Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Seoul Underground: Ramblings

The Seoul subway system continues to change and evolve - much more quickly than I would ever think possible. There are already 8 subway lines (10 if you count the Incheon and Bundang lines, 11 if you add the national railroad line to that - they're all integral parts of the system) and yet it all somehow runs more smoothly and with fewer problems than the Washington, DC subway. And Line 9 will become a reality in the near future, the Bundang line is going to be extended, and 2 additional Incheon lines are under construction. The plan to extend the DC Metro's Orange line out to Tyson's Corner seems like baby steps in comparison. This is what happens when you dump 22 million people into a small area and have them expect efficient, reliable public transportation.

Seoul subway maps no longer show the national railroad line as part of Line 1 - it makes Line 1 look somewhat less sprawling and enormous. And Gimpo Airport is now Gimpo International Airport on EVERY subway map - seems like a lot of expense just to buff up the airport's image. They put little stickers over every subway map in every subway train in the system - how many thousands of little stickers is that? (And they only updated the English translation - the Korean still simply says "김포 공항.") Gimpo Airport was Seoul's primary airport for a long time - and it truly was "Gimpo International Airport." Then in 2002, Incheon Airport finally opened for business, and Gimpo was reduced to primarily handling domestic routes. It's still an international airport - I believe there's a passenger route between Gimpo and Tokyo, for instance - but it still seems a bit trite for them to go to the trouble to rename it on all those maps NOW, when it is less international than it ever had been previously.

Some of the bigger Seoul subway stations are enormous multi-level underground structures, teeming with people most of the time during the day. Jongno 3-ga, Dongdaemun Undongjang, and Wangsimni stations can be wonderous to behold, if you're used to dinky little Washington, DC Metrorail stations. They're not pretty, but what they lack in looks they make up for in sheer underground square footage. I swear that from entering Jongno 3-ga station from one of the enterances on the Jongno main street, to actually boarding a Line 5 train, you have to walk at least 3/4 of a kilometer. Most of this is AFTER you go through the turnstiles. The distance from one end of Dongdaemun Undongjang station to the other is longer than the distance from Dongdaemun Undongjang to any of the 5 stations adjacent to it on the subway map.

All of the above stations are places where 3 lines intersect. Jonggak station only services Line 1, but its exits are spaced incredibly far apart. This is because they lead into Jonggak Underground Shopping center, which sprawls under much of Jongno district. It's not particularly pretty (and it sells mostly jewelry and fancy women's clothes) but there is a LOT there.

Occasionally I see a very old woman sitting the floor of Jongno 3-ga station, selling adorable little fluffy bunny rabbits. I honestly have no idea if those bunnies are intended to be pets or dinner.

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