Korea is a cool place to live. It is modern, with beautiful mountains and scenic vistas, a kind and hard-working people, and a distinct and tasty cuisine. It is thus that its roadways can generate considerable confusion and dismay, as though viewing two entirely separate nations occupying the same physical space. The roads of Korea, the vehicles which thresh about in and outside of its confines, and the people who operate those vehicles, seem to actually be living in a different country – if not, perhaps, another dimension, possibly one eternally racked with hellfire and sadness and ironic punishments handed down from unholy Eldritch abominations. To live in Korea is to experience adventure, and grow as a person. To interact in any way with its roads is to know the taste of eternal damnation.
For one, the definition of “road” is pretty loose here on the peninsula. Where drivers from other nations see curbs and yellow lines as demarcations, as boundaries, as markers of sense and safety, people* who drive on Korean roads see these as personal insults. These obstacles are physical invective, government and societal oppression, deep and revolting incursions upon their personal freedoms, their dignities, and their masculinity or femininity, as the case may be. These symbols of the man are thus treated not as law, and certainly not as suggestions, but as conventions to flout and defeat, challenges against which to prove one’s unyielding mettle.
*I say “people who drive” rather than Koreans, because, having seen friends and acquaintances drive with the exact same insanity, I am confident it is a function of the roads in Korea themselves, which were clearly not built, but rather summoned through ritual sacrifice.
For a driver in Korea, the road is more of an abstract concept, rather than a flat field of asphalt on which to drive. It is the spirit of the journey, the human desire to explore and go where no one has gone before. Thus, why not, say, drive on the sidewalk? Why not park half inside of a building? Why not idle in the middle of traffic, an intersection, or a kindergarten? The world is your parking lot is your road is your garage. Take your car and do with it what you may. You are kings and queens of your universe, and nothing will stop you.
No one embodies this journeyman spirit better than the delivery man. Food delivery in Korea is done by, as far as one can tell, criminals set loose from prison for exercise leave on motorcycles. They drive, essentially, whatever is the path of least resistance. Roads, certainly. Sidewalks, of course. Up wheelchair ramps, down staircases, through pedestrian thoroughfares. Through your bathroom, if it conveniences them. There’s rice to deliver.
And what about once you get behind the wheel? You should, once again, assert your dominance over it all: the other drivers, your passengers, the road itself, the very world in which we live. Drive like you are personally suffering a heart attack and will only survive the next few minutes. Like your wife is giving birth in the passenger seat to octuplets, all of whom are also having heart attacks. Drive like it’s a 1950s drag race, and you’re a slick-haired, jeans and leather-jacket goon with a corvette and a death-wish and everything to prove. Drive with abandon, and glee, and élan, and without a care in the world. It’s all gonna be all right, just as long as you get there, wherever there is, as fast as if by jetpack.
Generally I only take cabs in Korea when I’m drunk, because these are the only times in which I am capable of suppressing the pulsing, shattering fear that I could, at any moment, die. Being a passenger in any car in Korea is to know the fear of death. In your teens and twenties there is the illusion of immortality: the idea that bad things simply don’t happen to you. You’re young, and you’re special, and you’re just so keen, why would the universe get all up in your grille like that? Nothing will make you put away such childish things as being driven around in a Korean car.
But it gets worse in a cab. The seatbelts are removed, or encased under vomit-safe seat covers. The seats are slippery. The cab drivers are serpentine ghouls, spectral, blood-slick and horrible, seemingly issuing out of the darkness of the human soul. They have never used their brake pedals. They have never met a road sign or stop light that they comprehended, never mind heeded. They know only speed and suffering. Every cab driver is like this, although many manage to lull you with a casual ruse, a pleasant ajosshi smile, a kind word, and a radio blasting with Bryan Adams. But once they have you, you belong to them. Cabs don’t cost much in Korea for a reason: they don’t need money. They feed upon your fear.
There is a saying in Korea that goes like this: “Cab drivers are failed fighter pilots. Bus drivers are failed cab drivers.” Which is to say that bus drivers in Korea drive just as fast as cabs, and will also swing in front of oncoming traffic, confident that the girth and weight of their mighty vehicle will gain them supremacy in the ensuing collision. They wield their behemoths as weapons, as though rebelling against their fathers, showing that they can be faster, and stronger, more reckless. They drive fast. They are sour and never happy. They handle the manual stick-shift and brakes like a 13-year old handles a boob.
The greatest horror of Korean roadways, however, is a matter of volume.
On a recent road trip, my friend drove his mother’s cramped black Kia out of Incheon and into the beyond. Not long after striking out, we encountered the traffic which we would come to sit in for the next six hours, to his unyielding surprise. “Traffic jam!” he would later exclaim to me, with bemusedness in his eyes, a shrug in his shoulders. “Who could have predicted?”
I could have.
To describe the traffic in Korea as a “jam” is to misunderstand it completely. The word “jam” suggests transience, something that comes and goes with circumstance or time of day. My friend, on this trip, would suggest roughly every 45 minutes that an accident must have happened and that, once cleared, we would surely be back to driving quickly.
Maybe there are accidents. Maybe the very ground ruptures open and sucks whole swaths of Daewoos and Samsungs down into the depths of the Earth, or film crews swarm into the road to record documentaries. The cause is no matter. Traffic is a constant. It is no traffic jam. It is traffic reality.
Traffic in Korea is a flock of migratory birds, an ocean, the great cornfields of Saskatchewan swayed under the boom of a heavy gale. Traffic may move, it may occupy a different physical space for a brief time, but it never ceases in Korea. It doesn’t matter the time of day, or the location, or the kind of vehicles around. Traffic is always there. It is waiting for you. It wants to be sated.
My friend told me our trip was about 120km, and knowing much of the route was high-way, suggested we would get there in a clean 2-hours. I deflated. The roads of Korea, sentient inasmuch as they hunger for human torment, know no greater pleasure than comeuppance for hubris.
Come to Korea. Explore its landscape, taste its succulence, drink and be merry with its people. Ride its cheap and efficient subway, rent a bike, or take a walk. But know its roads and know despair.