For a smooth ride, check out this guidebook

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For a smooth ride, check out this guidebook

Most foreigners in Korea learn the tricks of riding a taxi, bus and subway the old-fashioned way: by trial and error. Often it can be a costly ― and time-consuming ― ordeal.
In time, we discover that our taxi driver will stop to scoop up other passengers, and black cabs cost gobs more than silver ones. We notice standing subway riders offer their bags to strangers with the luxury of a seat. We observe that commuters in the know shave a few won off each trip with a magnetic card, leaving us paying full fare.
“Riding in Seoul: Public Transportation Made Easy” speeds up the learning process for expats relying on public transit. This compact softcover squeezes in basic tips, useful Korean phrases, details for transit wonks and notes on culture, like the Confucian tradition of offering seats to elders.
Co-authors and cross-cultural trainers Isabelle Min and Unwha Choi begin the taxi chapter, like others, with pre-trip advice. To use a taxi, they advise learning the name of a landmark at your destination and its neighborhood, or dong. Another idea they propose is writing up several taxi cards, with names and directions for oft-visited addresses written out in Korean.
The book presents a childlike primer to using each respective transit mode, complete with illustrations. For taxis, it begins with “step down from the pavement, at your own risk,” and “commanding the driver to stop” by waving hands and making eye contact. Some key phrases, advice on avoiding the peak hours of 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and buckling up in the front seat, or risking a 30,000-won ($25) fine, are welcomed prose.
The chapter on city buses appears thorough, perhaps due to the authors’ preference for this means of “observing ordinary Korean people au naturel” or that with 8,500 buses plying 400 routes, Seoul’s bus network can be most confusing to foreigners.
The book spares no detail in describing every bus type and fare, again with illustrations, from the workhorse Ilban buses to deluxe express ones that fly out to the suburbs until 2:30 a.m. The instructions on obtaining a prepaid card are useful, but some tips, such as to stay alert during rush hour, as buses “tend not to stop exactly” at their bus stops, are a bit understated.
Some lessons proffered are better off studied and avoided, such as the warning of pickpocket rings at busy stations that divert attention with a poke or a word, then snatch your wallet. But the writers’ advice can also be too obvious. Page 54 reminds you that on buses, “if there is only one [door] then use the same door to get on and off.” Last we checked, they were only using windows in India. The brief subway chapter contains some nifty tips, such as to request exit numbers when visiting unknown locales, but the earnest advice to “call subway official” in case your ticket makes a beeping noise seems a bit optimistic, as such staff seem stuck in glass booths when needed. You also get to chew on juicy nuggets like the maximum capacity of a subway car and busiest station during rush hour.
Other chapters address the long-distance railroad and buses, as well as getting to and from airports. Appendices include a phrase list, useful Web sites and some maps.
Armed with this book, you can skip the trial-and-error phase of travel, and even shave a few won off your rides. It is available for 8,000 won at Seoul Selection bookstore opposite Gyeongbok Palace and at the Kyobo Book Centre in central Seoul.

by Joel Levin
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