Avoid Line 1 City Hall Station and Seoul Station like the plague

As two of the oldest stations on the entire network, these ‘stations’ – more like labyrinths – are living, breathing examples of hell on Earth.

For City Hall station, especially, which has a transfer with Line 2, you’ll have to make your way through endless mazes of corridors, brick walls, staircases, and twists and turns until you somehow find your way at the platform (see related post, above).

Combined with low ceilings, nearly nonexistent ambient lighting, and what could possibly be the foulest-smelling platform in the history of foul-smelling platforms, you’re best off avoiding these stations, even if it means taking a slightly more roundabout trip.


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