Have you ever sat on a long subway ride, circulating Seoul’s underbelly on your usual route to work or you favorite mandu spot and pondered, “What is happening up there?” You are hundreds of feet below the hustle and bustle of Korea’s capital, and although you’ve got perfect cell phone reception there’s still a strange sense of disconnect. Seoul’s subway system is massive and complex, and most people—ex-pats and life-long Seoulites alike—haven’t explored most of its stops. This conundrum occurred to Charlie and Liz, the creators of Seoul Sub→urban, a creative and successful blog that details the sights, history, and happenings at randomly chosen subway stops on the Seoul metro. We highly recommend—no, insist—that you visit their blog to deepen your knowledge of Seoul, both literally and figuratively. Read on for their takes on what you don’t know about Seoul, their blog-posting process, and some of their personal favorite subway stop vicinities!
What brings you both to Korea, and how long have you been here?
Charlie: I came to Korea twice, and the first time was really just a shrug of the shoulders. I’d just graduated and decided that I wanted to live abroad for a while, and was looking around for ways to do that. Initially I was angling for Europe or Japan, but then I found out that my university, the University of Wisconsin, had a teacher exchange program with Gyeonggi-do. I knew nothing about Korea, but it was easy to sign up for and I’d never been to Asia before, so I said ‘Why not?’ That was 2005 and I planned on staying for two years, which I did. Then I left, spent ten months backpacking Asia, and about a year living in New Zealand and Australia, at which point I was broke, as you might imagine. The economy in the U.S. was (even more) terrible then, and I felt the odds of finding a job back home that I enjoyed and found satisfying were slim. Additionally, my friends in the States were scattered all over the place – New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Madison – and I realized that I had more friends in Seoul than I did in any one place in America. I was also at a point where I was burned out from finding a new place to live, a new source of income, a new social circle every few weeks, and just wanted to be somewhere familiar. The more I thought about it, the more Seoul made sense. Plus I really, really missed the food.
Liz: I first came to Korea in 2006. I had been teaching English in Prague the year before, and realized I wasn’t ready to go home to a “real” job or “settle down” so I looked into teaching jobs in Asia. I decided on Korea because it was the country I knew the least about – so I thought it would be more of an adventure. I worked in hogwan for two years and realized I wanted to more actively pursue a career in photography, so I left in 2008 to study photography at The School of Art Institute of Chicago. I ended up moving back to Korea about 9 months later before my lease was even up in Chicago. I’ve been here since then. (So, 5 years total).
Take us through a typical subway-area exploration.
Charlie: Liz and I visit separately – we’ve found it’s simpler, both for our work styles and schedules, to do it that way – me going first and then handing the write-up over to Liz. When I get to a station the first thing I do is check the station’s area map that’s near every exit, and I’ll sketch out a little hand-drawn map in my notebook with major streets and anything of note that’s marked on the map. I always bring one or two city maps too, but it’s convenient to have something basic in my notebook that I can refer to quickly. Then I’ll just pick an exit and walk around. Stations are usually at major intersections so I generally break things up into four quadrants and do one at a time, starting on the main road and then winding through backstreets a bit. Major attractions – museums, historical sites, campuses – I tend to save for last.
Stops can take anywhere from a couple hours at someplace where there’s just not much going on, to the better part of a day if there’s a lot to see and do and if there’s some place in the area that I’ve been meaning to visit but just never gotten around to. I try to get everything covered in one go, and usually do. Occasionally I’ll have to go back and revisit a place a second time for some reason – something was closed, I want to see something at a different time of day, I just ran out of time – but not too often.
Liz: We started going together, but we work so differently, with different goals in mind (photography vs. writing). It’s been much easier to go separately and I think it’s reflected really well in the published posts and columns. I like tapping into the “what if I got off here” aspect of the project, while Charlie likes to be (and often needs to be) more prepared with research. Charlie sends me his finished writing and I’ll read over it and cut out any important landmarks, buildings, or specific sights I know I’ll need to photograph. Then I go to the stop and walk around. I take pictures specific to his writing as well as a little non-map or information based exploring of my own. I’ve gone to stops once for 30-40 minutes and I’ve gone to stops several times for several hours. It depends on what is there, my own time constraints, light and weather constraints, etc.
Your posts are very historically and culturally informative—where do you do most of your research?
Charlie: Before every stop I’ll do a Google search of the station, and if there are any particularly interesting attractions I’ll search those too. I also keep a small library of dog-eared local English language magazines and a file with web links to things I come across at random on the web. When I’m out, I’ll pick up whatever literature museums or temples or whatever make available. Quite often my girlfriend comes along with me, and she’s a huge help with translating things and occasionally even pitching in with research.
Liz: This is all Charlie! I prefer not to research because I don’t want to see what images are already circulating out there so maybe (hopefully) I can have more creative control over the visual aspect of our content. Also, this is probably because I prefer the spontaneity of the project’s mission!
In the “About Us” section of the blog, it says that Charlie has visited over 30 countries! Rank the top 4 metro systems in the world that you’ve seen.
Charlie: To be honest, a lot of those countries are ones without subway systems, and in the countries that do have them I haven’t necessarily ridden the metro. For instance, I’ve never been on the metro in London or Tokyo, two places that quickly come to mind when you think about major subway systems. Of those I have been on, Seoul’s is definitely number one. The others, in no particular order of interestingness and not necessarily quality:
Prague – Some very cool, very mod stations. The station walls look like they’re made out of colorful metallic Tetris bricks.
Singapore – Typically Singaporean, which is to say orderly, spotless, easy to figure out, and heavily air-conditioned.
Chicago – It’s not the nicest or the easiest to navigate – different lines have stations with the same name – but there’s just something iconic about the El and getting to see one of America’s great cities from above. The overhead tracks give the downtown a nice gritty, mysterious touch too.
Pyongyang – I went on a three-day tour to North Korea and we were permitted to ride the Pyongyang metro one stop on a train emptied of all other passengers. The train (that we were on; I can’t speak of any of the others) was like something out of the ‘40s – lots of polished wood paneling – and the stations (again, at least the ones we went to) had huge ceilings with enormous chandeliers and gigantic murals of your garden variety North Korean socialist propaganda.
How has blogging about Korea changed the way you experience it?
Charlie: The two biggest things for me have been that it’s made me pay closer attention to the city and it’s made me feel much more a part of it. I’m a lot more attuned to the similarities and differences between different parts of the city, and I think I’ve got a (slightly) better sense of the city’s fabric as a whole, as opposed to just being familiar with certain pockets. As an outsider whose knowledge of the culture and language is still pretty modest, the city is still largely a mystery to me (and I’m sure there’s a lot of things I get wrong about it as a result), but this project has forced me to engage with it, and the cover gets lifted just a little bit every week. Seoul’s not a city like New York or Rome that can sweep you off your feet in the first five minutes. To get the best out of it you have to put a lot into it. It’s a bit inscrutable that way, but for me that inscrutability is part of its attraction. We’re coming up on 100 stops, a number that I doubt most Seoulites have even been to, but it never gets boring.
Liz: I definitely know more about Seoul than I did prior to this blogging project. After living here for 2 years I thought I was an expert. How foolish I was! Now after exploring almost 100 stations, I’ve realized how little I knew then, and how much more I still have yet to explore of this huge city!
What are your favorite stations you’ve covered?
Charlie: Sindang is up there. The market in that area is one of Seoul’s three biggest but is totally off the waygookin track. It’s astonishingly old school, earthy, insular. I almost never feel strange in Seoul but I felt strange there. It was great. Changsin too. I had the best naengmyeon of my life there and came across a huge neighborhood of condemned and abandoned homes that I was able to explore, spread across an entire valley. The areas around the edges of Hongdae, Hapjeong and Sangsu Stations, are super cool, filled with all the idiosyncratic stuff that’s slowly getting nudged out of Hongdae’s center. Hansung University Station is great also. Seongbuk-dong, north of there, is a beautiful neighborhood; a lot of history there that’s overlooked. There are a bunch more that are great, but those are the ones that spring to mind now.
Liz: We did Jonggak during the weekend celebrations of Buddha’s Birthday. Buddha’s Birthday is my most favorite time of year in Seoul. I equate it to celebrating Christmas at home. There’s just something special in the air. We had a few friends with us that day as well, so it felt extra special. I too, love Sindang. My first weekend in Korea (ever) I went to the market outside of Sindang station. I was so clueless where I was or how I had gotten there (overwhelmed with it being my first Korean market) I wasn’t able to remember how to get back after all of these years. It wasn’t until I found myself taking a nearly identical picture as I did five years ago- it all came washing back over me. So little had changed, it was really, a very cool personal moment I had.
Something about Korea you don’t think most people know!
Charlie: It has four seasons. No, just kidding. Since our blog’s concerned with Seoul I’ll answer in the context of the city. It has slums. That might sound like a weird answer, but for a really long time I just didn’t realize that there was poverty here. I thought it was the few dozen homeless people around Seoul Station and Euljiro-1-ga and that was it. It’s kept pretty well hidden here; unlike in the States where you’ve got more homeless and projects and parts of cities where you just don’t go. Comparatively, Seoul seemed like a pretty uniformly prosperous place, but I’ve come to realize that isn’t so. To be sure, the bad parts of town generally aren’t as bad as they are in some U.S. cities, certainly nowhere near as dangerous, but there are some pretty rough areas, some of the roughest in well-off parts of town like Songpa-gu too, and coming across them was eye-opening. It’s actually made me grow fonder of the city, realizing that it has these kinds of problems. It makes it feel a bit more real and it dispels the notion that the city’s just filled with stressed out, Hyundai-driving, plastic surgery-obsessing chaebol employees. It’s way more varied than that and way more like whatever city you’re from.
Liz: I second Charlie’s answer about slums. It’s very well hidden, but once you stumble upon one it’s pretty incredible. Sometimes they are directly in the shadows of hulking high-storied Lotte apartment buildings as well. It’s jarring, especially when I’m surrounded by opulence working in the Gangnam public school district. Sometimes I feel that living in Seoul is like living in a myriad of time periods. Yesterday, when walking home from work, I walked past a man brushing his teeth on the sidewalk, a couple having beer and chicken at a trendy hoff with an outside patio, a man pulling a cart loaded with cardboard, yet every other person was on a smart phone, and/or dressed head to toe in designer labels. When I’m in Chicago, it feels like it’s 2012. When I was in Myanmar it felt like it was 1990 or something even further behind. But in Seoul, it can often feel like it’s several different decades at the same time. The juxtaposition of this city, both architecturally, culturally, and whatever else-“ally” is my absolute favorite part of being here on a daily basis.
Interview by Julia Bass.