I once met a man on the way to Incheon International Airport. I was sitting alone with my enormous travel bag, reading, and he drifted into the seat next to me. At length, he wrote the word “wretch” on a napkin in a lovely, florid cursive style, and asked me to pronounce it. It became clear that this was simply his ice-breaker, as he informed me that, as a retiree, he had nothing to do but ride the rails all day and talk to strangers. Internally, I reacted with some degree of horror. Why would someone spend his golden years of rest experiencing something so horrible and repulsive, so dehumanizing and alienating and weird?
Not talking to strangers, mind you. Riding the subway.
Of course, I then came to realize my reaction was purely emotional, emerging from years of riding a system that you could never feasibly “enjoy.” Endure would be a better word. Perhaps suffer. Wallow. Survive. Escape. The idea of spending time on the TTC recreationally seems so alien and unthinkable as to not even be human thought, rather a sort of Buddhist koan, or an abstract neural imprint from a starfish alien millions of galaxies away.
Being inside of the TTC is basically like climbing inside of an Iron Maiden within the depths of Satan’s butthole. It is rickety and uncomfortable and slow-moving and the staff hate you and so do the other customers and every inch is covered in the decaying remains of so many free newspapers. People are vomiting and masturbating basically constantly. It costs $35 for every single trip. Breakdowns and short turns are hourly. If there was a virgin sacrifice at the back of a subway car, and the entire floor became soaked in the blood of the innocent, and demons issued forth and viciously rent every rider limb from limb in torrents of gore and human suffering, the only reaction anyone would ever utter would be a mewling, plaintive, “Typical.” Given the choice, I would never spend my time there.
But the idea of spending time on the Seoul metro in your spare time is comparatively much more palatable.
Its convenience and spread is pretty remarkable. The central hive of subway stations is a sprawling spiderweb of ease and commute supremacy, an underground labyrinth of tunnels that can get you essentially anywhere in the city. On the far west it creeps out into Incheon and further onto the islands, and similarly seeps out like beautiful, wondrous transit sludge into the major suburbs and cities in every other direction. It is Seoul by name, and the North-Western Korea Metro by practical utility.
It has smart transit cards, ones which you tap upon entering and exiting the network. The fees are ludicrously small, to the point that that the recent price bump from 900₩ (approximately $0.82 CAD) up ten to fifteen cents more was held as something of a local tragedy, a great and oppressive grinding down of our freedoms. Daily I kvetch with foreign and Korean friends alike about rising transit costs and how it just sucks, but the actual price is so wondrously low I should probably charge myself twice every time I use it.
The trains themselves are typically wide and spacious, and in those few times you get on at the beginning of a line or fortune smiles upon you and you can get a seat, everything is comfortable. The air conditioning blasts in the summer, and the butt-warmers keep you toasty through the freezing winter months. For a country with not terribly wide buttocks to provide for, the seats are designed to fit a fairly generous glutinal girth.
Older people do not need to fight for a seat, although they sometimes do, as is their right. There is a special zone at the end of the trains I like to think of as Old Coot Alley, where the aged, infirm, or super pregnant can claim reserved seats. Sitting in them is deeply frowned upon, and anyway you do not want to invade this territory, because this is where the only major downside of the Seoul subway (Drunk Old Mad At Everything Grandpa) typically resides.
The stops are announced in four languages, there are maps everywhere and floor plans for all the stations, interactive screens for local neighbourhoods, and bright, full-colour displays showing current location and reviews of local up-and-coming restaurants. One of the stations in Seoul now has an electronic supermarket while you wait. At every moment you expect an English butler to saunter by with complimentary tumblers of brandy.
The Seoul Metro is, of course, not without its problems. Every station doubles as a bomb shelter and also has to compete with the foundations of enormous skyrises, and is thus dug into the very depths of the Earth, seemingly running entirely on thermal energy from the adjacent core of the planet. The system itself closes at absolutely Victorian times, mostly put in place by the stern union of taxi drivers in order to stay in business. Often transfer stations are mostly that only by name, and are really connected only by kilometres of subterranean tunnel, where one must pack an overnight bag, hiking boots, and hunting gear in order to find sustenance during the long journey.
The subways can be ludicrously crowded. Not Tokyo, white-gloved Professional Shover packed, but dense enough to essentially be a sweaty moshpit. Once when going to a fireworks festival, I exited the train at Yeouido station, and entered the massive mob of people slowly rolling upwards towards the exits. From subway platform to street festival, it took 35 minutes of being entirely swaddled in the flesh of so much humanity shuffling slowly before I was free. Given this crowding and the heat and the aforementioned Mad At Everything Grandpa, the subways also tend to be the local hotspots for crap hitting the fan.
But these minor inconveniences are nothing compared to its many glorious, comforting pluses. I could sleep and live comfortably in the Seoul Metro and be perfectly happy, and also likely well-groomed and fed. But more than anything, I can commute on it without wanting regularly to crash and die.
And that’s all I could ever hope for. I love you, subway.