Subway stations are generally very well organized. You'll notice that there are usually somewhere between 4-12 exits at any given station, all are numbered and there are maps abound with information about the neighborhood so you can find what exit number you need. If you're unfamiliar with the area, it still may be difficult to figure out by map, and so finding directions online or from a friend will usually get you the correct exit number.
Most Korean businesses give directions from subway stations since few people know street names and they are generally not used. Don't expect a "Turn right on Kim St. and walk 3 blocks to the corner of Lee St." it doesn't work like that here. Expect something closer to "Walk straight for 100 meters from exit 3 and turn left at the Paris Baguette." For this reason, exit numbers are very important and can make you're life much easier if you know them.
Once you enter the station, you'll need to get a ticket or use your T-Money pass to get through the turnstile and onto the platform. Nowadays, it's quite easy to do this. Go to one of the ticketing machines which are usually located near the turnstile. You can select English or another language of your choice if you need to. If you have a T-Money card, you can place it in the glowing blue shelf and the machine will automatically read your balance and you can select to add more money. If you don't have a T-Money card and would like to purchase an individual ticket, you can select that option, specify the station you would like to go to, and then it will charge you appropriately for that distance that you will travel. Once you have your card, just place it on the appropriate place on the turnstile and it will beep for you to go through. Make sure you keep it, because you will need it to get out too!Depending on the distance you travel, it may cost anywhere from 900 won (with your T-Money card) and up. Most locations within Seoul will probably not charge you more than an additional 200-300 won to the base fare for your distance traveled. Traveling out of the city will be a bit more. With the exchange rate as of 3/27/10 when this blog was written, 900 won was about 0.79 cents in USD. Very affordable for a modern, developed city.
Signage within the stations is usually very clearly written in Korean, English and Chinese. Foreigners find getting around Seoul by subway quite easy despite the number of lines there are.
A photo from Sindang Station before the security gates were installed. You can see the numbers on the platform where those triangles are.
By this date, most subway stations have installed security gates to separate the platform from the open track. The city had seen a large number of suicides from people jumping in front of trains, and since the widespread installation of these gates, there seems to be a lower incidence of subway suicides (the topic of suicides in Korea is another whole blog worthy topic unto itself) .
A view from Dongdaemun Stadium Station (now called Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station) with security gates. This is the platform where you wait for your train.
People generally stand in line or congregate around numbers labeled on the platform. If you go to certain places frequently, or make transfers at the same station frequently, these numbers can be very helpful. By remembering at what number you need to stand, you can always be right in front of the stairwell at your destination. It's a big time saver for someone like me who needs to catch their trains at the exact time every day.
A typical view from inside the train.
Once on the train, it can be tempting to sit in the seats at the end of each car. The three seats next to the car doors on either end of the train are reserved for the elderly, handicapped, children and pregnant women. If you don't fall into one of these categories, it's quite possible that an ajumma (older Korean woman) will tell you exactly where you should be sitting, and she might not be polite about it. My first experience with this was on a train with no picture labels to tell that it was not a seat for me. An ajumma angrily pointed to a sign I couldn't read and pointed to my seat and to the other seats on the train. Eventually we got the point and moved. As an additional note, as is common courtesy around the world, if you see an older person or someone who needs a seat more than you, people generally will stand up to let that person sit, as should you.
There are many sights to see on the train, for good or for bad. Every day I see subway vendors selling wares from knife sharpeners, to magnifying glasses, to socks. It's always interesting to see what they have for sale. They usually will give a 2 minute presentation or explaination of their wares, demonstrating how well they work, before walking around to find buyers. Some seem to do excellent buisness and others I never figure out how they can scrape by a living doing the job. Incidentally, it is illegal for these men and women to operate on the subway and there are fines for those who are caught. There are often patrols on the subways looking for these people and, though I haven't seen anyone get caught personally, I have heard from friends who have seen venders get caught. People who buy from them are forced to return the products and the vendor will be taken off the train.
Another common sight on the trains are people with problems begging for money. The problems might be medical or maybe they just have a sob story for you and ask for your money. They are very unobtrusive and Korean passengers tend to ignore them completely. They will generally pass out a letter written in Korean and place it in people's hands to read and hopefully give money. What's more interesting here, is what the passengers usually do with the letter. Most will not touch it. They will ignore it's presence, though it's sitting right on their lap. I've seen very few actually pick it up to read it. I've seen even fewer give money. I'd hate to be homeless or poor in Seoul because Koreans usually tend to ignore anyone they don't know, especially the downtrodden of society.
Another fairly common sight on the subway are blind beggars. Though not as common as vendors or letter writters, they are very distinctive, because they will move through the crowded trains playing music on a radio to grab people's attention. I feel especially bad for these people as they move through crowded trains when it's hard for passengers to move out of the way.
There's lots of other things to look out for on the subway. About once or twice a week I am approached by a Korean wanting to know my life history. It never used to bother me much but I've answered these same questions "Where are you from? Why are you here? How long have you been here?" so often that it gets really old nowadays. I feel a little bad when I brush off people from asking these questions, but sometimes I just want to ride the subway in peace. Unlike in many countries in the world, if people start talking to you, they are probably not looking for money, probably just free English practice on their way to work.
Another strange thing is that passengers often sleep on the subway. Which is fine of course, riding the subway is very safe. But, when the train lurches and they wind up resting on your shoulder, it's a very uncomfortable position to be in. So, I suggest not sitting next to sleeping people for this reason.
Lastly I'd like to mention exiting the train. It's not uncommon to see people push their way to the front. It is a fairly acceptable practice, though sometimes it is taken to the extreme. In a city like this it seems to be survival of the fittest, or at least the strongest and pushiest go first. Don't be surprised if you're cut in line, not only on the subway getting on or off, but at other places around the city too.
Anyway, the Seoul Metro is an extremely efficient, clean and modern metro. Anyone in Seoul would be wise to consider taking the subway when trying to reach most destinations as it is, by far, the fastest means of transportation. Though sometimes it's unavoidable to take buses or taxis, they are subject to heavy traffic in many areas. Happy Riding!
If you would like more subway information, you can visit the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit here: http://www.smrt.co.kr/Eng/index.jsp