Getting lost in Seoul

I have always been good with directions. I can usually find my way back from where ever I am without too much difficulty. That is all fine and dandy if you are walking outside or through some over-sized department store. Doesn’t do bugger-all if you taking subways and buses.

There is a group of people that I hang out with on Sundays around the Itaewon area. It’s pretty easy to get to, if somewhat long (1.5hrs one way). It’s also a fairly boring trip as I am getting used to seeing things, but there is always something that I can tell a story about on each trip. Now, since most of us who meet up come from different directions, and that getting around in Seoul can take some serious planning, I decided to try a different route(there are 14 different subway lines) to meet with one of the gang and have a travel partner for at least part of the way.

I left a little early to allow for the detour from my normal route. The person I was meeting was at Sinchon Station. When I asked my wife about this she said “Yeah, that’s City Hall station.” Oh, ok, easy enough. So off I went.

On the way there my cell phone buzzes. I got some sort of generic message from my provider or something. It was all in Korean and I can only pick out a few letters at this point. I just closed it and noticed that my battery light was flashing the ‘dangerously low’ flash. Damn. Well, I figured I’d text my friend and tell them where I am and that my battery was dying. As I was trying to type out “At Dongmyo, battery dying” I got as far as “at” then the phone shut down. Damn. Seems I was running a bit late and now cut off from communications. Ah well, hopefully thing will work out.

I get to the station and my friend had told me to meet them at Exit #5. Well exit #5 was blocked due to construction. Exit #4 was right by it so I figured that’ll be where we will meet. I go out and it’s really some sort of minor exit to the street. No one was there and I was actually a little early. I waited for a few minutes and then thought, maybe we’ll meet at the blocked Exit #5 above ground. So I walk over there to check it out.

City Hall has setup an outdoor skating rink. For a whopping 1000 won (about $1) you can rent skates and have fun. Cool idea, might try that next Saturday. I didn’t see my friend. So I hung out. As I was the only one wearing a big red winter coat, and kinda bigger than your average Korean, I figured this was a good spot to hang and be easily recognized.

I watched people skate around and kids running. At one point 3 little girls came up to me and spoke to me in English. The young Koreans love to practice their English skills. The kids were polite and spoke very good indeed. Then they left to do other stuff.

Ok, so now it’s 10mins past when I was supposed to meet my friend and I’m starting to second guess myself. Is this the right stop? Maybe I was supposed to be at Seoul Station and not City Hall? Damn. I head back to the subway and get down the stairs just as the train was leaving. Ugh. Well, they run frequently enough and it is only one stop down. Hopefully my friend will still be waiting.

As I sat down my phone in my pocket buzzed again. I got a text message from my friend. “It’s exit #6 not exit#5 here. Sorry.” Then the phone shut down again and refused to turn on. Bizarre but good that I had the info for the new station I was heading too.

I get to Seoul Station and head out Exit #6. It’s deserted. It’s a big major intersection where you can only get across the street by using the subway exits under ground and now it’s snowing pretty good. I’m only wearing running shoes because it wasn’t snowing when I left. This is starting to suck.

I look around and don’t see anyone. Literally. Dammit. I walk a bit and see a bus terminal area. Well I remember that it’s bus #730 that gets me to my buddy’s place. So I walk over to check out the bus terminal. Guess what…..bus #730 doesn’t stop here. This is just great. Now what??

Well, it’s snowing pretty heavily now. Lots of fun walking in this stuff with running shoes! I make my way over to a covered staircase and yank out my trusty Netbook. I figured if I can get a free WiFi signal, I can double-check the email with directions and maybe even get on Skype to see if someone local was online and give my friend a call. I find a signal but it’s kinda flakey. Seems that Skype can connect but it’s intermittent and I can’t get to my Gmail account (or any other web address). Well this really sucks now.

Lucky, I saw a foreigner and asked him. He told me that I needed to get on the #421 bus, go 3 stops and then switch to the #730. Excellent news! I thanks him, put away my Netbook and got on the next #421.

3 stops later I’m at the next bus stop. Yup, really snowing now. Got about 2 inches of fluff already. I’m hoping that my shoes stay dry-ish.

The #730 shows up and I get on. Ugh, standing room only and the windows are foggy. So my ability to see the surroundings and get my bearings with the hopes of recognizing the area I’m going to is hugely diminished. I ask the bus driver if he goes to Seobinggo station.

Now, I have add in a little note about trying to speak Korean as a foreigner. It seems that if you do not pronounce any word exactly as it is supposed to sound, they don’t get it. It’s like they can’t be bothered to make a mental effort to think “Hey, that sounds like a stop I know! Maybe he means that one?” and then verbally offer me something that sounds more correct. Nope. He just looked at me confused instead. I tried to pronounce it slightly differently which only got me a “An-ni” which means no in Korean. Even that didn’t help me. Did he mean ‘no we don’t stop there’ or ‘no, I don’t know what you mean so I’m going to feign ignorance and just say no’.

What’s that saying about 2 steps forward and 3 steps back?

I try to keep bending down to almost knee level to look out the windows to see if I can recognize anything of the area. Really tough since everything is now covered in a huge dump of snow. But wait….what’s that? After a few minutes I saw this big wall (US Military base) and a passenger bridge that goes over the road. Hey, that looks familiar!!! I ring for a stop and get off the bus.

As the bus pulls away I look around. Dammit! This isn’t the same stop. Oh this day keeps getting better and better!!!

The one thing about being completely out of your environment is that you just have to keep going. Seeing as I’m a rather persistent bugger, my mind went to the next thought.

‘Ok, so I’m at least by the same Military base my friend works at. Oh, and off in the distance I can see the new buildings by his place. Too damn far to walk in running shoes though. I’ll walk along the wall till I get to a guard post and see if I can find someone who knows my buddy.’

So off I go, sliding every now and then, hoping that I just don’t fall down. I get to one of the gates and speak with a Korean guard. His English was passable for a very broken conversation. See, it’s usually not the English that’s the problem. It’s how to express your thoughts in another language. Just knowing the right word to use, is good enough to express a whole sentence. Luckily, the Korean guard and I understood each other but he couldn’t help. Damn, so close and yet so far.

Well, I dared against all hope that I might find a free WiFi signal around. I brought out my Netbook again and thought it was slightly amusing that I’m hoping to either find a free WiFi signal or hop on someone else’s while standing on a Military base.

Oh finally, some luck was shining on me! I got a signal and got into my email account, found my buddy’s phone number and copied it to notepad. Then I realized that I’m holding my Netbook in my arm up fairly high that anyone could see the ‘HACKED’ sticker I put on the bottom of it. Umm….better put that down while technically standing on US soil……err….nothing to see here officer….really….

The guard let me call my friend and he came over and picked me up.

I learned that Sinchon was NOT City Hall. So I was lost even before I begun my trip it seems. See the Korean word for City Hall is Sicheong. Which is what my wife thought I was saying. Yet another reason to get the pronunciation right.

Later that day I was going to try to go back the same way but realized it was more complicated taking buses so decided to just take my usual subway back. I had enough adventure for one day.