Lifestyle & Culture > Down Under on the underground

Down Under on the underground

Published: May 9, 2012

On the surface, she was the epitome of the twenty-something Korean woman.

Dressed in a puffy pink jacket, her straight black hair cut in a blunt-fringe style, she stood in the cramped subway carriage and watched television on her IPod.

The subway pulled into the next station and the doors opened.

A dozen more people shuffled into the carriage.

As a man stepped backwards, crushing the woman’s arms into her chest and restricting her flow of oxygen, she let out a groan.

“Owwww,” the woman said, her face screwed in discomfort.

In a country where modesty is highly valued, it was a shockingly un-Korean thing to do.

The moment passed as quickly as it had arrived.

The woman adjusted her position, her face returned to normal, and her attention once again focussed on her IPod.

In another less crowded subway carriage on another train line, a US marine chatted with an elderly Korean man.

“How long until you will return home?” the elderly man asked.

“I’ll be heading back to Minnesota next month,” the marine replied.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do after that, I’ll just see where life takes me I guess.”

The elderly man asked the marine if he had been to Iraq, and he said he had.

“I, too, have been to Iraq, but for business,” the elderly man told the marine.

The train pulled into the next station and the doors opened.

The marine nodded to the Korean man as he stepped out onto the platform.

“Well, it sure was nice to meet you, sir.”

In another subway carriage on another train, an immaculately dressed Korean business woman sat and read her newspaper.

Next to her, a middle-aged woman snored.

Slowly, the middle-aged woman’s head rocked in a downward direction, until her forehead came to rest on the business woman’s plump shoulder pad.

The business woman glanced at the middle-aged woman’s head, before simply turning the page of her newspaper.

Welcome to the Seoul subway system- a place where millions of paths cross, often fleetingly, sometimes humorously, each day between the hours of 6am and midnight.

More than eight million trips are recorded on the Seoul subway each day, making it the third most used underground system in the world, behind Tokyo and Moscow (the New York City Subway comes in fourth with about five million trips recorded each weekday).

For foreigners living in or visiting Seoul, a subway map is the one thing you should not leave home without.

Australian journalist, Amy Remeikis, has lived in Seoul for five months and said she used the subway every day, including the day she arrived in town.

The 28-year old said she had already accumulated a mountain of “subway stories” to share with her friends, including the time she was groped, the time a man vomited in front of her, and the countless occasions she has been mistaken for a Russian prostitute.

“I’m tall and blonde and in this country that makes you a Russian prostitute,” she said.

“I find it amusing at times when people give me a wide berth, when they think I’m something that I’m not.

“More often than not I’ll get a seat on the subway with no one sitting next to me, particularly if I’m wearing a big second-hand furry jacket, which I think might have belonged to a Russian prostitute at some point.”

Most recently, Amy said she was propositioned on a subway platform by a man who offered her 500,000 won ($500 AUD) for her “services”.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Are you Russian? I give you 500,000 won’- I told him I wasn’t Russian, that I was Australian,” she said.

“So he said to me, ‘OK, 300,000 won’. So basically, he dropped his price because I was Australian.”

However, Amy said the only time she ever genuinely feared for her safety was when a man took hold of her on the platform as a train approached.

“The bells went to say the train was coming, and this guy grabbed me by the arm and started pulling me along the platform,” she said.

“A young guy saw what was happening and grabbed him. I suppose it’s a bit of a fear now, but it’s not something I constantly think about.”

Foreign faces are still reasonably rare on the subway, but become more frequent on subway lines near Itaewon, the suburb colloquially known as “America Town” (for its large number of American food chains such as Starbucks, Baskin and Robbins and McDonald’s).

University student, Steve Yates, said he was often stared at while riding the subway, but said most people in Seoul were used to seeing foreigners these days.

The 25-year old Brisbane boy, who studies Korean language at Seoul’s Sogang University, said he was often the one doing the staring.

“You’ve got so many different characters to watch on the subway,” he said.

“One I’ve discovered recently is the shock preacher. The shock preacher is a guy you might see on a packed train on a Sunday. He’s a religious fanatic who’ll walk into a carriage and start screaming his sermon to everyone’s surprise in the near vicinity. He just comes out of nowhere.

“There are always the salespeople who walk up and down the subway selling everything from belts to coat hangers, to little plastic devices that clear out your drain. I even saw one guy selling Michael Bolton’s Greatest Hits”.

Steve, who estimated he would spend about an hour and a half underground each day, admitted the system had its occasional frustrations.

“I had one young man sneeze on me one day, he sneezed right onto my jacket,” Steve said.

“At first I was kind of angry, but then I realised his arms were pinned and he actually had no way to cover his mouth- the subway carriage was so packed.”

The Seoul subway system began operations in 1974 with a single line and has grown to 14 lines with nearly 300 stations.

All of Seoul’s tourist attractions, such as the famous shopping precinct at Dongdaemun, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the cultural hub of Insa-Dong, can be accessed via the subway system.

Subway maps are available in English and each station is signed in English and Korean.

Sam Cashman said her Korean co-workers had indicated the system would be difficult for her to navigate, but she found the opposite to be true.

The English teacher from Melbourne said she had rarely been confused, and had never felt unsafe.

“I’ve travelled a lot and I knew it wasn’t going to be that hard… of all the places I’ve been it’s the best so far. It’s so efficient, it’s warm… it’s way better than any system in Australia- oh my God, Australian public transport is hopeless!”

The efficiency of the subway system means visitors to Seoul rarely need to use any other form of transport.

Foreigners living in the city could stay for years without the need to purchase a car.

But the underground, with its cramped carriages, shock preachers and sleepy commuters, offers something even more valuable than just efficiency- it offers a glimpse into every day Korean life.

“There are so many different walks of life on the subway, really I find it hilarious,” Amy said.

“You always get out of the subway with a story to tell.”

Photography: Carlye Vroom

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