Five hours on a Mugunghwa – and four dirty secrets to train traveling




This is what I get for not planning ahead. Buddha’s Birthday is one of the few three-day weekends Korea gets to celebrate, and it seems everyone wants to celebrate it by traveling out of town. I can’t blame them – certainly I wasn’t the first with the idea – but Korea’s usually excellent train and bus system was sold out. The whole system, it seems. Every bus to Tongyeong. Most trains to Busan. Locals often book their tickets way ahead of time, ensuring their seat on a sold-out train; foreigners living in Korea typically need to show up to purchase a ticket. Thankfully tickets can be bought for future dates; even 24 hours in advance can make a world of difference. Speaking a little Korean to get the day and time right (or working with a calendar) is important.

I could go on with the wonders of planning ahead during holiday weekends or prime vacation times, but instead let’s talk about the here and now. I’m sitting on the floor of a Mugunghwa (a third-class train), drinking a Coke and looking up at five ajosshis (literally, married man) rather envious of my spot. That’s why I’m sitting down furiously typing on my laptop. It’s a weird little bit of schadenfreude when even the locals wearing suits swilling Hite are part of the ‘standing-room, sitting-on-the-floor’ crowd. At least not everyone plans ahead. If you’re one of the last ones on, the space between the cars isn’t exactly desirable, but it works if there’s nothing else available. Pop in your earplugs, as it’s a bit louder.

While walking around a crowded train isn’t recommended, it’s definitely a good idea to stretch your legs every so often. Ask your traveling partner to hold your spot, or put your bag where your rear was. Buy a drink or snack. Give that toy you picked up along the trip to the crying kid – the entire car will thank you. Make friends – you may not be able to communicate much, but the intentions are clearer.

DIRTY SECRET #1 – Tickets from the ticketing machines will sell you standing room only tickets – but sometimes you won’t find that out until the ticket is printed. If the ticket seems unusually cheap, see if the screen says 입석, (standing room or unreserved seat) anywhere.

DIRTY SECRET #2: You won’t be sold a handicapped seat from an automated ticket machine. With that said, some train cars have two seats and/or room for two wheelchairs – excellent places to grab some real estate if you have a standing-room-only ticket. It goes without saying that a truly handicapped person should never be hindered from their rightful seat. Stay classy, people.

DIRTY SECRET #3: If traveling on a standing room ticket, any seat that’s available is yours – until / unless the ticket holder shows up. The locals know this, and as such will aggressively push to claim empty seats as they do on the subway. Even if they have the same standing-room ticket as yours, a few people will ‘claim’ to have the seat – ask to see their ticket, then apologize if you’re in their space. Otherwise, stand your ground.

DIRTY SECRET #4: Making a trip to Seoul but the trains are sold out? Look beyond the main train stations (Seoul Station or Yongsan) and try Haengsin (northern Seoul, connected to line 6), Yeongdeungpo (western Seoul, connected to line 1) Cheongnyangni (eastern Seoul, connected to line 1), Suwon (south of Seoul, connected to line 1), or even Cheonan (even further south of Seoul, connected to line 1). It may be a bit further away from your destination, but it’ll get you back to the Seoul area even the rest of the trains are full.

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