22 November 2008

Quick post

I spent another day driving around Seoul. I am very stressed out, and must get some things off of my chest, before driving back out again for dinner.

I reported to my meditation session in my car, and that necessitated driving through downtown Seoul and its street grid. Getting to my meditation was easy, even though I was traveling on the main street, Jongno, because it was before sunrise. But when I started heading northeast toward the April 19th cemetery, and again when I started heading back south to leave the city and visit the Korean Folk Village, traffic turned absolutely brutal. It took me 45 minutes to cover the few miles from the cemetery to downtown, and another 15 minutes to clear downtown itself; the drive to the Korean Folk Village, normally under an hour, took me two excruciating hours.

The horror stories of South Korean driving are finally hitting me in the head, though I am still very glad to be driving around anyway. Construction zones pop up without warning, and lanes shift without adequate notice/warning/markings. Moreover, taxicabs, delivery trucks, and even city buses weave into and out of traffic, without signaling, and with reckless abandon. Defensive driving is a must. The old Korean adage, that the largest vehicle always has the right of way, still holds very true; the worst drivers tend to be found behind the wheels of Hyundai Starex (known as Hyundai H200 in Europe) large vans, though as is also the case back in the US, SUV (usually Ssangyong, as Ssangyong makes most SUVs sold in South Korea) and BMW drivers are almost as bad as well. This (soon-to-be-ex) BMW owner knows how cocky and rude fellow BMW drivers can be, and it's just as true in Seoul as it is in Los Angeles.

I've spent the past week driving around the saner parts of South Korea, with a hippie-like mindset: go with the flow. But that went out the window today. My driving today was markedly very aggressive too, and I did not hesitate to use my horn when faced with drivers impeding the smooth flow of traffic or making extremely dangerous maneuvers. This American continues to curse in English when traffic gets really bad; however, when a specific driver is making my life miserable (i.e. a Hyundai Starex with no working brake lights), I am starting to curse at that very driver in Korean too, often making references to 2MB (it also has to do with news updates I pick up on the radio regarding 2MB, who is visiting Peru today).

In any case, the worst part about Seoul driving is that the street grid was never designed for 3 million cars. The infrastructure is great, but there are simply too many cars around - especially when great mass transit is also available. To encourage mass transit use, Seoul put in bus-only lanes along most major thoroughfares; however, it slows motorists even further, as they have far fewer lanes to choose from. Add a double-parked vehicle (or a taxicab picking up a ride) blocking a traffic lane, and it is constant gridlock. Sure, there are a number of new freeways around, but they are jammed up really fast too.

Today is even worse, because (1) elementary schools, which normally have half-days on Saturdays, are off today, and (2) ski resorts to the east have opened. Lots of cars in Seoul, and leaving Seoul as well. Even the suburban city of Seongnam is choking in bumper-to-bumper traffic all over, thanks to the cars to/from Seoul.

Despite this, I am not regretting my decision to drive. I will certainly look forward to a future South Korean road trip, now that I've actually gone through one and know what I am getting myself into.

P.S. Here's one more source of frustration. South Korean vehicle safety code is usually better than its US counterpart, and similar to European ones, in that amber turn signals and visible side markers are required. (Used US-market vehicles coming to South Korea may keep their red blinkers, however.) Headlights must also shine at a specific angle in accordance with standard international regulations, as opposed to the US regulation of "straight ahead is good enough." However, center brake lights, required in the US since 1986 for cars and 1994 for light trucks, are not required. Many cars indeed lack center brake lights, including my rental Sonata. With no center brake light, and with one of the side brake lights burned out, a car is often down to one brake light - and it's very confusing and annoying.