Thursday, July 21, 2011

Korea n00bs - Seoul is the only city that matters!

I wrote something else this week, but I’m not going to post it, at least not yet. It felt too personal. Moreover, it didn’t feel like what this blog is anymore. Bummer, since it was surprisingly well-written. Anyway, I wrote this advice for Korean n00bs piece a couple weeks ago, when I planned on creating a whole new space dedicated to that topic. Since I know less about internet architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright’s corpse, I’m just going to post it here. K people - this is relevant to you. Back home people - check out the perty pictures!

So you’re on your way to Korea. Good for you. With lightning internet, better living facilities, Koreans getting used to foreigners more, relative peace, the advent of local (sorta) low cost airlines, massively increased food and booze options, world-class transportation infrastructure, and Taco Bell, today is literally the best day to live in Korea over the course of its long history. Of course, with greater employment competition, stagnating wages, higher food prices, and more restrictive and complicated immigration policy, it ain’t as easy as it used to be. That’s life though, eh? I first came here in the fall of 2006. Despite the drawbacks and occasional pangs for the “old days” that any old timer like me will have, you are coming here at the right time. Korea is a better place today than it was then.

Cagey Methuselah that I am, I have one big piece of advice: live in Seoul. Sure, food and entertainment options have improved around the nation, but in Korea, Seoul is very much the center of the universe. Do you have romantic notions of living the most Korean life possible? Wanna live like a “real” Korean? Well, real Koreans live in Seoul Around 50% of South Korea’s population lives in Seoul or its metro area. Want to just live your life and exist in “the bubble?” Seoul is the Leviathan in the room. Right now, I’m sure the notion sickens you, but trust me, after a few months, you’ll crave the bubble, or at least access to it.

Seoul has a lot going for it. It has the best subway system in the world, for starters. It also has Korea’s best museums, best restaurants, best bars, best clubs, and easily the best acting/writing/comedy/music/dance/whatever you’re in to scene. Also, Seoul has far more nature and green space than you would expect. Mountain hiking is a short subway ride away from anywhere in town. Namsan, Seoul Forrest, and Olympic Park are massive urban oases. The Han River has parks along its entire length, and lots of smaller streams have walking/biking paths and often feel far away from the city that surrounds them. I live in a dirty alley in an extremely urbanized area of central Seoul, but I can get to mountains and forests via a 10-20 minute bus ride.

Don’t believe me? Still have your heart set on that country town or mid-sized college town? Trust me, I’ve been to more Korean cities than most Koreans. There is no “New England Village” or hip “Madison” in Korea. Let me break all Korean cities in categories.

I’d actually do it:

Busan - Okay, Busan rules too. I’ve been to Busan eight times, and the city gets better each time. Haeundae is unquestionably the most happening beach in Korea, and there are quieter beaches too. Samyeon, PNU, and Gwangalli are all fun places to play. Also, it’s the only place outside of Seoul with a somewhat legitimate airport. I would be okay with living there. Its main problems are the fact that it’s quite spread out, so you might end up living somewhere an hour from the coast, and that jobs tend to be lower paying. Plus, one of the best things about not living in Busan is that it’s such a great place to visit. If you plan on spending one year (and you have a hard out and won’t be tempted to extend) than Busan would be a great place to live.

I’d consider it, but only in the right neighborhood:

Gyeonggi-do - This is the province that surrounds Seoul. A lot of it is connected to the Seoul subway, or to Seoul via express buses. Ilsan (Goyang) and Bundang (Seongnam) are the Cadillacs of Gyeonggi life. Both are rich, somewhat happening, and have good connections to cool parts of Seoul (Hongdae for Ilsan, Gangnam for Bundang). Suwon is the largest city in Gyeonggi with over one million people, so it has its own life and own history, and is easily accessible via the subway and express buses to Gangnam. Yongin/Suji are also pretty new and have good facilities and shopping/dining options, and are near Seoul. Anyang and Ansan are within easy reach of south and southwest Seoul, and Anyang has a fairly international population for suburban Korea. Uijeongbu is close to Nowon, which isn’t the coolest part of Seoul, but has a few cool bars and restaurants. Bucheon is between Seoul and Incheon, and a short ride to western Seoul. Gwacheon is on the Seoul Subway 4 line, so it’s easy to get to Gangnam or Downtown. Guri is due east of Seoul, and if one is close to Guri Station, it’s easy to get to central Seoul.

Incheon - Incheon is a major city in it’s own right, with nearly three million people, and it’s also part of the Seoul metro area. Subway Line 1 connects Incheon with Seoul. Incheon s the home of Incheon International Airport (duh), although it’s easier to reach the airport from many places in Seoul than in is from many places in Incheon. Incheon also has a lot of coastal islands with beaches, such as Muuido, and has it’s own little boardwalk amusement park called Wolmido near its downtown. Incheon could be livable, but the main problem is how big it is. Do not move to Incheon unless you know exactly where you will be living. Parts of it are basically Seoul, other parts are BFE.

Chuncheon - Because of the new Chuncheon subway line, it’s now a viable place to live. Chuncheon has a lot of awesome natural features, and it’s also the home of Dalkgalbi, a spicy chicken dish that happens to be my favorite Korean food. The subway line really sells it though, as Seoul is now 60-72 minutes away, and with continuing subway improvements, downtown Seoul will soon be 45 minutes from Chuncheon.

Only if I had an unbelievable offer:

Daegu: Daegu is a big city in its own right. It has good Indonesian food. Most everything to do in Daegu is centered around its downtown. so it’s easy to navigate - so long as you live near downtown. Daegu is also pretty close to Busan and an hour and a half from Seoul via train (but the train costs $45 one way.) For those who want “city but not Seoul,” you’re living a fantasy. Daegu has the same noise, pollution, horrible traffic, and shitty architecture as Seoul, all without the distinct neighborhoods, cultural diversity (by Korean standards, nobody would confuse Seoul for San Francisco) and easy transit options. Daegu has a similar population to Chicago (city proper, not metro) but only has 2 subway lines. It also has horrible weather, with the hottest summers and coldest winters in Korea.

Daejeon: Daejeon is like Daegu lite. It’s closer to Seoul, a 53 minute train, but farther from Busan. Daejeon is more centrally located, so it’s easier to get to a lot of places in Korea on the weekend than from Daegu, but harder to get to the beach. Daejeon has 1.5 million people and 1 subway line. Like Daegu, you’re looking at all of the disadvantages of Seoul (noise, traffic, pollution) with none of the cultural advantages. Both Daegu and Daejeon (and Busan) boast a Costco.

Gwangju: Gwangju is the big dog in its region, by far the biggest city in southwest Korea. I like Gwangju. It has a few fun bars, a lively downtown, some parks, it’s close to some nice mountains (but then again, so is every Korean city), and, full disclosure, baseball-wise I’m a Kia Tigers fan, and they hail from Gwangju. Gwangju also has amazing Korean food with fresh local veggies and killer kimchi. That said, I don’t think I could live here. It’s just too isolated. It has a quasi-KTX high-speed train service, but the train takes conventional tracks between Daejeon and Gwangju so it’s still a hike to Seoul. For what it’s worth, there’s no Costco.

Ulsan: Ulsan was better than I expected it to be. However, it still sprawls a lot, and its mostly known as Korea’s industrial capital. It’s quite close to Busan, so it has that going for it.

Not unless I was married to a girl who lived there:

Jeonju - For smaller towns, Jeonju is pretty cool. It has it’s self titled Bibimbap and a lot of cultural attractions like it’s hanok village (although Seoul has a better Hanok village and also has Jeonju bibimbap restaurants). Jeonju is cute and walkable and well worth a weekend, but too isolated to really be a sensible place to live.

Jinju - I loved my weekend in Jinju. It’s a walkable town, has a nice riverfront, and is close to some cool national parks. I actually preferred Jinju bibimbap to it’s Jeonju counterpart. Then again, it’s so far from anything that it would be a difficult place to live. If I lived there, I’d get bored in a week and a half. No night life at all.

It’s a nice place to visit, but...

Jeju - Best weather in Korea, of course. Cooler summers and warmer winters. Delicious fruit. Natural Beauty. A volcano. On the flip side, it requires an airplane to get anywhere on the peninsula. It’s super isolated. The nightlife is really lame. Plus, it’s the primary tourist destination for Koreans, so most everyone you meet will be a tourist. Many of them will be honeymooners wearing couple shirts. I imagine this would get old in about 4 days.

Gyeongju - An absolute must-visit for anybody living in Korea. Gyeongju is the ancient capital, and it’s historic sights are unmatched outside Seoul. However, it’s completely unlivable. The food options are horrible. Unless you are, in fact, an ancient Korean history scholar or an archeologist, there is no reason to live here.

Cheongju - Rock City isn’t too shabby for nightlife. Its university area has more western friendly bars than most Korean cities 4 times its size. There are some solid food options too. However, it feels like the kind of town in which you would meet everyone on your first weekend. As in many provincial Korean cities, I felt like a celebrity at the bar for being an out-of-towner. It isn’t far from Seoul, but rail options are poor, forcing you onto the bus and brutal weekend traffic jams. A theoretical 90 minute bus ride will often take 3 or 4 hours. Also, it’s in the landlocked Chungbuk province, so it’s a long way to the beach.

(not pictured)- a mid sized city at the end of Seoul subway line 1, and also on the main train line and KTX. It isn’t too hard to get from here to Seoul, and it’s a fairly big city in its own right, the largest in its province. Then again, it is 2 hours from Seoul on line 1, and two hours of subway time is like 11 hours of real time.

Gangwon coastal towns
- by this I mean Sokcho, Gangneung, and the like, These towns have nice beaches with clear water, and like everywhere in Gangwon province, impressive mountains abound. These are fine towns to spend a weekend, but lack the food, shopping, and transportation options to make them livable. The Gangwon coast to Seoul or any other major city can take several hours by bus during weekend traffic jams, and the local train is so slow that it’s better to take your chances with the worst traffic snarls than to take them.

Dishonorable mention - Any place that I didn’t name means that its either of such little consequence that I haven’t been there yet, or that I was there and either forgot about it or hated it.

tl:dr - live in Seoul. You won’t regret it.

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