Life and Seoul

General Information

Free Tourist Bus – Extension of Operation & Happy New Year

Hello one and all. A very happy 2012 to you. 새해 복 많이 바드새요.

Great news to start off the year! As mentioned in a previous post, there was a free bus operating between Seoul and 3 major Korean cities exclusively for foreigners. This service was for ‘Visit Korea’ year and was due to end on December 31st, 2011.

Well, due to popular demand, and bar a few changes, the service has been extended.

Changes to note are as follows:

  • The route to Gyeongju which I took and wrote about previously has now been cut. The routes Seoul-Busan and Seoul-Jeonju will remain open, with one bus travelling in each direction every day.
  • The timetable for the Busan bus has changed, now leaving later and stopping at fewer places along the way.
As before, the service is only open to foreigners (both tourists and foreign residents). Buses run every day except Mondays and major public holidays.
Visit this link to see more information and make a reservation.
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Air raid sirens in Seoul – no cause for alarm

Occasionally I will be sat in my room in Seoul writing, when all of a sudden a sound both familiar and dreadful will stir me. It’s a sound I know from visiting museums about world war 2 in England which would have a soundtrack of mortar fire and the ‘Moaning Minnie’ as it was known.

Since that tumultuous time, I doubt the moaning minnie has really ever been heard. In Korea however, every 3 months or so, the early warning sirens are tested. It can be a daunting thing to a new comer in Korea, to hear those strained sounds reverberate across the city. There is never any cause for alarm, I still maintain that the media, as it seems with everything in this age, completely overplay the situation between the two Koreas. I have friends in the army (both American and Korean) stationed here who compare being stationed in Korea today with Germany in the 80s. Want to know what I mean? Watch the movie ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ with Joaquin Phoenix.  A few buzz words like tension and animosity are all it takes for a ever increasingly sadistic press to misinterpret reality.

I reiterate, the siren will most likely only ever be a test out here. Check the time if you do hear it. 11am or 2pm on the dot are generally the test times. The siren will last 2-3 minutes then stop. They are usually indicators of a flyover by the air force in a civil defense drill or just a maintenance test for the equipment. If it is a defense drill you might also notice cars will stop in the streets whilst the alarm sounds. People may also stop. Most likely there will have been a public notice given on radio and in the news in Korean. Of course the best ploy is to watch the Koreans. If they are not panicking, then neither should you. Rest easy people. Go and eat some kimchi.


Booking accommodation online

As mentioned elsewhere, I have, with a couple of exceptions, opted against mentioning specific hotels, hostels and guest-houses on this blog because information gets outdated, places close; deteriorate; improve and prices change. Instead, I would rather direct your attention to booking websites where you can read recent reviews from people who have stayed, and also get access to information about hundreds of different sleeping options that might better serve your needs.

The best impartial source of information is probably Trip Advisor; a collection of reviews from guests, a ratings system that puts all hotels in order of quality based on those reviews, and also provides multiple links to websites where you can reserve your room. It also allows you to narrow down your search depending on your requirements. Refined searches on this website even allow you to single out accommodations with a shuttle bus service, room service, wheelchair access etc.

Trip Advisor is more useful for top range hotels, than it is for budget options. If like me, your concern only goes as far as having a roof, walls and a bed in the place you sleep, then there are hundreds of hostels now in Korea, and more are appearing all the time. Try the following websites for booking: hostelworld.com, hostelbookers.com, hostels.com and of course YHA/HI hostels.

I would say that Hostelworld has the best coverage and, as it is the most used, has better reviews. YHA/HI is an international brand, so can be more reliable. Prices vary. If you buy a membership to HI then you will also be able to stay for a cheaper price. Generally every major city in the world has an HI affiliated hostel and breakfast is usually provided in the price.


When it rains it pours – a bad time to visit Korea

Koreans take pride in the distinct 4 seasons that grace the country throughout the year. However, it could be technically argued that there is a fifth, mini-season – The Rainy Season.

Much like monsoon season in countries that lie somewhere between the tropics and the Equator such as India, when the rain comes, it makes its presence felt.

In Korea, the rain will often be persistent, and at times does not let up for days on end. This can really scupper travel plans, and you might find that you spend most of your trip indoors watching t.v. or reading.

When? The season usually is worst from mid-late June and finishes around mid-late July. The rest of the summer will experience showers and thunderstorms as opposed to extended rainy periods, but can get very humid. By the end of August the rain clears up and for much of the autumn season there is little rain at all.

This video was shot at the end of July 2011 when much of Gangnam in the south of Seoul and other cities experienced flooding.


Free Tourist Bus in Korea

Incredibly, Visit Seoul are currently offering a free shuttle bus between Seoul and three major tourist destinations in Korea. This is part of their oddly named Visit Korea Year, which would be all well and good if it weren’t for the fact that it runs from 2010-2012.

The destinations a foreigner in Korea can travel to for free are:
Gyeongju – Korea’s historical capital and former seat of the Jeoseon Dynasty for centuries. This is the best place is Korea to get a sense of historic Korea, and one which has not been rebuilt.
Busan – Korea’s second city, famed for being more laid back than Seoul, and home of the famous Haeundae Beach. It also hosts the expansive Jagalchi Fish Market and good ferry and plane links to close neighbour, Japan.
Jeonju – Supposedly the culinary capital of Korea. All you foodies take note. There are a number of sites of historic interest here also.

This offer runs from now until December 31st, 2011.

The buses are phenomenal; only 3 seats across each row, spacious, comfortable, air conditioned and shiny deluxe buses. Aside from the lengthy visit Korea promo video which plays for a while once the trip has started, it is easy to fall asleep and wake up at your destination.

What’s more, there is NO catch. You don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to visit any specific places and get herded around like cattle, you just get on at a designated spot and off at your destination. You can travel free either one way or return, and there is no time limit on how long you wait before returning.

The buses travel on every day of the week except Mondays. Plan your trip accordingly.

To reserve your seat, click on this link and have your passport handy. You must reserve in advance, you can’t just rock up and get on the bus.

So far I have only been to Gyeongju and back using this service but I highly recommend it and will certainly take the opportunity to visit Busan and Jeonju using it also before 2012.


How to get a ticket for the subway in Korea – photo guide

New systems can often be confusing. Coming from London, England: home of the world’s very first network of underground railways and stations is now outdated. Korea’s system is new, spacious, modern. As such it is actually more user-friendly. Once you have worked out where you want to go on the subway map, you need to buy a ticket.

In the lobby, there will be a bank of ticket machines and deposit refund devices. First you needn’t worry about the latter. The ticket issuing is in 4 languages (Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese). It is all done by touch screen.

First select the language.

Then select the station you wish to go to. This is alphabetized.

Choose you station, then you will be asked how many tickets you wish to buy. Select the number and insert your money.

The money-eating mouth hole of the machine will light up green to indicate where to feed it.

A few seconds later, you ticket will be spat out, again in a little compartment which will light up.

The cards work much like the oyster of London or octopus cards of Hong Kong. Just touch it to the pad as you walk through the gate, both on your way in and out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once your journey is complete, head to the bank of ticket machines in your destination station and find the deposit refund device. Insert your card and you will get a little money back.

The T-Money travel card is only worth buying if you are going to use the transport system more than 20 times. This is the point where you will start to save money from the purchase price of the T-Money card.


Getting in to Seoul – taxi scams

As mentioned previously, the taxi service throughout Korea is one of the most reliable I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. There is always an exception to this rule, and that is at Incheon Airport.

WARNING: Never take a taxi from the airport unless the driver uses the meter. Simple enough, but many a first time traveler to the country has been confounded by the ridiculous conversion rate. 10000 won = $10 and everything is distorted. Usually the scam depletes about $100 from a traveler’s wallet, when they could have taken the extensive subway system for $5.

These guys are usually lurking around in the arrivals area and prey specifically on lone travelers with a backpack, little do the travelers know about the fantastic, fast, cheap AREX subway line to the city centre and numerous, cheap, comfortable buses that head to areas all across the city, all of which are accessible just minutes away.

Be safe, save money.


Subway and bus etiquette

A few rules for riding the bus or subway to ensure you do not get scowled at nor told off by a disgruntled, elderly Korean lady:

1) Seats at either end of a subway carriage are reserved exclusively for the elderly, disabled or pregnant women. Do not sit in those seats at any time, even if the car seems quiet. Sometimes in the space of one subway station, the train can fill up. Buses have single seats closer to the front that are also reserved.

2) Give up your seat to someone more in need if the train or bus is very full.

3) Wait for people to leave the train before attempting to enter. On the bus, you enter through the front and exit via the middle door only.

4) Sometimes old Korean ladies (affectionately known as ajumas) will barge you out of the way. They are much stronger than they appear. They apparently have right of way and there is nothing you can do about it. It is better to take this slight with good natured aplomb, rather than get annoyed, as this will never get you anywhere and you will just look daft.

5) You can eat on the subway or bus, but be aware that most people sharing the ride with you probably don’t want to smell what you are eating.

6) If you want to fit in with the other Koreans on public transport, you can either a) watch t.v. on your smart phone (oh yes, mobile phones have full connectivity deep under the city even)

b) sleep

c) listen to music

or d) play games on your smart phone

Keeping these things in mind, you should be all set to ride Korea’s public transport hassle-free.


The airport railroad

Early in 2011, the airport railroad opened up, connecting Incheon Airport with Gimpo Airport, the hongdae area and ending at Seoul Station, which in turn connects Seoul to the rest of the country. Look for signs in the airport pointing out the airport railroad or ask for directions at the numerous information kiosks.

Riding the full length, including and transfers prior to entering the airport railroad (provided you complete your transfer within 30 minutes) should cost roughly W5000 ($5). This means you will end up paying about half the price of a bus ticket. See T-Money card for more information.

If you are taking the Airport Railroad from the city centre to the airports, then yu can board at Seoul Station, which also links to Lines 1 & 4 of the subway. The entrance is well posted and is found close to Platforms 12 and 13 in Seoul Station.

It can also be boarded from various other stations in Seoul. See map for more information.


Tipping etiquette in Korea

Back when I had just arrived in Korea, I was out having Korean BBQ with non-Korean friends. It was a pleasant evening and we were sat outside. The staff were helpful, we ate well, drank some soju and were feeling merry. The time came to pay. We made the faux pas of asking for the waitress to bring us the bill (see dining etiquette), but never-the-less they obliged despite our ignorance. Each of us paid our share and kicked in a couple of thousand won as a tip.  We got up to leave and were a hundred metres down the road when a breathless waiter ran up to us. “Wait”, he shouted, “you forgot some money.”

“It’s a tip for your service”, we replied. He looked offended and thrust the money into my hands, turned and walked away.

It was only after this that I realised that leaving a tip is not customary in Korea. In fact, some may even take it as an insult because it insinuates that you believe they are more lowly than thou, and therefore more in need of your spare change. Occasionally a taxi driver may be glad not to make change of a 10000, for a 9000 fare, and of course, if you are staying in a top of the range hotel, then international staff tipping rules apply, but generally you don’t even need to feel awkward about how much to tip, because you shouldn’t leave one.