My friend Dan Leonard and I met recently at an eel restaurant in Soyosan, South Korea, a small town just south of the DMZ, home to little more than mountains and soldiers. We were about to embark on an audacious quest: there’s an urban legend that you can go from one end of South Korea to the other on local transit, and we wanted to find out how. This would mean no intercity buses, trains, or ferries—just the regular mass transit that requires nothing more than a transit card or some loose change. The type of transit legions of weary commuters rely on each day in cities all over the world.
Dan is a comical, heavy-set Buffalonian of 41 years who chooses his Hawaiian shirts strictly for the purpose of upsetting me. He has lived in Korea since 2001 and speaks fluent Korean, which is necessary for our trip since I speak limited Korean, and very badly, despite having lived in the country for 14 years.
When we told the eel restaurant manager about our plan, he looked at us like we were idiots—a look that would become all too regular throughout our journey. He then suggested a faster way: take the subway to Seoul, get off at Seoul Station, and get the KTX bullet train to Busan. We would be there in three hours.
But what’s the point of that? Anyone can zip through the mountains, safely in the womb of a bullet train, only to be birthed at the other end. We wanted an adventure. We tried to explain this, but the manager shook his head. The idea that one would waste three days of his or her life for the sake of a story to tell friends over beers back home made very little sense to this man, a thought shared by many of the Koreans we encountered. But it made great sense to us. We were going to see Korea from the ground.
The author’s first bus arrives: the 36 from Soyosan to Suyu Station in Seoul. Photo by: Dave Hazzan
The first leg began the morning after the eel, with Bus 36 from Soyosan to Suyu Station on the north side of Seoul. Line 1 of the Seoul Metro could have actually taken us all the way from Soyosan right down to Asan, well south of Seoul, but that kind of felt like cheating. So we decided to eliminate subways—too easy—and focus on buses.
The obvious problem with buses over subways is traffic. Luckily, Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province have bus lanes all around the city, and we cruised past jammed morning traffic—an auspicious beginning.
Unluckily, despite a widespread ad campaign on every bus and subway in the country, public transit etiquette is still below that of much of the modern world. It’s common to see people sit on outside seats without moving in to allow other people to sit. Young people almost never get up for older people. This is particularly irksome to foreigners in Korea, since we are told repeatedly that in Korean culture, “you stand for your elders, unlike in America.”
At the end of our first leg, we were in full-on Seoul, complete with McDonald’s and cellphone shops numbering three to a block. Dan and I boarded Bus 142 to Sunyuhyang Hospital, then the 5005 Express across the Han River, and raced back out of Seoul to Yongin Bus Terminal. We traversed the fourth biggest city in the world in about two hours.
Yongin was a quiet place. We watched a crane wash itself in the small river running through. We found a little Chinese delivery spot that had a couple tables out for customers. We charged our phones and planned the rest of the journey over black-bean noodles for me and shrimp-fried rice for gluten-intolerant Dan.
The area around Yongin Bus Terminal, in the old city, is where the poor people end up. All over the country, it’s at the bus and train terminals you find the most of those left behind by South Korea’s Miracle on the Han, gathering together to drink soju (the most popular booze in Korea) and eat instant noodles.